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.

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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.

6

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.
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“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 Human 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 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 ingenuously, “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

Eckhart’s Obedience

2,800 words

Readers of this blog will likely be familiar with Meister Eckhart. A Dominican friar from Germany, he entered the order in 1275, the same year Thomas Aquinas died, and after a career distinguished by academic achievement at Paris in Thomas’ chair, high administrative responsibility in his order in Germany and the Rhineland, and a widespread reputation as a preacher and counsellor of the Beguines, a lay women’s movement in the Rhineland and the Low Countries, was con­demned by the official Church at Avignon in 1328. He escaped what might have been a most heinous execution by dying of natural causes before sentence could be passed.

His condemnation must be understood in the context of his times. Church authorities used the Inquisition to control groups like the Beguines whom they claimed were guilty of heresy. The Beguines were self-governing communities of laywomen who had dedicated themselves to contemplative prayer and a life of Christian perfection but were not under the control of the official Church or any of its approved religious orders. Eckhart supported them, taught and counselled them and was himself a disciple of one of their own advanced contemplatives, Marguerite Porrete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 in Paris by an Inquisitor of Eckhart’s own order. As for the issue of heresy, many believe it was largely the concoction of church authorities determined to maintain control of a population increasingly aware of the corruption and hypocrisy of the hierarchy. The Beguines were condemned in 1318. Eckhart’s conviction of heresy 10 years later was not an unconnected event.

Eckhart was a monk in an age when spirituality was moving out of the monasteries. Monasticism was coming under criticism for arrogating to religious elites the means of perfection and the contemplative life, while lay men and women were consigned to second class Christian citizenship. Movements like the Beguines and their priest supporters sprang up in response. They were most active in “frontier” areas where new towns were expanding with the influx of serfs freed from their fiefs by land enclosures. The sermons for which Eckhart is most famous and which contain the most radical expression of his vision, were aimed at a spirituality for laypeople. They were delivered in the vernacular German — the language spoken by these searching people — itself a daring and iconoclastic gesture at the time, representing a movement toward democratization. His work was clearly an attempt to bring the best theology to ordinary Christians and to emphasize the effectiveness of the active life in achieving perfection. The Meister was famous for reversing John’s judgment; he said “Martha has chosen the better part.”

It could all be subsumed under the heading of “reform,” and while no definitive reform would be forthcoming for at least another century, and Luther’s revolt, two centuries, the universal desire for reform and the broad outlines of its scope were already in place. Eckhart has been identified as the symbolic precursor of the Reformation in the Christian West. Nevertheless, the mysticism that was characteristic of Eckhart’s time and can be said to constitute the bulk of his contribution, was not characteristic of later reformers. The growing “personalist” spirituality that imagined Jesus as one’s intimate friend, confidant and even spouse, represented by such works as The Imitation of Christ, was not yet solidly in place, and Eckhart’s Logos spirituality had more in common with Benedict of Nursia than Thomas à Kempis.

Eckhart’s system and Doctrine of God

Eckhart’s system was internally consistent. Peoples’ needs derived from what they were as human beings, and that in turn reflected the nature of the “God” from whom they emanated and in whose “ground” they remained immersed for eternity. Whether you began with the behavior he encouraged, or with the doctrine of “God” that he proposed, it all fit together.

Perhaps the place to start is where Eckhart seems most at odds with the mainstream understanding of Christianity: the doctrine of “God.”

For Eckhart, Being, esse, is “God.” This does not seem very radical given the philosophical thought of his age. It is similar to what the principal theologians believed. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that “God is being.” But their ultimate meaning was different. Aquinas meant that God had his own being which was absolute and unconditioned, but also created another kind of being that was conditioned and dependent on his. Aquinas called the second, esse commune. It was finite; belonged to creatures and was distinct from “God’s” which was esse in se subsistens — infinite. With Eckhart, in contrast, there was only one esse. It was Aristotle’s “Pure Act,” conceptually akin to what, in a material universe we would call “matter’s energy,” and everything that existed participated in the unique and exclusive existence — esse — which was “God.” There were not two esse’s. There was only one. To exist at all, therefore, was to possess and be energized by the only esse there was, and for Eckhart, that was God.

This neo-Platonic participation made Eckhart’s system different from his contemporaries, and the source of misunderstanding that got him in trouble with the thought police. But from our point of view it makes his concept of “God” much closer to what modern science might infer from the absolute autonomy of matter that it observes as the building blocks of all existing things. If material reality is absolutely commensurate with esse, i.e., if matter is the very energy of existence itself, then material energy is “God.” “God” is material, and in a material universe, Eckhart’s “Being is God” remains intact.

Eckhart’s definition of Being as God brought him to imagine a “Godhead” of pure limpid being with characteristics derived from the simple bareness of the concept. This “Godhead” is the serene unrelated “ground” from which all things flowed, and in which the human soul pre-existed as an “idea” in the divine mind from all eternity. Eckhart distinguished the utterly detached Godhead from the image of “God” the Creator of the universe, later identified as a Trinity of Persons who related to humankind in and through the redemptive work of the Logos in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Triune God of Christian doctrine was, for Eckhart, a theophany — a mask — a role, as it were, assumed by the Godhead for the purposes of relating to humankind. To embrace this Trinity, therefore, was not the ultimate quest for human beings. The final goal was to “break through” the conceptual imagery of Christian doctrine and touch the “Godhead” itself in whose infinite ground the finite being finds its home: its origin and place of rest. The “breakthrough” recapitulated the neo-Platonic reditus — the return of all things to their source.

The Trinitarian analog for this cosmic cycle involves the generation of the Son by the Father as a first instance of the “boiling over” of divine self-love in an abundant generosity that necessarily reproduces itself “outside” itself. God cannot help it. He must love and reproduce himself even if he didn’t want to; and since he is ground he reproduces himself as ground. That is the exitus. In a second instance, creation emanates from the Father as part of the same dynamic of overflowing love that generated the Son; and the “boiling over” is reproduced a third time in the “birth of the Son” in the soul of the human being in “grace,” setting up a tension of attraction that propels the individual on a return — a reditus — back to the ground. The “soul,” swept up in this dynamic of Trinitarian love, becomes aware of its destiny — its true identity as ground in the Godhead. When that awareness occurs in this life it is what Eckhart calls “the breakthrough.” This identification with the utterly detached serene transcendent “One” beyond the Trinity who needs nothing is the keynote of Eckhart’s vision.

The “birth of the Son” in the soul means the human being is necessarily immersed in a cosmic trajectory that is finalized only with the breaking through to the “Godhead,” the ultimate ground where there is no more “God” as a Creator-entity separate from the things he creates. All of Being is identified as itself as it was from all eternity. Thus the human being, re-immersed in its source, now knows itself to be “ground,” i.e., everything once thought to be unique to “God.” The soul realizes it is an integral part of its own source and reason for being. It is like a drop of water in the ocean. It’s in describing this Godhead, the Alpha source of the primaeval exitus and the Omega goal of the final reditus, that Eckhart’s language about “God” yaws so noticeably from the mainstream:

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]

“Free of all things,” is the characteristic of the Godhead, pure Being, who lives in a detachment of unrelated serenity which ultimately must also necessarily characterize the human being who originated in that “ground” and always remains constituted by it. Detachment, therefore, is the key to the liberation of the human being. As the individual becomes more detached, he becomes more and more like the Godhead, the ground to which he is returning.

As a corollary to this concept of the Godhead Eckhart counsels his disciples to avoid “prayer of petition” because the detached unrelated source of all things is beyond change of any kind and therefore could not possibly respond to prayer in time. God has known everyone’s needs from all eternity. Besides, as ground, the human being realizes he needs nothing; to ask for anything more than what one already is, is meaningless.

Obedience and the ego

The “birth of the Son” in the soul marks the incorporation of the individual into this cycle of return. But its occurrence is neither automatic nor passive. The individual is responsible for an active receptivity which involves preparing space for the birth by “letting-go” and “clearing-out” everything that is not consistent with the soul’s own participation in the “ground.” Generally translated “detachment,” Eckhart uses German words that were later picked up by 20th century philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s asceticism, however, is not Eckhart’s. The modern existentialist is trying to find a way for dasein, the human self, to “create” itself (find itself) by allowing “being” to emerge and stand out resolutely in the gale winds of nothingness, while the mediaeval Meister is explicitly intent on eliminating the self-creating human ego in favor of allowing the “ground” which the soul shares with the Godhead, to become empty — the place where the “Son,” a new Self, is born and replaces the false needy and grasping ego.  All this happens here and now, as the point in which God’s creative action is actively sustaining the existence of all things.

The final step for Eckhart is the identification of “obedience” as the most effective tool for achieving detachment — the reduction of the power of the false, self-creating human ego — providing the emptiness which is the sine qua non condition for the entry of God. Once the soul is empty, God flows in, as it were, necessarily here and now, because the soul has become all and only “ground” and, morally speaking, presents no obstacle to the creative presence of the Godhead. There is no longer any false human ego, whose self-will claims to be the creator of itself, blocking God’s access to the shared ground and the “Son’s” loving return.

It is the attachment to imaginary “goods” which are pursued with existential intensity that “clutter” the ground making it impossible for God follow through on the process of bringing the soul back to its ground in the Godhead. Detachment, therefore, equates to a radical poverty that is the flip-side of the infinite wealth (nobility) of the individual. Eckhart called the human soul “the aristocrat” which would explain why the Inquisitors said: “he confused the ordinary people.” The soul, whose ultimate ground existed before birth and is shared with God, is already in possession of that existential wellspring — Being itself — that the ego thinks it lacks and must go out and find and possess. “Letting go” therefore involves dropping the fantasies of need and the delusions of inadequacy that generate the lust for accumulation — including “merit” in the afterlife — that are the spontaneous deceptions of the ego.  

This emphasis on the false ego and its replacement by the infinite aristocratic “Self” of the divine Logos puts Eckhart in a direct line of inheritance with Christian ascetics going back to the New Testament itself. Paul spoke emphatically and often about “putting on Christ” and urged his readers to put aside the “old self” in exchange for the “new self” created to be like God. In Galatians he boasted, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.” Eckhart’s insistence that the “old self” is to be identified as ”having your own way” finds its psycho-spiritual antithesis in obedience.

Following Benedict, since obedience is not sought as an end in itself but only for its power to transform the selfish, grasping, self-exalting self into a generous, compassionate, servant of others, there should be little chance that obedience will be made into an absolute. It is a tool for breaking the habitual self-exaltation and self-protection that requires the abasement and exploitation of others. Obedience is not a totalitarian idol demanding the humiliation and obliteration of the self, an absolute demand of good order, a tool of the state. For Eckhart as for Benedict obedience is not for the sake of society; it is meant to serve the healing of the individual. So it should never fall into the false quid pro quo transactional category that was responsible for turning the gospel into law under Roman tutelage despite Paul’s attempts to prevent it. Obedience is a means for intensifying and re-directing the self’s energy toward the acceptance, enhancement and service of others … turning the ego into a more highly energized “self” driven by donation, generosity, self-emptying and the wellbeing of others: the human recapitulation of the divine “boiling over” of creative love.

In modern terms it is the self-forgetful abundant benevolence characteristic of matter’s energy itself, LIFE, the very “stuff” of which we are made. I am convinced this is essentially what Eckhart experienced. He called it “being,” we call it matter’s self-transcending energy; but it is the same thing. It is the Source of LIFE, the Godhead beyond the metaphors of doctrine. By realigning the self with the “ground,” the return is anticipated in the individual’s contemplative experience. That’s what he calls the breakthrough. We know we belong to the totality, and we are not distracted by seeking a final answer anywhere else than in our return to it.

Self-forgetful, self-emptying. Understanding the transformative purpose of religious obedience brings us back full circle to Benedict’s humility. The achievement of humility represents the final metamorphosis of the false self into the “true self” which Paul said was “to be like God.” Once we realize that obedience is a tool and what it is supposed to be used for, it may occur to us that there are other things that we may use for the same purpose. Not all of us, after all, have access to an “abbot” or another religious superior who understands the transformative function of obedience. Many people are caught in situations — at work, in the family — where obedience is demanded for all the wrong reasons by someone whose own sense of inadequacy requires the abasement and exploitation of others for compensation. Obedience under these circumstances will more than likely have a reverse demonic effect. The assaulted “ego” will defend, protect and enlarge itself.

But the person sincerely in search of humility, having understood its significance, can find alternatives to religious obedience that will work as tools for the transformation of the self. There is nothing “sacred” about obedience in itself. Detachment can be pursued by other means. Once we understand that the false, self-exalting self is nothing but a futile attempt to compensate for one’s own feelings of inadequacy and exclusion, our awareness of our eternal origin in the “ground” (our belonging to the totality of matter’s energy) and the divine dynamic at work in bringing us back to our source (the return of the material of our organisms to the pool at death to be recycled), gives us a foothold for denying the ego’s demands. “Obedience” can be taken as a metaphor for anything that will help us deflate the false ego.

post script

Matter’s self-transcending energy and Eckhart’s Esse

800 words

In the universe observed by modern science, all things are constructed from the same building blocks: the quanta of material energy, sometimes observed as particles, sometimes as waves or energy fields. Metaphysically speaking, there is only one “kind of thing” out there, material energy in the form it has assumed as the result of the aggregation, integration and complexification of itself — evolution. There is nothing else. Since material energy is all that exists, it is reasonable to assert that its energy is before all else an energy for being-here. In other words, there is no other “existence” that is prior to or responsible for the existence of self-transcen­ding matter.  Self-transcending matter is esse — the energy of existence.

Of course we know Eckhart was a Platonist and thought of “being” as an idea. But in his world, ideas were also “things,” what they called “substances.” The substance genus to which ideas belonged was immaterial “spirit.” Being was a very special idea; it included all other things and all other ideas. It was an infinite and transcendent Spirit. That could only be “God.”

Eckhart’s focus on the simplicity of Being meant that his worldview was an idealist monism akin to Hegel. Everything that existed was Being, “God” by participation. Since being was immaterial, everything was basically “spirit.” Eckhart does not explain why or how “matter” came to exist in this world of spirit, and as far as humans are concerned, matter has no meaning except as a foil for spirit. Spirit dominated the universe. Matter was a kind of non-being, or anti-being that needed to be eliminated or neutralized so spirit could realize its full potential.

However, if we take “being” and “material energy” to be conceptual equivalents, as modern science suggests, Eckhart’s terminology explains the world much better than dualists like Aquinas, because esse in our world is also a monism. For us everything is made of self-transcen­ding matter; there is no such thing as “spirit.” Spiritual phenomena are the products of matter. Ideas are not things. They are the changeable mental states that human organisms assume when they think. People are “things.” Ideas are not.

Participation was a Platonic notion that worked within that ancient theory of substantial ideas: two “things” of the same species, like two people, must participate in the idea of what they have in common: humanity. The physical compenetration implied in participation was believed possible precisely because ideas were immaterial. Also, the two participants were both human beings, they shared the same one idea univocally. Humanity was the same in all its manifestations.

However, two existing things, God and any creature, both participate in the idea of being. But Being is “God.” God and creatures are not at all on the same level. Therefore the idea of being could not be applied to each univocally. Aquinas proposed that being be applied analogously to God and creatures, effectively dividing the concept of being between esse that was unencumbered by any principle of limitation, and esse that was limited by a defining form. The first he called esse in se subsistens, and the latter he called esse commune.

But the concept of Being is not divisible without introducing a factor which would have to be some kind of unrealized potential. Esse commune includes such potency as part of its definition. But that would contradict the very definition of Being as Act. Once it stopped being Pure Act and admitted a potential to be more, it stopped being “Being.” Once potency was introduced it became a “thing.”

Also ideas are only “one.” Divide an idea by some qualitative differentiation and you have two ideas, not one idea with two “levels” of itself. So Aquinas’ attempt to avoid pantheism amounted to an equivocal predication. He ended up saying that there were two separate “esse’s,” one that belonged to God and the other that was proper to all created things.

Unfortunately for Eckhart, his idealism also falls by the same premise. This highlights the contradictions internal to all forms of Idealism (belief in “immaterial” reality). “Being” as an idea cannot be shared at different levels (i.e., between Creator and creature) without imagining it as something divisible, that means quantifiable, which immediately neutralizes it as an idea and converts it into some kind of “stuff,” matter. To imagine Being as Act that is quantifiable is to imagine esse as a force field, material energy. It stops being only an idea, “spirit,” and becomes “stuff,” matter . Eckhart’s system works as a monism of neutral, self-transcen­ding matter.

But if the energy packets that constitute material reality are themselves the very act of existence, they are esse, and we participate in its energy by literally disposing of different quantities and levels of complexification of these quanta of energy without sacrificing anything of their quality as existential.

To make all this easier to grasp, think of LIFE itself. A large complex multi-cellular animal like a human being is not any more alive than a single celled paramecium. Similarly, all things are “God” by participation because they are made of the same “stuff” as “God” — material energy — while their “level” of functioning differs from one another by the amount of material energy possessed and the degree of complexity achieved through evolution enjoyed by the organism at that point in time. “God” is the infinite pool of material energy that expresses itself in incrementally more sophisticated ways through the emergent forms that it has evolved into. That’s why we call it self-transcending materialism. Evolution determines the form and function of the living energy of matter. “God” in this system, as Whitehead said, is both Alpha and Omega — the initial fully dispersed energy source driving the evolving complexification of matter, and matter’s eventual advanced level of functioning made possible by that evolution. If you want an example, just look at our spectacular universe with earth’s trillion of hierarchically ordered life forms from cyanobacteria to humankind. We are all — ALL — made of the same stuff.

Eckhart must have had something like the totality of the pool of material energy in mind when he generated his imagery about the “Godhead” as ground and the “soul’s” participation in it. He could not have been clearer: “God” was not an entity, nor rational, nor a person, and everything was part of “God” and necessarily shared those characteristics, therefore “God was all things.”

Let’s not get lost here. Forget the mediaeval categories. “God,” as John asserted, is LIFE. Science may avoid using the name but it does not dispute the fact, and LIFE as we find it, is material.

Tony Equale, May 20, 2017

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

 

Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of God

Part 1

2,400 words

April 2017

The argument of this short essay is not complicated or particularly original, but it is world changing for Christianity and especially Catholicism. Simply put, beyond all the theological controversies, doctrinal disagreements and even major religious differences in the West, the “nature” of “God” was one “doctrine” that no one disputed. I contend that all the western religious programs are emanations of that assumed idea of “God.” Once you change that idea, your religious program, and the human society that is built on it will necessarily change radically. Christianity is one example of how the idea of “God” shaped religion and eventually an entire culture.

It was all contained in the word. Once you said “God” you could only mean one thing … an “idea” that by the middle ages some claimed was so clear and inarguable that it included within itself proof for the existence of what it denoted. In other words, the very concept forced you to conclude by iron logic that there had to be a “God.” This was called the “ontological argument.” It was first articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in 1076, and then reissued in slightly different form in later centuries by other philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz. Anselm’s classic statement concluded: “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogium)

The cogency of that argument has been challenged since its publication and rejected by most mainline theologians. But regardless of its effectiveness as a “proof,” its perennial re-emer­gence seems to be due to the phenomenon we are discussing here: that no one, even its opponents, disputed the definition of ‘God’ that it was built on: “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Such an overarching label contained, of course, everything we have always imagined “God” to be: a separate entity, a rational person, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, the source, origin and sustenance of all things and the model on which they were designed.

The evolution of “God”

The various aspects of that definition evolved in the Near east beginning in pre-history. A Semitic tribe who called themselves “Hebrews” attributed their existence, inheritance and political destiny to a god named “Yahweh.” Their original understanding of what Yahweh was like mirrored the beliefs of the people in their part of the world and evolved over time. He was thought to be one of a multitude of war gods whose status in the divine realm rose or fell depending on the success or failure of the tribe on earth with whom they had an association sealed by contract. The contract stipulated that Yahweh would provide victory in battle and political ascendancy to the tribe in exchange for worship, sacrifices, monuments, love and respect from the tribe’s people. Love and respect was shown by adherence to a code of ritualized conduct that would mark them out as his devotees wherever they went.

As their political fortunes sank in the competition for power in the fertile crescent of that era, the decision of the “nation,” now called Israel, to remain faithful to their god despite his failure on the battlefield, introduced a new dimension into their national religion and a new understanding of the terms of the contract. After the catastrophic exile to Babylon in 587 bce, they realized that, with Yahweh, it could not be a business contract about success or failure. Their growing awareness that peace and harmony among men was actually the result of human moral behavior — justice — brought them to a deeper appreciation of what the commandments meant and therefore what Yahweh ultimately was all about. Their code of conduct came to be appreciated for its moral significance, and Yahweh was understood now as a god of moral wisdom whose superiority over other gods was not military, but had to do with spiritual depth. Yahweh’s greatness resided in the fact that he gave his people the Torah — the Law — which taught men how to live justly, collaborate and thrive. The relationship endured the transition back to Palestine, and the people were able to accept their abasement as an element of what they were learning about religion and life … and this strange god of theirs. In tandem with their own moral evolution their idea of Yahweh had matured and their relationship with him deepened the way husbands and wives deepen their bond through overcoming trials. No longer a contract for war and the accumulation of power, Israel’s agreement with Yahweh was seen more like a marriage between loving and forgiving spouses who at the end of the day were interested in being together … having one another … whatever their worldly fate.

The Song of Songs

These sentiments were articulated in an extraordinary assortment of openly erotic love poems found among the Wisdom books in the Hebrews’ sacred writings assembled after the exile. They are known collectively today as “The Song of Songs,” and “The Song of Solomon,” in earlier English versions, “The Canticle of Canticles.” Some believe they were intentionally composed as an allegory of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, and others think the poems were common love songs that were selected for the purpose of elucidating the new insight about the nature of the contract.  In either case, commentators agree that they are post exilic and their religious significance was collective, not individual.  It had to do with a new understanding of the covenant, the contract, the relationship between Yahweh and his people.

These poems sing of the intensities of emotion that attend relationships involving sexual love between a man and a woman. They describe the joy of togetherness and possession, and the anguish and despair of separation and loss. Whether they were written for the purpose of characterizing the vicissitudes between the suffering Hebrew people and their protector or not, the entire series must be read as precisely such a metaphor. Yahweh is depicted as a man and is given a dominant, ruling, protecting male personality, Israel as a woman, a weak, needy, vulnerable female eager for union with the male lover.

There is no sense dwelling on the difference between a metaphorical and a literal interpretation of these poems. The distinction made no difference to the people who wrote, selected or read the poetry. They saw the similarities and that was the object of their interest. It was not until the scientific mentality of later centuries that anyone cared at all about what was literal and what was metaphor: before that they were both real in the same way because they both had the same effect. If the poems presented Yahweh as a humanoid male person, it was because that was what everyone thought he was, and there was no reason to suspect that he wasn’t or would not act the part, in any case.

Christians appropriated that poetry as they did the entire Bible and applied it to their own community, the Church.  Ho theos, “God” — the word they used instead of Yahweh — was identified with the “Word,” who had taken flesh in the man Jesus. The “Word” was like a male lover of universal humanity whose union with humankind in the Incarnation were the nuptials that constituted the Church.

While the “Song of Songs” is exclusively focused on love imagery, the theme is not limited to that book. It is found throughout the scriptures of both testaments. At first, the Christian usage paralleled the Hebrew by seeing the poems as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The subsequent application of the clearly individual imagery of the poems to the relationship between “God” and the individual Christian “soul” was an inevitable development and internally consistent: for what is the Catholic Church but the aggregate of its people, the totality of its individual members. The imagery of the Song of Songs soon came to be primarily applied to the relationship between “God” and the individual (Christian) soul and in that form the poems took on an entirely different theological meaning, and one that came to dominate the Christian view of life and redemption. The transition from collective to individual application had the effect of replacing the allegorical character of the poetry with a literal significance, for it eliminated the distance between the analogs. Individual terminology was now applied to a relationship between individual lovers; insisting on allegory under these circumstances would have amounted to a forced reading that could not be expected to endure. It was a major influence on the Western version of the “nature” of “God.”

Nicaea’s Doctrine of “God”

These developments were occurring historically at the same time as the doctrine of “God” being elaborated by Christian theologians under the influence of the political demands of the Roman State, was forced into an unnatural focus on the unique personality of “God-with-Us” in Jesus and his elevation to equal divine status with the “Father.” Nicaea had the effect of “personalizing” “God” in Christ and justifying the spirituality that imagined this new human personal “God” as entering into a love relationship with an individual human person. The elements of the prior, platonic imagery of “God” as a nameless, motionless, distant and infinitely transcendent “Spirit” far removed from any possible contact with humankind, receded into the background as Christians turned their attention to the worship of the god-man, Christ, and compliance with “his” moral demands as the “Judge of the Living and the Dead.” The devotion to Mary was necessitated by this elevation of Jesus from being mediator — one of us, pleading on our behalf — to being “God” himself.  Mary became the new mediator, a human being we could trust to intercede for us with her Son.

“God” became a thoroughly human person and it was as a human person that “he” was imagined to relate to the individual soul, and the “Song of Songs” was disproportionately influential in guaranteeing that that imagery about “God” dominated the Christian imagination.

This was reinforced by the agreement of the “Fathers” of the Church, the earliest interpreters of Christianity who wrote during the first seven hundred years of Christian history. In sermons, letters, reflections and theological treatises, they elaborated what the Church as always regarded as the most authentic understanding of its own significance and the safest pathway to redemption — correct relationship to “God.”  New Testament Paul’s explicit identification of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a “marriage” was the first Christian reference to the tradition. Hippolytus of Rome in the second century wrote a lost treatise on the “Song,” but it was given a thorough theological exploration by Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian considered the greatest Christian thinker of antiquity.  Many consider him a martyr.  He was imprisoned during the persecution of Emperor Decius and cruelly tortured.  He was physically broken and died in 254 A.D.  Origen‘s vision was embraced and his thinking imitated by subsequent Fathers.  Gregory of Nyssa wrote his own commentary on “The Song” in the fourth century; Ambrose of Milan quoted extensively from “The Song” in his treatises on “God” and virginity. The “Song’s” significance was also evident in the work of Jerome and Augustine.

By the end of antiquity, through the consensus of the Fathers, the interpretation that the love poems of the “Song” were allegorical representations of the intimate relationship between Christ and the individual soul had come to achieve almost biblical status. In collaboration with the Platonic distortions about the evil of the fleshly matter, it grounded the pursuit of Christian perfection in the suppression of human sexuality. The ideal Christian was a virgin, or failing that, a committed celibate.

Sponsa Christi, Christian Virginity

The virginal ideal occupied a privileged place among the Christians of Late Antiquity. But however unchallengeably superior, it still remained a counsel that was understood to be completely voluntary. There were no laws forbidding marriage;  however, the pressures of the neo-Platonic denigration of the flesh made adamant by a still competitive Manichaean Christianity, introduced legal restrictions on the exercise of sexuality by priests on the days they celebrated the eucharist.  As early as the fourth century, seven hundred years before celibacy was to be mandated by conciliar degree, Councils at Elvira in Spain and Carthage in North Africa were insisting that the priests that consecrated the eucharist were to abstain from intercourse with their wives. The writing was on the wall. The identification of sexuality as evil or at least as hostile to the sacred was clearly functional at the same time that Christian perfection was being defined as a marriage relationship with Christ. The unambiguous call to virginity using the texts of the “Song” as support, was a principal theme for Western Fathers like Ambrose and Jerome. You married Christ and you forsook all others exactly the way a bride embraced her husband and forsook intimate contact with all other men. The two events could not have been so correlated in practice if they were not in fact also taken to be of the same order of metaphysical reality. To cling to Christ was a psycho-sexual act that could not occur in the presence of a similar embrace of a finite human being. “God” and man were literally equated as sexual partners; to have one was to exclude the other. Celibacy was a simple matter of fidelity. Despite theologians’ insistence that they were applying the poems of the “Song” allegorically, in practice they functioned literally, and that led to the absurd image of the sponsa Christi, the “bride” of Christ as a literal relationship on which it was believed you could build your life.

An added anomaly in this whole issue was that the sponsa Christi image was applied equally to men as to women on the grounds that the anima, the soul, was feminine, while “God” and certainly Christ were indisputably male. This mixing of metaphors helps explain why the imagery of the “bride” may have worked well in communities of women but always problematically with men. The gender reversal was not so easily accomplished, though as we know, certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. The human imagination, apparently, has no limits.

Part 2

2,100 words

Monasteries

Because monasticism pre-dated Christianity, many of the elements of its program were traditional and did not necessarily reflect the focus on the sacred marriage as the goal of the monk’s pursuits. But in the western tradition founded by Ambrose and Jerome, the counsel offered specifically to communities of religious women about the centrality of the “Song” and its relationship with “God,” came to represent something of an alternative — a source of revival and renewal when traditional male monasticism following Benedict’s ancient rule needed reform. The Cistercian reform instituted at Citeaux in 1098 founded a daughter monastery at Clairvaux in 1115 under the leadership of the Abbot Bernard, Clairvaux’s most famous monk and the order’s most dedicated reformer. His spirituality was characterized by his greatest written work: Sermons on the Song of Songs.

Bernard’s reputation as a reformer made him the most prominent political figure in Europe in an Age when the Church dominated politics. He rallied European monarchs behind the papacy of Innocent II averting a deep schism in Christendom; he organized the second Crusade for the conquest of Palestine at the request of Pope Eugenius III who as Bernardo de Pisa had been a monk at Clairvaux under himself as abbot. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that Abbot Bernard had been an organizing force at the 2nd Lateran Council which decreed universal clerical celibacy in 1139. One can assume that the influential author of the 86 sermons On the Song of Songs supported the Council’s canons 6 and 7 which ordered all clergy above the order of subdeacon to put away their wives.

The Mediaeval theocratic dream of a “Kingdom of God on Earth” which had been conjured by the Papal domination of Christendom, resisted being rudely awakened to the reality of the resulting dysfunction by the constant call to reform. “Reform” kept the dream alive. The Church exclusively looked to the monasteries for its reformers. The monks and their way of life were seen as the only salvation from Church corruption. It is my contention that the disastrous imposition of celibacy on the universal priesthood was part of the overall attempt to bring monastic ideals and discipline to a Church hierarchy addicted equally to the pursuit of impossible platonic absurdities and the wealth and personal security that came with power.

Celibacy was perhaps a viable demand in monasteries where the sexual drive could be sublimated by a family interaction supplied by the community. But to impose celibacy on the universal clergy living alone in the world was to invite a level of hypocrisy and corruption far greater than the inheritance of parish benefices by the sons of priests which had occasioned the reform measure of 1139.

Faith in the “magic” Church

Whatever historians may claim about the economic reasons why clerical celibacy has remained mandatory, I believe that its identification with the Catholic “brand” is indisputable and is entirely due to the mystical dimension. The wizard with magic powers “married to ‘God’” is at the heart of the mystique of the Catholic priest.  It formed the cornerstone of a constellation of “beliefs” considered characteristically “Catholic” that had evolved in the Middle Ages that included the “real” (physical) presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread (permanently present in the Church tabernacle) uniquely provided by the magical powers of the ordained priest whose “soul” had received a special sigillum — “seal” — that would remain for eternity … and the ability, also unique to the priest, to elevate “imperfect” (selfish, frightened) contrition to “perfect” (meriting immediate salvation) through the magical words of absolution in the sacrament of penance (auricular confession).  These beliefs were the bedrock of Catholic parish life for a thousand years, and the scholarship acknowledged by Vatican II that identified them all as of questionable Christian authenticity could not prevail against it.  The perdurance of this configuration of beliefs can be seen today in current cultural artifacts like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a film of 2017 whose evocation of the Japanese martyrs of the 17th century could be called “an exploration of faith” only because of the lingering nostalgia for the historically obsolete ideology of Tridentine Catholicism that it was premised on.

It was because of this “faith” in the effective (miraculous) presence of a “God”-entity in the lives of believing Catholics — in the eucharistic bread, in the powers of the priest to forgive sins, and in the mystical presence of Christ in the person of the celibate priest “married to ‘God’” whose fidelity to his vows was itself a proof of “God’s” miraculous presence — that Catholics believed there was no alternative. “Outside the Church there was no salvation,” and they knew exactly why.

The Nature of “God”

The entire point of this essay is to reflect on the nature of “God,” and how that affected the nature of the Church. It should be clear from what has been said so far that much of what Catholics believe about the nature of “God” has been shaped by imagery drawn from ancient sources and ancient ways of relating to “God.” It also should go without saying that the understanding of what “God” is like has evolved through the ages in tandem with our own growing understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This occurred as much in ancient times as it has in our own. The “nature of ‘God’” is not something “out there” we can look at in itself in order to determine what it is, nor was it “revealed” and clearly recorded in the Bible.  What “God” is like can only be inferred from what we know about ourselves and our world, and is time-dependent on when we come to know it on the time line of our evolving moral consciousness.

I contend that the allegory of the “Song of Solomon” early in Christian history came to be taken literally instead of symbolically, and that collaborated with other influences to fatally skew our understanding of what “God” is like.   That disastrous distortion, I am convinced, prevented any true relationship to “God” from occurring, and resulted in a Church whose authority structures, ritual practices, disciplinary decrees and pastoral counseling were warped and twisted to conform to the implications of that impossible and absurd relationship.

Mystical marriage, the theme of the 16th century “theology” of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, imagined a “God” who was a rational humanoid entity — a being — whose masculine “presence” and “absence” was literally reflected in the emotions of the human individual, falsely identified as a feminine “soul” regardless of whether their body was male or female.   It was further believed that such a marriage was in every affective respect, except physical sexuality, able to take the place of marriage between humans, and if it did not, it was entirely the fault of the human partner who failed to yield to the advances of the divine lover.

The attempt to build a Church on a priesthood defined by such impossible fantasies accounts for the massive dysfunction of Catholic clerical life in every age: celibate hypocrisy became the norm and cover-up its constant companion. The continued absurd belief in a humanoid personal “God” is also responsible for the Catholic failure to integrate with the realities of life in our universe across the board, from the inability to accept the real creative initiative of matter in the evolution of the cosmos, through the realities of psychic inheritance due to human evolution (not original sin) and the common sense acknowledgement of the sexual and family needs of every human being.

“God” and true mysticism

“God” is not a “being, greater than which nothing can be imagined;” “God” is not an individual entity of any kind, so is not a “being.”  “God” is energy, LIFE, in mediaeval terms, Pure Act.  Therefore “he” is neither a “he” nor a “person” as we use the term. “God” is not outside of or other than the universe of matter. “God” is the pervasive and all-suffusive energy of LIFE and existence, and as such is intimately interior to every particle of matter and every individual entity everywhere and at all times in the immensely long history of our vast cosmos. “God’s” intimate interior presence to any human individual, far from taking the place of their relationship with a human sexual partner is the source of the outward focus of their sexual need: toward a companion for the purpose of survival and reproduction — more LIFE.  When the mystic is in touch with “God” he is in touch with his own personal, individual concrete LIFE-force transmitted to him with the cells of his parents and pre-disposed to certain preferences through the inherited configurations of his body and the behavioral choices he has made. The face of the “God” who enlivens his self is his very own face, always open to new choice, always aware of its conditioned dependent nature because of the driven character of his conatus, always in need of LIFE because it knows intimately — connaturally — it is not LIFE itself.

This “God” of ours, we have come to realize, is not as our sacred sources and ancient traditions have depicted.  “He” is not “male,” and even Genesis suggested that both male and female were required to even give a modicum of accuracy to the nature of the creative, generous, LIFE-giving, openhanded, big-hearted energy that was “God.” “God” is not a person. “God” is exactly as you see LIFE functioning throughout all the levels of biota and in all the environmental niches across the face of the earth, from deep-sea thermal vents, to dust particles circling high above the planet in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is nothing arcane, or hidden, or mysterious, or self-protective about LIFE.  It readily yields its secrets to our probing instruments and our penetrating mathematics.  Its vulnerability is legendary: we swat a fly fearlessly without a thought about reprisal from the phylum of Arthropoda.  LIFE is as fully present in the fly as in us despite the vastly different levels of functioning.

So we say LIFE is an energy that exists and functions in and through emergent entities congealed and configured through the drive of the conatus to survive and to thrive. “God” is not the person we thought.  We were misled by our ancestors who may be forgiven their mistake.  How could they have known otherwise?  Look at the world, it all fits together like a clock.  How natural to think that some rational Craftsman designed and fashioned it that way.  We know better now.  Thanks to centuries of science and the commitment to sit humbly at the feet of nature we are coming to understand. “God” is not a rational “being.”

I am not the first to realize this. The great mediaeval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, the immediate successor to Thomas Aquinas in the chair of theology at Paris, writing in the 1320’s in Germany said:

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

“God” is an immense, all-pervasive benvolent and superabundant creative force — the energy of matter — that lends its very own “self” to be the flesh and bones and scales and fur and horns and hooves of all things that fly and swim and crawl and hunt and think and build. But “God” is not our “friend,” “God” is not our “lover,” “God” is not a warrior or a psychiatrist or a surgeon or judge and executioner. Just as we have to learn to forgive our ancestors for their mistakes in thinking they knew the face of “God,” so too we must learn to forgive the real “God” for not being the fantasy that we had cherished and come to expect. “God” is not the protective father nor punishing policman our infantile selves need, to do and to avoid what we know we should.  “God” is not a champion. “God” is not a hero. If we want heroes, let‘s be heroes. If we want champions, be a champion. After all, the LIFE energy coursing in our veins is “God’s” own energy, and if that energy is to become all it can be, it is only with our collaboration and acquiescence.  If “God” is to be a hero it is in and through our heroism, for the LIFE we share in, is the only “God” there is.

 

 

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

 

Poetry and Prayer

Tony Equale

March 2017

3,000 words

 

Cast a cold eye

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

   (W.B. Yeats, Under Ben Bulben)

                                 

Poetry is transporting. It’s ethereal, magical; it’s almost other-worldly, but it is not prayer. Poetry produces its effect because it activates a special dimension in us — an intelligence that sits slightly above it all, like a horseman, with a perspective you don’t get when you’re on the ground and stuck in one place. This cognitive dimension goes beyond our usual work-a-day perception which we pursue for the purposes of survival. The horseman has other interests. This “other” dimension suffuses both the object of perception and the human perceiver. It is an essential bond between them that bypasses use and need. When that dimension is described accurately — it need not be in words — it produces its characteristic effect: enlightenment. It’s as if we are seeing those things for the first time … which is to say that we never really knew them before this moment. Poetry, then, is like science in that respect: it reveals what things are … what they really are, not what we thought they were.

Often the “new” perception requires going beyond conventional uses of language, art and music to find a substitute mode of expression, which may also include silence, or cacophony, to evoke what the poet sees, and simultaneously functions as a vehicle for eliciting that same reaction in the listener. In all cases, I want to emphasize, what poetry reveals is reality. Any suggestion that a poem is some kind of superimposition that coats things with a layer of emotion, or injects them with an outside energy they do not themselves possess, is false. The emotion that results from poetry emerges authentically from the reality as it echoes in the poet. The poetry reveals what binds the reality and the seer together. It reveals that, in fact, they are one.

Poetry allows things to shine with their own interior light. The poet says clearly what is clearly seen, … and what the seer sees is himself. Poetry is a self-recog­ni­­­tion mirrored in the object seen; for what is encountered, identified and communicated is what things have in common, and what they have in common is what I am.

science

All the various levels of human perception do exactly the same thing, but with different labels for the commonality. The scientific level appropriates reality as material energy and provides the mathematical descriptions of how it displays itself universally across all the various instances of its presence. Observer and observed, not entirely unlike the poet and his vision, share a common reality — their material existence — and the quantifiable tests and instruments of measurement used are equally conformed to the material components of the thing observed and the observing material organism. Science is possible because we are one and the same thing: material energy, quantifiably comparable to each other.

In the process of surviving, matter evolves. At a certain point the measurable quantities in the evolving sequence become so incomparable that we say some “other” thing has emerged that must be measured separately. Determining exactly when something stops being merely a modification and becomes a different thing is never without controversy. And the reason is that, underneath it all, despite appearances, nothing has changed. The underlying reality is always and only matter’s energy. And matter’s energy will always evolve if it is going to convert entropy into an existence that perdures, survives … .

The perceptions characteristic of everyday life are a subset of scientific observations, simply limited to more primitive measuring instruments and common quantities that focus on the practical applications for human survival. In both cases what the objective viewpoint sees, and measures, and expresses are the equations of matter’s needy behavior: Matter, including us as material organisms, must evolve, work and struggle in order to remain itself.

philosophy

At the philosophical level, with its own conceptual tools, we do the same. We appropriate the very same reality, but now in its quality as “being” or “existence.” What Philosophy is looking at, however, is not simply an “idea;” it is the same material energy that was examined by the scientist, but now under a different rubric: material energy as existential — material energy as constitutive of reality itself; material energy as “being.” They are one and the same thing, only Philosophy does not take existence for granted as Science does but queries it in its very quality as existence, asking what does it mean, this strange phenomenon: to be?

But what gauge does the philosopher use to determine that meaning? There are those that say the question cannot be answered because you immediately have to ask “compared to what”? Since being comprises everything, the only thing that being could be contrasted with is non-being. But non-being is nothing; it does not exist. No one knows what it means “not to exist” because the only thing we can experience and have ever experienced is what exists. There is no such thing as non-being. So to ask, “what does it mean to be”? … cannot be answered without begging the question. You either know what existence is, or you don’t. Existence cannot be defined in terms other than itself because there are no other terms. We cannot look at existence from outside because there is no outside. There is no philosophical horseman on a quest riding above the grubby business of living and dying. We are material organisms; living and dying is what we do … and our eyes are hot with the desire TO BE.

Our desire to be is the key. The meaning of being cannot be articulated apart from the existential need of the enquirer. The “cold eye” of the poet, in other words, if it is valid at all, must be grounded in some other aspect of universal reality not explained by science and philosophy.

Because it occupies the wider perspective, it is Philosophy not Science that recognizes and asserts that it is the same needy material energy that is the dynamism of existence. The philosopher does not manipulate “being” as if the concept were something in itself, as Plato thought, apart from the real world of matter — an “idea” whose logical features provided a map of reality. It’s the philosophers’ task to see clearly where existence resides. That place, alas, it turns out, is in his heart, that is to say, in his own material organism. The philosopher looks for an objective viewpoint, but there is none. Matter’s lust for LIFE gets in the way and cannot be suppressed. The examiner, the philosopher, is invested in being-here for he is nothing more nor less than material energy. Life and death cannot be bypassed. There’s no way to evaluate “being” except with the eyes of desire.

The philosopher, like the scientist, confirms the poet’s vision: that all things are one. But what he has learned from his honest inclusion of himself in science’s equations is that being-here-now is a scary, threatened, struggling thing … the object of everyone’s and everything’s uncontrollable desire, the source of great fear as well as joy.

the poet

So where does the poet get his “cold eye”?  How does he look on life and death, unlike the scientist and philosopher, and pass them by? It is my contention that the poet transcends cerebral rationality and using the eyes of his body, experiences in himself and in the “thing” his eye has alighted on, a common energy that gives him a different perspective on it all. He not only sees that all things are at root the “same thing” but he feels it. They have this universal oneness because they all share the same existential dynamism, LIFE, which the poet experiences first hand as his LIFE, himself.   He experiences somatically that his LIFE also exists beyond him, and that means his LIFE is part of something much bigger … something transcendent.

To the poet, things are not just there; he sees that they are doing something … and that they are all doing the same thing. He not only sees that they are alive, he experiences them liv-ing as he is. Drawing attention to the “-ing” in that word is a clumsy effort to emphasize the active and autonomous nature of the phenomenon. LIFE, which is another word for “being,” is not some “thing,” it is a pervasive energy, a force field, that all things activate as their very own, but, by the very fact that they all activate it, is clearly beyond them all. The poet is in direct touch in himself with the living force energizing all things in the present moment. It transports him to a realm beyond living and dying, to the energy of LIFE itself. He sees what the pray-er will try to embrace.

prayer

Prayer is not an entirely different phenomenon from poetry. It is not a seeing, however; it is rather an attempt at an embrace, a union. What prayer reaches out to embrace is LIFE itself precisely as the object of desire. Prayer may follow poetry’s vision, more so than any other universal mode of perception, like science and philosophy, for while they all deal with the bond that unites all things, the poet is in touch with it as the energy of his own LIFE. The poet knows he rides on eagle’s wings because of how far he suddenly can see. But he is not ready to step off a cliff because of it. The pray-er is.

Poetry is a deep-body seeing. But prayer goes beyond seeing. The poet recognizes the living dynamism that is operative in all things as his own. His reaction is a self-embrace that incorporates the “other” because they are both LIFE. The pray-er, on the other hand, seduced by what the poet’s cold eye has discerned, wagers all on LIFE as the subject and object of desire, and reaches out to embrace it, as if it were “someone” or “something.” What suppliants historically have felt perfectly comfortable calling a “person,” I identify as LIFE itself. In my own case, I use the word “someone” reluctantly and only because without it an essential feature of what justifies prayer’s transcendence over poetry will be omitted. But I insist, LIFE is absolutely NOT a person.

I say LIFE cannot be called a “person,” because it is not an individual entity and it does not have rational intelligence. If it did, it would respond to me in conversation; it would at least acknow­ledge my presence and identify itself. It’s what “persons” do. Moreover, if it were a person, sup­plication would make sense … and “God” would become responsible for all the evil in the world because one of the burdens of being a “person” is that you are held accountable for what you do or fail to do for others. We cannot deny LIFE’s complete indifference to human suffering. LIFE does none of the things expected of a person, therefore LIFE is not a person.

LIFE is the living energy of all entities; but it is not itself an entity. How can a “non-entity” be real? That’s not a rhetorical question. It can be real the same way any force-field or pervasive energy, whose presence is on display suffused in a myriad of entities, is real without being a “thing.” LIFE is a force-field, equally active in every entity that is alive, but not found any­­where alone and by itself. LIFE is not a “thing,” an entity or an individual.

And yet, squirm as we might, we cannot suppress the acknowledgement that LIFE is a benevolent force. The deck is stacked on this question because we humans are made of matter’s living energy and we are not able to view LIFE without desire, for we are LIFE. We also see its creative generosity on unmistakable display in its universal manifestations: the intense affect that accompanies every aspect of sexual reproduction of every organism from the most primitive to the most complex without exception. The living feelings that we experience within ourselves as we participate in these processes we can see mirrored in every living organism. Despite the varied forms it takes in different species, everywhere the LIFE-force is seen, it leans out in the same direction. It is what the philosopher discovered in querying being: if it is we who define existence, it can only be defined as the object of universal desire. To us it has no other meaning. Those who move from poetry to prayer have decided to trust it and plunge headlong into the abyss. Prayer is the attempt to be one with LIFE.

Everything made of matter, everything that exists speaks so repeatedly and unequivocally of desire for LIFE as to make it a cliché. We are made of desire … we are made for desire … and bite our tongues as we may, we can hardly keep from saying: we are made BY desire. LIFE appears to us as the desire to live … in us! After all, LIFE was not my idea. How did I come to own LIFE?

The object of prayer is to possess LIFE itself. It is a function of our need to be here. Our immediate temptation is to reason backwards to a singular source. Each thing alive received its life from its parents. No pool of chemicals and proteins has yet been able to generate LIFE out of its own resources, or to concoct it out of the surrounding environment. LIFE comes only passed on by living things that reproduce. Science, moreover, has determined that everything living on planet earth is made of cells that are the living inheritors of one original proto cell. It is natural, then, to assume that LIFE, the force-field, is itself a singular entity; but that’s not the way LIFE is found in nature. LIFE suffuses all things; it is owned and deployed with equal autonomy by each living thing, eradicating any possible individuality to the field itself. In my case I can say without equivocation, LIFE is my very own. That instantaneously makes it unavailable to its own individuality.

This is the beginning of prayer: the clear perception that our own being is enfolded in LIFE, not a vague unspecified LIFE, but a LIFE defined by desire not more or less present and active in us than in any other living thing. What poetry perceives as the threads and fibers of connection, prayer takes a step further and reaches out to as intended, generous. The reality of desire in us prods the pray-er to see desire as more than metaphor.  LIFE is not only my own; LIFE desires to be owned … LIFE wants to be alive in others. “I” am what LIFE has done. LIFE “chose” to live as me. I reach full maturity, physically, psychologically, when I can give LIFE to others.

Other?

In prayer I reach out to embrace LIFE as if it were something other than myself. Indeed, the poetic perception of the commonality of LIFE shared among all living things seems at first to encourage such an objectification; LIFE is clearly more than myself. That seems to imply “other.” Throughout our history prayer has been directed to LIFE as to an independent rational humanoid entity called “God,” — the totally “other” — whom we imagined as simply a much larger version of a human person. But reality interrupts our dream. LIFE is not an entity. LIFE belongs equally to myriads of living organisms; no organism is more alive than any other. The most privileged source of the perception of LIFE — where we know it most unmistakably — is ourselves. I am LIFE but I am not all of LIFE. I am forced to assume some kind of distinction, if not separation and distance, between my individual being and LIFE — this force-field — which preceded me in the procreative cells of my parents, and which my own reproductive cells pass on with or without my conscious intention. LIFE does the same for every living thing on planet earth and perhaps everywhere in the universe. LIFE may not be rational, but you cannot deny it is generous, abundant, magnanimous, profuse, munificent, sharing, openhanded, bighearted … and transcendent. Those who are seduced by this undeniable extravagance may be forgiven.

The subsequent struggle to survive can delude me into thinking that LIFE is an achievement of mine. But I cannot forget that my “self” — my body — came formed by the unconscious processes of LIFE, namely the reproductive action of my parents. This organismic “self” — me — is the original coherence of my body; it anteceded the accretions that I have attached to my organism by the way I have consciously lived my life. My body is the product of LIFE itself. It is an open potential always ready to be activated in ways that I choose. This is the power residing in my organism that “can do” anything; it is not fatally determined by any past choices and therefore it is the source of the radical freedom every human being enjoys. This is the self that LIFE made.

I reach out for LIFE but I am already in a state of indistinguishable unity with it. Rather than thinking I have earned and own LIFE, the determining factors coming from the other side of this relationship are so preponderant that I feel compelled to express it the other way around: LIFE reached out and took possession of me … gave me itself, made me part of itself. LIFE owns me.

Prayer, then, is the conscious acknowledgement of my receptor status with LIFE. I have been enveloped by LIFE which has embraced and infused me with itself, making me inescapably one with it. Nothing is more solid or more unarguable. The LIFE I have is not mine; it was not my choice. But that means that whatever union I hoped to gain by reaching out, was already given at birth. Prayer, in the first instance, therefore, is the conscious appropriation of my real identity, LIFE … and all that it entails.