“Catholics” (II)

Symbol and reality

2,600 words

This is a second commentary on Brian Moore’s 1972 novel, Catholics, made into a movie with Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard in the seventies entitled The Conflict.

A reminder of the story-line: an Irish monastic community has been offering mass in Latin with back to the people and hearing individual confessions in violation of the explicit prohibition by the official Church. This is the background to the entire novel — the rejection of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. It’s what provided the initial tension, brought the Vatican envoy to the monastery, and turned out to be the horizon against which all the characters had to define themselves, especially the abbot who, unknown to all, had lost his faith. The novel ends with the monks’ capitulation to obedience and the abbot’s act of spiritual self-immolation: he kneels to pray with his monks.

My previous post, “Catholics,” published on July 28th, dealt with the abbot’s ordeal which I believe was the main point of the novel; in this reflection I want to address the theological anatomy of the background issue that gave rise to the conflict: the real presence.

The problem was elaborated thematically by Moore in the form of a dispute argued between the secretly unbelieving abbot, Tomás O’Malley, and the dozen or so monks who had gathered in the chapel on the night of the Vatican envoy’s arrival. The monks were determined to continue their current practice of making the sacraments available to people in the traditional ante-conciliar Tridentine form. Their passion came directly from their theology: they believed that the bread and wine literally — physically — became the body and blood of Christ. It was, they said, a miracle.

They believed it principally because it was what the Council of Trent taught and what they had accepted on faith since their childhood from the Church they considered “infallible.” It could not have been clearer:

If anyone denies that the sacrament of the holy eucharist really and substantially contains the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore the whole Christ, but says, rather that [Christ] is there as in sign, or figuratively, or potentially: anathema sit. (Ann. 1551, Cc. Trident.. Sess. XIII; Denzinger-Schönmetzer, #883, #1651, p.389)

The decree, issued in 1551, in an unusual departure from scriptural language, in the next paragraph actually used the word transubstantiation, a philosophical term, unmistakably Aristotelian in character, employed by Thomas Aquinas to explain scientifically the nature of the transformation. “Transubstantiation” meant, in the terms understood by Aristotelian mediaeval science, “literally, physically.” The material “thing” that was there looked like bread and wine, but was really the body and blood of Christ. When the monks, in their contentious dialog with the abbot, say that anything else is heresy, they were standing on solid ground. The Council of Trent was very clear: si quis negaverit … anathema sit. Roughly translated: if you say otherwise … may you burn in hell!

Vatican II made no change to the Tridentine formula, and even alluded to the significant disparity between Catholics and other Christians over the eucharist, citing specifically the crucial difference made by the sacrament of orders. I think that is very revealing. But the Council also said in various places that the eucharistic bread was to be taken as a symbol of the loving nature of the Christian community. If both the Council of Trent and Vatican II were not in conflict about the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, why was there such a problem in Moore’s story for the monks and the many people who shared their point of view?

The problem, I claim, even beyond the deep habituation to the worship of the host for over 500 years prior to Vatican II, is one of common sense logic. It affected many people at the time of the conciliar changes, and I believe it explains why Moore put it in the mouth of the monks. Let me state it very simply: if the eucharistic bread and wine is really and literally “Christ himself,” then that overwhelming fact will necessarily eclipse any other religious significance you may try to give it. It’s common sense. To insist on another meaning is implicitly to detract from the “real presence.” The liturgical reforms intentionally ignored the overwhelming nature of the doctrine of the real presence.

Both symbolisms were inherited by mediaeval Christians from the ancient Church, but the insistence on the real presence took over to the detriment of the “family meal.” I claim that is a natural consequence of the absence of parity between those two aspects of the doctrine. It stands to reason: if it’s really “God,” what else is there to think about? It explains Flannery O’Connor’s trenchant remark quoted by Ellsberg in the introduction: “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it!”

Vatican II encouraged a return to origins. According to early Christian documents the eucharist was originally a meal of fellowship. Its historical evolution from being a symbol of Christian community, to being literally, physically, the “body and blood, soul and divinity” of the risen Christ, is the key to this whole flap and is worth taking time to understand. Not surprisingly, the “problem” is rooted in the erstwhile Platonism that dominated Christian thinking for more than half its historical life.

There are few historical gaps in our knowledge of what was going on during the entire two thousand years of Christian experience. One of those gaps, however, occurred very early. We do not know how the current hierarchical structure of bishops, priests and laity actually evolved out of the more egalitarian formations recorded in the New Testament. All we know is that by the time Constantine chose Christianity as the Roman State Religion, it was all in place. The sacrament of orders conferred special powers on ordained priests that the merely baptized lay people did not possess.

Together with those changes the Church also began to announce its message in terms that revealed its approval of the categories of Platonic philosophy. That process culminated in the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325 under the auspices and direct control of the Roman Emperor where the divinity of Christ was definitively described as homoousios — “consubstantial” — a Greek philosophical word, not found anywhere in scripture, to explain how Christ was “God.”

In the century after the Council numerous Christian theologians, east and west, began the process of interpreting the tenets of the faith, and following the lead of Nicaea, continued to do so in Platonic terms. What does that mean?

At the risk of oversimplification, there are two seminal ideas characteristic of Platonism that set it apart from other worldviews and that affected the Christian understanding of its beliefs. The first is that ideas are not just mental states but are substantive realities in their own right that reside in another world, a World of Ideas, which was identified as the Mind of God. So “justice” is not just an idea of ours, an “opinion,” it is a real reality with objective defining features that derive from its objective “scientific” literal reality as an archetype. Our idea of justice is a reflection (as in a mirror) of the “Justice” that dwells in God’s Mind.

The second notion that characterizes Platonism is that ideas are immaterial; they are able to compenetrate matter so that ideas (forms) suffuse and inform “matter” which is formless. That compenetration allows for a phenomenon they called participation.

Participation means that the reality of the material things that we see is derived from the reality of the ideas that inform them. “Matter” is devoid of reality. Only “ideas” have reality, and impart their reality to matter. The concrete thing, therefore, participates in reality through the real ideas that define it. The words of consecration over the bread and wine brought to mind the idea of the body and blood of Christ, and the presence of the idea, which enjoyed archetypal reality, conferred that reality on the bread and wine — the symbols that evoked it. So it was said that Christ was really present in the bread and wine.

Since matter in the Platonic system is not real, what is happening is that the bread and wine are being allowed to participate in the reality of the idea — as an idea — of Christ’s body and blood. There is no thought of conferring on matter a reality that it is incapable of bearing. In this case the bread and wine, while remaining bread and wine, make the idea of Christ present to the minds of the communicants through the symbolic words of the priest, and it’s the idea that is real for Platonists. Christ is really present because the bread and wine together with the words evoke the idea. Thus the symbol, by participating in the reality, is part of that reality.  But at no point did the Platonists imagine that the bread and wine themselves actually became the body and blood of Christ. They had too little respect for matter for that.

Enter Aristotle

The rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings in the 12th century produced an enthusiasm among theologians of all faiths, first the Arabs who discovered the manuscripts in the lands they had conquered, and then the Jews and Christians. The rush to incorporate Aristotle into their world­view became something of a competition, with each belief system vying to prove that the prestigious Greek scientist supported and confirmed their worldview.

Aristotle was a dualist like Plato, in that he believed that things were made up of matter and form (ideas), but he differed from Plato on the most basic point. He did not subscribe to the notion that ideas had their own substantive reality. His teaching was that material “things,” what he called “substances,” were comprised of matter and form which were principles of being. Matter and form did not exist on their own apart from one another. Only substances (material things) had existence. An idea was only a passing human mental state. By itself it was not real — it did not exist apart from the mind that was thinking it and while it was thinking it. It was what Aristotle called “an accident,” a phenomenon that existed as part of and dependent on a substance. What something looked like, its color, for example, or its size, were accidents. Bread was a substance, a human being was a substance. But an idea was an accident.

Under Aristotle’s influence reality was seen as a quality only of concrete existing things not ideas; therefore symbols could no longer get a derived reality from the idea. They had to have their own reality as “things.” So the symbol itself, the bread and wine, which was the only concrete thing there, had to become the risen Christ, there was no other way to conceive of the real presence in that system. Theologians imagined that the very “thing” (substance) that was bread, became the very “thing” (substance) that was Christi’s body. They called it transubstantiation, and claimed it could only be explained as a miracle. So the bread and wine went from being a symbol to being Christ himself, body and blood, soul and divinity. Both systems referred to it as the real presence. But they meant two totally different things.

Return to symbol?

The difficulty for believers now is that to return to a symbolic interpretation of the eucharist does not reinstate the level of reality that it once had under Platonism. We are no longer Platonists and we cannot return there. We are still in Aristotle’s camp with regard to the basics. Concepts and their words are not independently existing entities for us. We see the concrete thing as the only existing reality. We do not see the idea as real nor that its symbol participates in the divine reality. Many observers have identified the abandonment of Platonism in the 14th century as the beginning of the “disenchantment” of western culture — its turn toward an arid scientism. If we are going to insist on the real presence in terms of that worldview we have no choice but to claim the “thing” in front of us, the bread and wine, is Christ.

This is patently absurd. Take a step back and you realize that the exclusively “Aristotelian” perspective on reality represented by this absurd interpretation has consigned all reality to “things,” and leaves out the reality of the entire world of human social interaction and personal development. This is a truncated view. None of what is specifically human is about “things” or “substantial forms.”

Human reality

Religion is about human reality. Human reality is interpersonal relationships and the individual transformations that turn those relationships either into “hell” or something we can call “divine.” Religion would have us become like “God.” Religion is not about entities or places or “things” — gods, angels, devils, magic rituals, cowled robes, statues, candles, incense, churches, reward in heaven, punishment in hell. It’s about moral and spiritual transformation, the unfolding of individual personalities that sustain just and loving relationships that would turn this earth into a paradise.

The reality of the religious message is inner transformation, and for us from a Christian background, Jesus is the teacher, model and energizer of that transformation. Rituals that claim to provide his real presence, therefore, are real to the extent that they evoke and activate that transformation. The reality of the eucharist is to be found in its transformative power, not in its physical or metaphysical constitution.

In this view, everything remains what it is. There is no supernatural alchemy, there are no magic material transformations. The only thing that changes is the human being who, through the imagery evoked by the eucharistic symbols and using Jesus’ message and life as a blueprint and invitation, transforms himself by consciously re-evaluating the social conditioning that, in order to give him a place in an unjust society, inculcated an egoic defensiveness, a greedy self-projec­tion and a fear and rejection of others as competitors for scarce resources. As the communicant progresses over time in these transformations a new “self” begins to emerge — ironically, the self that preceded the distortions of the social conditioning to selfishness. This is really a return to the unvarnished coherence of the material organism that came to us with birth. It’s not surprising that some have called it a re-birth, and that what emerges is selfless, generous, compassionate and committed to LIFE.

As the conditioning to selfishness and domination of others is incrementally neutralized by the evocative power of the eucharistic ritual and other transformative practices, the “still small voice” of our fleshly organism can be heard clearer and clearer. We come to discover that we were perfect bodies all along, a perfect mirror of the material LIFE that enlivens the universe, now increasingly cleansed of the deformities … the insanities of our delusional, paranoid, egomaniacal culture. We no longer look on our companions in life with anything but compassion for the suffering and anxiety that we continue to heap on one another under the delusion of the need to acquire existence in competition with others. We assume the burden of assuring that no one suffers injustice or rejection. We come to recognize our material organism for the “divine” thing it really is and has been all along. We no longer make the mistake about where “God” is to be found, or what he looks like.  

We discover

that the face of God

we have been searching for

is our own.

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

 

Christianity and authoritarianism

Feb 2017

3,000 words

In its American incarnations, it [Christianity] has come to rule the world. The 20th century saw America shrugging off notions of the Death of God and rising to the position of a Christian empire.  It grows more imperial as it grows more Christian.” (Adam Roberts, “The Atheist Paradox,” Aeon 11/26 2012)

Whether or not the “strongman,” predicted by political philosopher Richard Rorty in his 1998 book Achieving Our Country turns out to be our current president, Donald Trump’s xenophobic campaign promises and authoritarian behavior have thrown huge sectors of the nation into turmoil.  Tendencies in the “strongman” direction are unmistakable, and besides strategies of resistance people are search­ing for explanations: how could such a thing happen in the United States of America, the bastion and beacon of democracy in the modern world?

I have already suggested one partial answer: that the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump were amenable to the use of America’s military and economic superiority on the global stage to secure their own well being, much as the wealthy elite have always done, even if it meant the impoverishment of other nations.  It is called “imperialism.”  Trump was perfectly clear.  Many see it as a reprise of an old pattern: the stronger sooner or later will use their strength to enhance themselves even if it means oppressing and suppressing others.

This had an internal component: alarmist rejections of “Muslim terrorists” hardly obscured Trump’s true motivations in curtailing immigration; for the same attitudes were directed at Mexicans many of whom were born here and none are Muslim.  “Make America Great Again,” translated to “the hard-earned wealth of working Americans must not be squandered on “free loaders.”  The fact that it is well known that these immigrants are as “hard-working” as anyone, revealed the racism that was the real source of the rejection.

For now, there are stop-gap resistance strategies, but if you’re looking for a durable solution for this problem you’re going to have to wait until people learn what it means to be human.  We have to identify ourselves as a global community, not some local clan, tribe or nation, or we will destroy ourselves, our species and our planet.  This is not just speculation.

The “Christian” contribution

In this reflection, I hope to present what I believe is another piece of the picture: the role of our Religious institutions — Christian Churches, primarily — in conditioning the American People to accept authoritarian government despite it being directly antithetical to the values embedded in the American Constitution.

This has always been a thorny problem, because included in the guarantee of the Constitution is ideological freedom.  We have to realize: Christianity is not only a religion, it is a social ideology.  It has functioned as the underpinning of theocracy in Western Europe for more than a thousand years and continues to offer itself not only as a way to “God” and eternal life, but as a way to secure a divinely protected harmony and prosperity in our earthly societies.  American freedom was always conditioned by the understanding that among various competing religious and political worldviews, one or another may convince the majority to embrace its beliefs and practices.  Would “freedom of religion” and “freedom from religion” still be guaranteed under majority rule?  The door has always been open to self-defeating choices.

For a very long time this fear was focused on the question of religious establishment i.e., declaring one religious denomination official.  Because in the early days of the republic Americans were Protestants they shared a general belief in a moral code as well as a revulsion for Catholic Papal autocracy.  Officializing a protestant denomination was not necessary to achieve agreement on these fundamental issues, and establishment would  introduce a level of conflict that would have torn the new nation apart.  Catholics were few and any dangers that Americans would suddenly declare obedience to the Pope were non-existent.

That all changed as first the Irish immigration of 1845-1852 and then the arrival of foreign workers from traditionally Catholic countries like Poland and Italy around the turn of the 20th century brought millions of “papist” Catholics into the country.  Catholic immigrants’ children would all be citizens.  But by the late 19th and early 20th century Americans’ fear of Catholics reached a fever pitch and immigration quotas from majority Catholic countries were suddenly and drastically curtailed.

By the end of the second world war the children and grandchildren of immigrant Catholics — now full fledged citizens — had become so integrated into American society that they posed a threat to the smooth running of the traditional political system.  In the lead-up to John Kennedy’s election in 1960, Catholics were subjected to a decade of scrutiny on their American loyalty.  Challengers like Paul Blanchard asked seriously: what would a Catholic President do in the face of a papal decree contrary to the laws and policies of the United States?  Whom would he obey, the Pope or his country?  These issues were seriously debated and Kennedy found himself forced to issue a declaration of loyalty to the Constitution during the campaign, explicitly stating that he would resign the presidency if there were ever a conflict (notice: he did not say he would stop being Catholic).

But lurking in the background was another religious issue that no one suspected would pose a Constitutional challenge of such magnitude that it might bring an end to democratic government in the United States.  The issue was a belief in absolute objective morality which all Christians, Protestant and Catholic, shared, and which had been essential to theocracies in European countries prior to the establishment of Constitutional republics in the nineteenth century.  Together, Christian conditioning prepared people (1) to accept authoritarian (non-democratic) government-by-ruling-class (this is exclusively Catholic), and (2) to profess an objectively true morality coercively imposed as law.  These two things, in my opinion, contributed to Christians in great numbers swelling the ranks of the 63 million people voting for Donald Trump despite the threat to Constitutional democracy that his campaign rhetoric clearly foretold.

Let’s “unpack” these two aspects of the religious (Catholic, Christian) contribution to the breakdown of American democracy:

(1) Authoritarianism: “God” as the Source of all authority

Catholic authoritarianism is not limited to the autocracy of the Pope.  The Catholic system of ecclesiastical governance is pervaded by a patriarchal authoritarianism from top to bottom, and the dogmatic justifications for authoritarian practice are also matters of revelation — truths originating in another world — to which Catholics are expected to adhere.  A personal entity called “God,” not the human community, is the source of all authority, and “God’s” will in this regard is exclusively communicated by men who are themselves un-elected autocrats — the hierarchy.  How is this spelled out in the life of the Catholic community?

(a) Caste status for Catholics is an ontological reality.  The Catholic Church divides Christians into two separate and unequal classes: those who have received holy orders and those who haven’t.  By the Middle Ages church leadership roles had been compressed into one, the priesthood; all other Christians were laity.  The higher clergy were all priests, and all priests were non-married males.  They were the elites: they were educated, exercised whatever authority there was, and through their magical powers were the exclusive mediators of “salvation” to the illiterate and credulous masses.  Once you were ordained a priest, you were a priest forever.  You may cease to function in the role, and may even be released from your vows, but you always retained your magic powers and your status.

Catholics believe that superior social status — the priesthood — is permanent.  It is conferred as an ontological reality independent of function: the equivalent of a genetic code.  If you were looking for some way to make class distinction an immutable social institution, the Catholic belief in priestly ordination provides what you need.

The influence here may be indirect, but it is not insignificant.  The Catholic people have been conditioned for their entire lives to the idea of there being an inherent quasi-genetic ruling class status conferred for life by “God,” exclusively on males, selected by the autocratic leader of a diocese.  There is no room for election of either priests or bishop by the community, despite the ancient practice, and women are excluded entirely.

(b) Political power in the Catholic Church is a “divine right.”  Closely linked to the above is the belief that the source of the right to exercise political power is not the will of the people but rather the will of “God” who is imagined as some sort of rational person who has decided how and by whom authority is to be exercised in the Church and reveals it to his chosen agents.  This proposition is antithetical to the principles of democratic government and as a matter of historical fact is contrary to the universal practice of the Church for almost the first thousand years, when bishops were elected by their people.  Vox populi, vox Dei “The voice of the people is the voice of ‘God’” was the formula that identified the divine source of the democratic ideal.  This democratic mechanism for choice of leaders was still operational as late as the 15th century until the Papacy, in collusion with other European monarchs, completely destroyed the Conciliar movement which tried to install representative Councils as the highest authority in the Church.  Monarchical authority — the Papacy — exercised as a “divine right” completely independent of the will of the people, was an achievement of the Mediaeval Popes, and it has functioned as the exclusive manner of exercising authority in the Catholic Church ever since.

Once again, the idea that such a justification of autocracy — power invested exclusively in the hands of one person bypassing the participation of the people in the selection of their leaders — is a valid and legitimate basis for governance, by its very existence serves to undermine commitment to the principles of democracy.  Catholic people, at least since the Middle Ages, have been accustomed to being ruled by a “hierarchy.”  The word comes from Greek and means “holy authority.”  This doesn’t mean that all Catholics would automatically accept some strongman’s claim to have a divine mandate to rule civil society, but they have been programmed to accept lifelong patriarchal authority conferred by something other than the consent of the people.

(2) Absolute morality and civil law.

Christianity at the pastoral level, the level of family life and daily labor, whether Catholic or any of its reformed versions, has made moral behavior the principal item in a transactional relationship with a punitive “God” — a quid pro quo  — where “salvation” after death is earned by compliant behavior during life.  This contrasts sharply with the  perspective of the ancient Greeks, for whom morality’s primary significance was individual self-development; by living morally you became fully human, and self-fulfillment made you happy.  Christianity did away with that view and redefined right behavior as the individual’s obedient relationship to “God.”  Compliance with the moral code became obedience, and obedience was a form of worship.

Christianity in its current form is the end product of fifteen hundred years of theocratic governance.  Especially in Western Europe, the Roman Empire’s use of the Christian religion to forge a society of homogeneous values and universal compliance, resulted in the inevitable tailoring of Christian beliefs to the needs of “crowd control.”  One of the instruments developed for that purpose was the welding of Christian morality to Roman Law.   Morality was considered submission to “God,” and the Roman Emperors’ efforts to guarantee divine protection for the Empire drove them to place the entire nation in a state of submission to “God.”  This could only be achieved by making Christian morality enforceable by law.  Thus was theocracy reborn under a Christian banner.

In the Christian view, the “moral code” is imagined as imposed not by community agreement but rather by “God” himself.  “God’s” putative “will” is that humans should comply with an abstract “justice” derived from commandments identified with a deducible “natural law” that may or may not have anything to do with the well being of the human community or its individuals.  This is the essence of an absolute morality — characteristic of theistic religions — as opposed to the conventional agreements by which people form a cooperative communities among themselves:  Christian morality is grounded in abstract principles rooted in a world of ideas and made known to humankind by revelation; it is not determined by the discernment of human benefit and a consensus of agreement by the members of the governed community.

A morality believed to be imposed and monitored by a “God” who will punish non-compliance with eternal torment is so dominated by the fear factor that it can hardly be embraced for the purposes of self-development, if one were ever so inclined.  This confluence of law and morality virtually eliminates human authenticity.  Even when behavior conforms to moral norms, the obeisance engendered by the looming judgment of a punitive “God” turns every human choice into a groveling self-interest.  It’s no wonder that the “sacrament” of penance was reconceived in the middle ages as the application of another imagined magic power of the priest “upgrading” what was an unavoidable “imperfect contrition” into something that would be worthy of an eternal reward.  They were honest enough to recognize that fear was the primary motive generated by their “system,” and that a life lived out of fear is hardly “perfect.”

Everything was  obedience; everything was master-slave.  Those that complied out of the “love of ‘God’” were few and far between.  “God” and society’s authorities — the agents of his will — were the masters, and the individual human beings were the slaves.  It is the social paradigm, internally, of authoritarianism, and externally, of empire.   Constantine had chosen wisely.

Christian fascism

Authoritarianism can arise from many different sources.  We are generally accustomed to  military coups where unquestioned authority is imposed by force of arms.  But I believe what put Trump in the presidency is a preference for the kind of authoritarianism that I  call “Christian” fascism.  It is “fascist” because it derives from the will of vast numbers of ordinary people who have chosen an autocrat whom they know will act in their name and “for their best interests” without regard for the rule of law or the interests of others who are not part of his constituency.  I call it “Christian” because I believe a majority of the 52% of Catholics who voted for Trump, and great numbers of others who identify themselves as Christian, were motivated by moral issues that certain strains of Christian fundamentalism, including the Catholic, have identified as Christian: the condemnation of abortion, same sex marriage, contraception.  They believed they were under a divine mandate — communicated to them by their religious leaders — to elect the candidate who would restore “true” morality.  True morality, in their eyes, recapitulates the imperatives of the ancient Roman theocracyEnacting them into law makes the entire nation “right with ‘God’” and therefore supposedly deserving of divine protection and prosperity.  These moral norms are claimed to be equally applicable to all because they reflect the “natural law” which all can discern by reason.  Therefore since they apply to all, they can be legislated for all.  Here’s the way Charles Chaput, the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia put it:

Catholic moral convictions about abortion, contraception, and the purpose of sexuality are clearly unpopular in some quarters. Yet Catholic ideas about the nature of personhood, marriage, and sexuality are rooted not just in revelation, but also in reason and natural law. Human beings have an inherent nature that is not just the product of accident or culture, but universal and rooted in permanent truths knowable to reason.  (Dec 8, 2016, Philadelphia Inquirer)

What Chaput takes for granted and I dispute is the proposition that personal morality has a right to be enacted into law, effectively coercing the entire population to obey what some faction of some fundamentalist cult considers divine revelation and the “order of nature.”  There is no such revelation, and behind it all, there is no such “personal” God-entity who wills, or commands or sanctions legal coercion.  This is a Christian myth; and it makes traditional Christianity every bit as mediaeval, archaic and intellectually regressive as the worst forms of Islam.

The fear of Catholic authoritarianism that haunted the early Republic and disturbed Americans as late as the 1950’s, turned out to be well founded, but for reasons that ran deeper than the Popes’ exercise of autocratic power.  The contagion of authoritarianism spread by Catholicism is shared by all fundamentalist versions of Christianity and springs from deeply embedded beliefs that will continue to wreak havoc on the human social experiment.  Christianity in its traditional form, which embodies a divinely mandated morality, the fruit of an absurd belief in a theist humanoid “God”-person, the Creator-craftsman who made the universe and everything in it the way a carpenter builds a house, is utterly false.  It is pure fiction.  It is an incredible belief system, the incoherent vestige of a past era whose view of the world has been completely superseded by the findings of modern science, and whose holy books have been proven to be the religious speculations of an uninformed people as they evolved their understanding of what “worked” in human society.  They projected their discoveries onto “God.”  There was nothing “revealed” about the morality recorded in those books.

From my point of view the election of Donald Trump can be directly attributed in large measure to the completely unreformed state of the Christian religion, despite the ethereal work of theologians whose academic ivory tower elaborations never reach the pastoral level, much less do they challenge the mediaeval authority structures which are the living contradiction of everything theologians claim for a Christianity that exists only in their imaginations.  The state of Christianity today, politically and socially, is the same as it has been for the last 1500 years, since Augustine of Hippo spelled out the theocratic role the Christian Church should play in the ascendeancy of the Roman Empire.  Unreformed traditional Christianity — one version of which is fundamentalist Catholicism — is the DNA of authoritarianism and empire.

Vast numbers of traditional Christians, including a majority of Catholics, were one of the principal sectors who elected Donald Trump.  “By their fruits you will know them.”

Religion in the Modern World

1,657 words

Religion is a Gordian knot.  Its transcendent effects, always mysterious even when not horrifying, are so beyond our ability as a species to control that it seems entirely independent of us … like a demon or collective delusion that has taken possession of our minds.  Indeed many have decided that religion is simply not human and that it must change radically or we are better off without it.  And yet even these people remain in thrall to it, for despite their profound misgivings religion continues to intrigue and invite.

Others who also acknowledge religion’s destructive side claim to have seen enough of its benefits to feel differently.  Religion needs to change but they believe what is required amounts to little more than repairing the disconnect between religion as a ancient local phenomenon and the realities of modern global life.   Once that adjustment is made religion will prove to be the solution to the most perplexing problems that we face as a planetary species for it will provide us with a sustained sense of the sacred.  It was exactly such an optimistic assumption that I believe inspired Vatican II.  Fifty years later, however, even the optimists have conceded that as far into the future as the eye can see, aggiornamento, re-casting religion in a modern idiom” may still be discernible on the horizon, but it has not moved any closer to us.

Everyone is ambivalent.  Everyone finds religion a conundrum.

Both these groups agree that religion needs to change.  But even before getting into the details of what “doctrines” should change, we should notice that the difference between their perspectives is quite profound.  For the first is wary of religion precisely as  uncontrollable and a source of conflict, and would condition religion’s very existence on neutralizing its destructiveness and harnessing its power to human needs.  As far as they are concerned, therefore, anything that suggests that religion is beyond human control is unacceptable.  A supernatural religion, that is, one allegedly designed and revealed by “God,” by definition, is not human.  It cannot change.  Such a belief is itself the very source of religion’s conflictive nature for it puts problem doctrines beyond the human power to modify.  Religion must be subjected to rational control or it will continue to divide us and justify our worse sociopathic inclinations.   Such a demand for control strikes at the very heart of the religious imperative in the West: submission to “God.”  It is good to remember that the word “Islam” means surrender.  All the western “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share that central dynamic.

The view held by progressive traditionalists, on the other hand, is that in its current form religion is an historical, culturally conditioned, social artifact and, while not denying that it comes from “God,” is fully human.  As a human phenomenon it can be trusted to evolve under the environmental pressures of a global society that no longer identifies with its local roots in history and culture.  Therefore the proper approach is to work within the institutional form that religion has assumed at any given point in time and encourage those influences that will change religion in the direction of the desired universalism.  (Why such a supposedly “human” religion has not already evolved on its own, however, is not explained.)

I want to pause at this point and allow the internal contradictions implicit in what we have observed so far be brought into clear relief.  They will help guide our reflections.

The first is that to speak of religion as a human artifact and simultaneously claim it was designed and revealed by “God” is a contradiction, unless you are operating with a concept of an immanent “God” whose presence and intentionality is materially indistinguishable from the natural world.   Only that kind of “God” could possibly be the divine source of a religion over which humans had total control.  Western “religions of the book” have never accepted such a pan-entheist “God.”  It is unlikely that they will suddenly do so.

Moreover, the very “sense of the sacred” that characterizes all traditional religion derives not from the immanence, but from the assumed  transcendence of “God.”  People believe that religion has the power to connect us to “another world” because it comes from a “God” who transcends the natural order.  It is precisely a “God” who is “other” that makes religion “sacred” and distinct from the “profane” world of our everyday lives.  It is that “otherness” that explains the additional energy that religion provides — “the sense of the sacred” — an energy that does not come from man, but from a transcendent “God.”  Control of religion by humankind is not part of this picture.

This brings us to a further anomaly.  Those who insist that religion is a purely human artifact still somehow expect that it will provide a sustained sense of the sacred without explaining howSince the sense of the sacred appears to come only from religion’s distinction from the profane, unless there is some other source, a sense of the sacred cannot be generated.   Aren’t the would-be controllers promoting an empty shell that may look like religion in name and ceremony but is hollow and self-serving?  Indeed, anything that fails to turn humankind’s gaze beyond itself — to something “other” than itself — cannot hope to sustain the selflessness that the “sense of the sacred” is supposed to evoke.  Without a transcendent “God” what will do that?

If a sense of the sacred is not possible without a transcendent “God,” it means that the energy that both groups hope to channel toward the solution of human conflict, is not something over which we can claim ownership or control.  If we could, it would not be authentically religious — it would not be from “God.”  Religious energy is a very special phenomenon, it is assumed, that comes only from religion, and religion is religion only because it comes from “God.”

This is the heart of the problem: the assumed transcendence of “God.”  Based on these premises a dialog among those genuinely interested in the modernization of religion will find itself at an impasse before it can even get started.  For the religious “naturalists” will insist on principle that any “sense of the sacred” must arise from the natural world; if there is to be change, the “sense of the sacred” cannot come from a supernatural “God.”

Even between traditional religionists of different persuasions who are convinced of the “supernatural” origins of the sense of the sacred, the transcendence of “God” is a stumbling block.  For the insistence that your own religion enjoys real supernatural contact, while others’ do not, forces you to disparage others’ sense of the sacred as only wishful thinking.  But it won’t work.  The uniformity of the phenomenon wherever it is found is too obvious.  It belies any attempt to distinguish them by origin.

The disputants find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.  For everyone must acknow­ledge that the religious energy — the sense of the sacred — of other religions, which is indistinguishable from their own, has to have the same origin.  Such an admission will equalize all religions as valid points of contact with “God.”  Reasonable as that may sound, it is more than some Churches will tolerate.  Roman Catholicism, for example.  The Catholic Church insists on its absolute superiority to all others.

Sed contra

The tangle of problems that surface in this preliminary scan of the issue are all tied together by a series of assumptions and premises about supernatural religion and its transcendent “God” that are, despite their antiquity and universality, simply untenable.  I contend that no religious dialogue can even begin unless we deny all of the premises embedded in the above “positions” and argue, that

(1) Our sense of the sacred is innate and natural.  It comes from the conatus of the living material organism and not from a “God” who dwells in another world.  Even those who do not believe in “God” have a sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred is indeterminate and can take virtually any form.  It can be distorted or denied but not suppressed; the attempt to suppress will just cause it to emerge in another form.

(2) Religion is a human social artifact which from its very inception was elaborated by the local community to control and focus the spontaneous human sense of the sacred.  It does not come from the ethereal revelations a transcendent “God” and it can be changed in accord with its mandate for the benefit of people.

(3) There is no metaphysical separation or distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Such distinctions as may still exist among us are the social residue of the practices of obsolete transcendent religions.  They are communal habits that will disappear under the tutelage of an immanent “God.”

(4) “God” is the unknown sustaining source of LIFE.  As such “God” is directly implicated in the perception of LIFE by the material organism and is, therefore, both the source and object of desire of the conatus.  There is no physically perceivable difference between what we mean by “God” and the energy of any living organism and that includes all human beings.  Whatever distinction may exist between them is relational in character (i.e., source-to-recipient / parent-to-offspring); it is cognitively implicit and materially indistinguishable.

Moreover, the fact that belief in a transcendent supernatural and historically revealed local humanoid “God” was used extensively, in the past,  by some people to justify their conquest and enslavement of others whose religious beliefs were vilified as “false,” adds to the suspicion that this was not an unintended unconscious mistake.  It is seen as purposeful prevarication in the service of domination, causing all conversation to be instantly terminated.  This approach simply won’t work.  It renders dialog impossible.  For me it is an indirect proof that it is based on false premises.  I am convinced that when we discover what is true, it will work.

 

The Big Picture

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

 This long 15K word essay was originally published in six separate sections in October and November. I am now re-blogging it for a week to allow for reading the whole thing in the proper order.  Afterward it will be permanently available as a “page” in the sidebar to the right.  Like a similar long review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos in 2012 published as “A Dalliance with Dualism,” the review is a vehicle for elaborating my own perspectives on the issue at hand. In this case what I am offering is my own “big picture.”   It might be categorized as a “Philosophy of Religion.”

As with all efforts to provide a rational basis — compatible with the discoveries of modern science — for what we have traditionally called “religion,” it cuts both ways, purging religion of elements that are clearly antiquated, erroneous and misleading, and challenging the unconvinced to look again at the depths from which our material universe wells us up into existence generating in us a sense of the sacred.  Above all the aim is to keep us from losing our sense of the sacred.

Also I think it can serve as a common ground for the unification of our knowledge of reality. There is, after all, only one universe. It is made of matter and we are its offspring.  We are all one thing … shouldn’t we expect there would be one way of understanding it all?

This essay represents another stab at a unified worldview — a synthesis — that might reasonably replace the obsolete Platonic one that we were formed in, and that all of us continue to wrestle with. This is the result of years of my own wrestling. I would love to get your feedback and have you share yours.

Tony Equale,  November 2016

1

It is not without some trepidation that one contemplates criticizing a “rocket scientist.” After all, it is believed that they are so far beyond the rest of us that we cannot hope to follow much less comprehend what they say; even to question them is pretentious.

Sean Carroll is a rocket scientist. His thumbnail bio found on his website reads:

I’m a theoretical physicist, specializing in field theory, gravitation, cosmology, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and philosophy of physics, with occasional dabblings elsewhere. My latest book, released May 2016, is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. (Dutton, NY 2016) My official title is Research Professor of Physics at Caltech.[1]

He is 49 and married.

I have just read Carroll’s long 440 page book The Big Picture. I would like to comment on it, but I wonder if I will be heard, not only by him, but by the general reader who may share the prejudices of our times that when rocket scientists speak on any matter whatsoever they are beyond challenge except by their own kind, and the rest of us had better shut up and listen.

Rocket scientists have the further unfortunate reputation of believing the popular hype about themselves. They are said to form a closed clique and restrict serious conversation to their own ilk who speak their jargon. Their preference for quantified data expressed in equations, over human language conveyed in grammatical sentences, adds to the impression that they live in a world other than ours. They are accused of believing that (1) only the things in their area of concern, using mathematical terms to express them, can be said to be really “true;” (2) matters of importance in other areas that are not quantifiable are also strictly speaking not verifiable and therefore cannot hope to achieve the designation of “truth” except in the practical sense of “working” within some limited area of applicability. But as far as “reality” is concerned, what is real is physics and chemistry.

People who attempt to apply scientific methodology and logical reasoning to non-quantifiable subject matter like biology, the social sciences and psychology, except for certain ancillary statistical procedures, are really dealing in “metaphor” not knowledge. What is considered “knowledge” in these areas works within the limitations of their applicability but no further. In the past that feature of “scientific” thinking whereby what is truly real can be reduced to the subject matter of physics and inorganic chemistry was called “reductionism.” Everything else was to one degree or another, illusion. Carroll’s blog uses a quote from Democritus as a sub­title: “In truth, only atoms and the void.” It is part of a larger quote that is usually translated: “There are only atoms and empty space; the rest is opinion.”

Carroll’s latest book The Big Picture ventures out of the strict field of physics and into the murky regions where the rest of us live and try to make sense of our lives. One would hope that he has decided to do so as one of us in our struggle to discover meaning, and not as a superior being who condescends to enter the shadow-world of the mathematically challenged to liberate us from our religious illusions.

Such a sentiment on my part is not empty paranoia. It is well known that some years ago Carroll explicitly turned down an invitation to speak at a conference because “he did not want to appear to be supporting a reconciliation between science and religion.” Granted that he was suspicious of the sponsoring Foundation’s motivation, his own independently antagonistic position denying any possible compatibility between science and religion a priori, is well documented and supports my misgivings. [2]

Given this background, informed readers may be forgiven for expecting that Carroll’s book, which purports to elaborate a science-compatible worldview he calls “poetic naturalism,” will simply be a more reader-friendly version of the same ol’ axe-to-grind: matter is a mindless mechanism and human life is a kind of virtual reality — an illusion — whose social expressions, like religion and politics, are metaphors that we impose upon it. We may be humored in our use of these quaint narratives because it’s all we can handle. But the condition for this concession from the rocket scientists is that we keep to our side of the line and stay out of their way.

Carroll appears to avoid the strictly mechanistic position, what he calls strong reductionism. “Strong reductionism,” he says,

not only wants to relate macroscopic features of the world to some underlying fundamental description but wants to go further by denying that the elements of the emergent ontology even exist, … consciousness is merely an illusion.[3]

Carroll’s characterization, using the word “strong,” allows him to distance himself from it without rejecting the concept entirely.

Against strong reductionism he proposes nothing less than an expanded definition of reality. Acknowledging that “we don’t as yet have a full theory of reality at its deepest level,” he sets up the parameters that will serve as the premise for poetic naturalism throughout the book:

Something is “real” if it plays an essential role in a particular story of reality that, as far as we can tell, provides an accurate description of the world within its domain of applicability: atoms are real, tables are real, consciousness is undoubtedly real. A similar view was put forward by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, under the label “model-dependent-realism.”[4]

Carroll’s efforts seem to be part of a recent tendency among philosophers of science to reopen the issue of the nature of matter. This trend questioning “strong” reductionism can be seen in Thomas Nagel’s 2012 book Mind and Cosmos, though Nagel seems to have identified no alternative but dualism.[5] Noam Chomsky in his 2015 book What Kind of Creatures Are We?  [6] says the “nature of matter” is a question unresolved since the days of Descartes and Newton. The final chapter entitled “The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden?” gives a thorough historical scan of the perennial dissatisfaction with the Cartesian (reductionist) view of matter. He cites the modern “pan­psychism” of Galen Strawson as a model counterpoint to the classic unjustified and unquestioned reductionism. [7] Thus Carroll is not alone in his reassessment.

The Hawking-Mlodinov book The Grand Design, however, is of another order altogether. Instead of eschewing strong reductionism, it seems to be doubling down on it even to the point, in my estimation, of jeopardizing the legendary careful procedures and limited claims that are associated with professional scientists. From the very first page of text where the authors cavalierly declare that “Philosophy is dead”[8] to the end of the book where a conjectured hypothesis called “M-Theory” whose unobserved and untested projection of “multiple universes” is adduced to “explain” the otherwise inexplicable fine-tuning of our universe (the basis of the strong anthropic principle), the prestigious Hawking seems hell-bent on eliminating any thought of “explanations” other than that of physics. “The multiverse concept,” they say, “can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.”[9] It seems that Hawking, like Carroll, had a prior agenda: an antipathy toward religion that is willing to sacrifice science’s hard-earned reputation in its service. “But if it [M-theory] is true, …” begins the conditional sentence that lays out the thesis, then the multiverse conjecture would reduce the strong anthropic principle to a weak version, and a universe like ours loses its uniqueness in an ocean of universes whose physical laws vary widely and wildly. Sooner or later one such as ours is bound to emerge. This is all hypothetical.

The observed universe is, so far as we know or could ever know, the only universe, although it may have predecessors. The idea of a multitude of other universes is not evoked by any observation, nor could it be, for these other universes would have no causal communion with ours. It is merely designed to fill a hole in certain scientific theories (such as in string theory in contemporary particle physics) that make many universes possible and therefore find it convenient to imagine all of them actual. With only one actual universe, and with no basis other than the limitations and predilections of the human mind to distinguish possible and impossible universes, we lack the conditions for a well-formed estimation of probabilities.[9a]

Possibly the most “far out” claim made by Hawking for “M-theory” is that it “explains” how matter can emerge spontaneously out of nothing:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … . Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.”[10]

It’s not clear whether Carroll agrees with this or not. In a review of Hawking’s book published in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, Carrol said of M-theory and the multiverse:

This is a picture that has been put together by a number of theoretical physicists over the past couple of decades, although it remains speculative. Mr. Hawking’s own major contributions have involved the spontaneous creation of the universe “from nothing.” The basic idea comes straight from conventional quantum mechanics: A particle does not have some perfectly well-defined position but rather lives in a superposition of many possible positions. As for particles, the logic goes, so for the entire universe. It exists in a superposition of many possible states, and among those states is utter nothingness. The laws of quantum cosmology purport to show how nothingness can evolve into the universe we see today.[11]

The key word is “speculative.” While speculation has its place in science as in any other field of enquiry, the use of unproven guesswork as if it were an established conclusion in order to “prove” the definitive elimination of “God” as a reasonable cosmological possibility arouses in me the suspicion that the tail is wagging the dog. “M-theory” is given a scientific status that it does not possess in order to serve as bludgeon for the anti-religion agenda. Carroll acknowledges: “Whether this ambitious conception is actually correct remains unclear,” and adds, incisively in my opinion: “they [Hawking-Mlodinov] advocate ‘model-dependent realism,’ which asserts that the ‘reality’ of various elements of nature depends on the model through which one interprets them. This is an interesting approach to ontology …”[12] That sounds to me like sarcasm. But he may have changed his mind since he wrote that review in 2010 because his 2016 book embraces exactly such an “interesting approach to ontology.” If what is real can be defined by the categories of enquiry that we humans have devised, then philosophy is indeed “dead” and “being” is reduced to what the sciences can describe. Heidegger would be appalled.

How does Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” compare to all this? It is my opinion that the “naturalism” offered by Carroll’s book does not advance much beyond an arid “physicalism” that he clearly has not abandoned. I also believe he fails either to identify or to create an appropriate “poetry” that might accompany science with some degree of depth and validity — all the while assuring us that religion cannot be that poetry. In fact, it turns out that all he really means by “poetry” is any view of reality that is not “science:”

This brings us to the “poetic” part of poetic naturalism. While there is one world, there are many ways of talking about it. We refer to these ways as “models” or “theories” or “vocabularies” or “stories”; it doesn’t matter. Aristotle and his contemporaries weren’t just making things up; they told a reasonable story about the world they actually observed. Science has discovered another set of stories, harder to perceive but of greater precision and wider applicability. [13]

The “poetry” in “poetic naturalism” is sparse. But sparse can be forgiven if it is deep. What, then, has Carroll accomplished? I think it is at least fair to say that according to the attitudes he revealed in the writing of this book, he appears to elude the description offered by one of his blog respondents in 2009, who said that Carroll displays “the sneering condescension of self-con­gra­tu­la­tory superior-sounding people” … who “demand that we must all act as [they] do.” That characterization seems more applicable to Hawking than the Carroll of the Big Picture. If that is true, it is in fact quite deep. Whether or not it can translate into words that can serve as “poetry” for the rest of us, such a change of attitude is no small achievement.

*

It appears that Carroll is aware of all these objections. His book cannot be accused of active hostility to religion. But neither does he acknowledge that religion has any compatibility with science; he simply ignores it. He proposes to eschew the strong reductionist view as the privileged expression of truth and to substitute for it a “big picture,” much larger than the old, in which all the various ways of speaking about reality are acknowledged as equally valid and given their rightful place in the panoply of human enquiry and knowledge. This is not quite the capitulation it might appear to be, however. The final result is that while “reductionism” loses its arrogant claims to primacy and exclusivity, it is protected from interference from other world­views and retains its physicalist integrity. It is my opinion that it is a maneuver to keep religion and other non-mechanistic explanations out of cosmology. From my perspective that’s unfortunate. For I am going to claim and try to show that matter, far from being inert and passively mechanical, is a living dynamism, and that a satisfying and mutually supportive philosophic-religious synthesis compatible with science can be constructed on that foundation. I am going to show that a religion exorcized of its demonic elements by a cosmo-ontologically grounded theology can be integrated into a new synthesis as science’s “poetry.” “Poetic naturalism,” something Carroll bit off but could not chew, may still be a worthy and achievable goal.

Fundamentally Carroll says that each “discipline” or area of intellectual pursuit has its own vocabulary based on its own premises, axioms, principles and procedures that are valid within the domain of its applicability but not outside of it. That includes physics. In Carroll’s “big picture” physics supposedly no longer holds pride of place. For example, biologists are under no obligation to speak about LIFE in a way that reduces it to the mechanisms, dynamics, and structural possibilities described by physics and chemistry. The biologists’ starting point is LIFE as a given, and the development of their science is an elaboration of that premise. Biology need not entertain the possibility that the perception of LIFE is simply an illusion. Nor is it legitimate for physics to presume to sit in judgment on the validity of biology’s fundamental assumptions.

It is “philosophy,” as Carroll understands it in The Big Picture, that sits above and sets the boun­daries of the various sciences. Of course, it is not entirely clear what the principles, premises and procedures of this “philosophy” of Carroll’s might be, aside from his endless ruminations which are predictably based on scientific methodology like Bayesian logic and Peirce’s “abduction.” The allusions to philosophers, classical and current, which pepper the book, hardly compensate for his appalling Wittgensteinian disregard for what has gone before him. But we must at least acknowledge that his attitude is far less arrogant than Hawking and Mlodinow who declared flatly at the very beginning of their book: “philosophy is dead.” [14] Carroll in his 2010 WSJ review rightly excoriated them for that. “Our best hope for constructing sensible answers,” he said, “lies with scientists and philosophers working together, not scoring points off one another.” [15]

This holds true for all the “soft” disciplines, according to Carroll. Sociology and Psychology cannot be reduced to physics and chemistry. They each have their own area of applicability and, just as the use of the terminology and procedures of physics would be false and misleading if applied to these sciences, so too the terminology of Psychology and Sociology which acknow­ledge the indisputable role of “purpose” in human life, would be completely inappropriate if applied to the world of inert matter and its dynamics. Indeed, it seems to be “purpose” more than any other source of explanation that Carroll is most determined to keep out of the realm of the physical sciences, while at the same time justifying scientists’ use of those categories as explanations, “metaphorically”.

He thus sets up lines of separation between areas of human pursuit that are reminiscent of the “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) schema presented by Stephen Jay Gould in the 1990’s as a way of ending the dispute between science and religion. In Gould’s view, neither science nor religion should encroach on the other’s “turf.” He imagined each of them to be an independent “magisterium” functioning with its own premises, principles and procedures completely free of interference from the other; they are conceptually incompatible, therefore they are thoroughly incommunicable and mutually meaningless. Gould says:

Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.[16]

This “cease-fire” between science and religion, however, is purchased at a high price. It means that an ultimate unification of human understanding not only has not occurred, but now cannot occur because it has been precluded in principle. Specifically, it ignores the fact that reductionist science has no explanation for the existence of the universe itself, at best trying to justify the assertion that “it just is there and always has been” or that it was a “quantum fluctuation” that just appeared out of nothing, as if that were any more satisfying. It also dodges the criticism that after more than a century of trying, science has yet to explain either life or “mind” in reductionist terms, endlessly declaring that the allegedly soon-to-be-found explanations will prove to be strictly mechanistic and the macro appearances, illusions as predicted.

Hence, having suppressed enquiry into the possible valid relationship between science and religion, NOMA condemns the enquirer to live forever on two parallel tracks, having recourse to one or the other as the circumstances may require. The end result of this institutionalized parallelism is the sealing off of the various paths of human endeavor from one another and the eternal consignment of the human being to a divided understanding of the universe. We live schizoid lives because of it. The universe, I submit, is just one thing. And the human intellect is part of it — its genetic spawn. And unless you are a metaphysical dualist who insists that the human intellect, even though born of this universe, cannot possibly comprehend itself and its material matrix in the same metaphysical terms, you have to anticipate some ultimate unified understanding. Carroll seems to have surrendered physics’ candidacy for that role. Unfortunately, despite the absence of any formal academic consensus on the matter, NOMA has in practice become the accepted wisdom of our times enshrining an ungrounded tacit dualism. Philosophical synthesis has been despaired of in principle. Religionists are complicit in this intellectual irresponsibility, because NOMA, by implying that there is a separate source of understanding for the human mind — namely an imagined immaterial “soul” which belongs to an invisible category of reality called “spirit” — gives them full permission to hawk their discredited idea of the existence of a world other than this one, and sell access to it.

It is Carroll’s acknowledgement that there is a legitimate and even necessary place for “philosophy,” whose task it is to assign the boundaries of the disciplines, that provides a possible way out that someday might override Gould’s NOMA strategy. But Carroll’s limited application of his “philosophy,” and the absence of any adequate explanation of what that “philosophy” might be based on, makes The Big Picture little more than Carroll using his prestige to impose his own personal preferences on the situation … and his preferences hardly go beyond a slightly tamed reductionism and a wider application of the NOMA principle to other fields beside religion. But the difficulty as always is that physicists do not have principles or procedures that are not derived from physics, therefore in Carroll’s hands the enterprise never achieves a philosophical solidity. It is simply a softer version of a “rocket scientist” telling the rest of us what’s real and what’s “poetic,” and it ends up supporting the prejudice that religion is incompatible with science. No surprise here, after all that has been Carroll’s thesis all along.

2

My criticism is that Carroll’s approach, like Gould’s, leaves the knowing subject fragmented, and human knowledge arbitrarily shackled and without the resources needed for some eventual unification. I propose that instead of evoking parallel endeavors that do not overlap (and most certainly do not converge), there should be a hierarchy among the disciplines that reflects the hierarchy that we see in reality.

In the real world we first encounter living matter in our own organisms and those of our parents. It is only later that we discover that the components of living organisms can also be found in non-living forms. The hierarchy in nature is integral and organic. That means we experience matter directly and primordially as a living dynamic synthesis long before we artificially analyze it into its components and experience those parts as inert. I believe it is more faithful to the data to let our conceptual organization be guided by the organic whole as presented to us by nature rather than to insist that the analysis we perform later on using artificial intermediaries, dominate experience and determine the direction of discourse.

Nature’s integrated hierarchy should be reflected in human enquiry not as a set of discrete layers one on top of another but rather as an interpenetrating system that allows data and perceptions from the primordial “level” — material LIFE — to enter heuristically into the other levels that depend upon it, in order to “guide” enquiry and suggest solutions. Analysis in this case follows and mirrors the living hierarchy as it exists in the real world and is therefore open to an intellectual synthesis that reflects reality.

Under the obsolescent reductionist regimen, the assumed inertness of matter was permitted to dominate all other levels of enquiry and declare them, prejudicially, to be secondary, i.e., “emergent.” What I am proposing is the inverse: that the unmistakable perception that matter is alive in living organisms should be allowed to influence the discourse about the “nature” of matter at the level of the guiding “philosophy” and from there, physics and chemistry.

Having a “guiding philosophy” is an essential component of this approach. I have suggested that such a philosophy be derived and continually adjusted “abductively” from the discoveries of the various positive sciences with regard to the nature of matter. That means that there is a constant interaction between what the sciences are discovering about what is “real” in their area of interest and the overall nature of matter, i.e., what it means to exist, which is the purview of philosophy. The fundamental focus is, as always, existence. What is real is what exists — matter’s energy.

What have we learned about existence from the discoveries of science, and what, therefore, are some of the assumptions of this philosophy?

  • The first is that existence is matter and matter is existence.       Ideas and their derivatives like “bodiless minds,” spirits, are not real “things” — that includes an erstwhile imagined “Great Spirit.” They do not exist as stand-alone entities. Mind and its ideas are a “state” or “dimension” or “condition” of matter.       There is no separate world of “spirits.”
  • Secondly we have learned that matter is not a static “thing” but rather a dynamic energy, a force that resides at the core of all things sustaining them in existence. Matter and energy are only a conceptual dyad — two different ways of looking at the same thing — not a metaphysical duality. They are two words that refer to a singular phenomenal reality: depending on the instrument we use, matter may appear as solid particles or as an undulating force that we call waves. Indeed, the primary insight of quantum physics is that matter is both particle and wave — matter and energy — integrally, simultaneously. The indeterminacy, superposition, entanglement and tunneling that characterize matter at the quantum level are all reducible to the particle/wave nature of matter.
  • Third, we have learned from biology that in nature, spontaneously and without any intervention from rational beings like humans (or gods), matter is alive. Material organisms are conscious of themselves as “selves” and of the world around them as distinct and separate. They preserve their living integrity by intentionally relating outside themselves: finding food, avoiding enemies and reproducing.
  • Fourth, self-awareness is an intrinsic feature of LIFE and therefore can be assumed to be an intrinsic potentiality of the matter of which living organisms are constructed. This “interiority” means that consciousness is not different from living organisms as a separate “force” or “power.” In other words, and in contrast to idealist mediaeval scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and Johannes Eckhart, consciousness is a property of matter and and a product of LIFE; material LIFE is not the product of consciousness.

It is essential that we eliminate from this “philosophy” all vestiges of the preconceptions that once assigned an exclusive priority in all areas of endeavor to the experience had at the level of scientific physics and chemistry. Reductionism has had free rein for a century and a half and has failed miserably to solve the problem of the origin of life — to this day still claiming a strictly mechanistic understanding that will be found “any day now.” Furthermore, reductionism, in the form of the “modern synthesis” about evolution — a consensus of the 1940’s that saw evolution as a strictly passive a posteriori event based exclusively on random genetic mutations independent of environmental pressure — has also failed to account for some of the more common examples of rapid genetic adaptability.[17] I claim, to the contrary, that reductionist observations are secondary. They are not foundational perceptions and they do not represent the living hierarchical synthesis existing in nature and in human intellectual endeavors that mirror nature, like art and poetry.

I propose a phenomenological starting point for this philosophy. The beginnings of human knowledge about matter are the spontaneous unmediated perceptions of unsophisticated, scientifically unprepared culturally socialized human-beings. Let’s illustrate with an example. A boy meets a girl; and in each of them there is generated the possibilities of a relationship. One of the spontaneous unreflective assumptions in this encounter is that the other person is a living human being. There is no way that either of them would be the least bit confused about what it means to be human and alive, especially in the context of an intergender contact, even if for some reason they were momentarily deceived. If there were the slightest doubt about it, the process of evaluating the possibility of relationship would be immediately terminated. No professional help is needed to make that judgment. The question is resolvable by the “unaided” individuals themselves using their own resources without having recourse to any outside instrumentation, guidance, mathematical calculations or other substance. The perception is primordial; it is direct, unmediated, spontaneous and, barring an unusual source of deception, intentional or otherwise, inerrant. Human beings know LIFE when they see it, and they very quickly determine whether a living organism is human or not, even in the absence of common language.

The perception on the unsophisticated level is as indisputably objective as any perception had on any “scientific” level of discourse mediated by any instrumentation or procedure of any kind. No experience is any more privileged, true and free from error. Any later perceptions had on other levels that would seem to require that these primordial perceptions be considered illusory are invalidated ad limen.

*

As our example illustrates, our unmediated perceptions are verifiable with the consensus of multiple observers and indisputably true. A child can see that a caterpillar is alive, and, through a microscope, that an amoeba or a bacterium is alive. There is nothing privileged — any more objective — about the later perceptions of the isolated inert components of living organisms mediated by sophisticated instruments and expressed in numerical measurements.

In the case of LIFE at the macro level, the perception is not the result of an inference or mediated through other data. We know what LIFE is, directly because we ourselves are alive; we know it connaturally; we are in direct contact with our own conatus.

The only alternative would be to insist that everything significant to us and within our range of competence as a human being is illusion. Indeed, if “science” can convince us that our spontaneous perceptions about LIFE are completely unreliable, then perceptions had through the lens of a microscope are equally invalidated because it is the same human being with the same eyes in each case doing the looking.

To insist that somehow the later, reduced perception reflects the really valid version of reality would mean that LIFE must be secondary and therefore introduced or caused. That is absurd. The declaration that LIFE is not primordial but “secondary,” “emergent,” “derived” is an unproven presumption and I contend, prejudiced. Therefore the demand that somehow the “emergence” or the “derivation” of LIFE from non-life must be “explained,” is unwarranted. That the components of life can also be found in non-living forms, I contend, is really the secondary phenomenon that must be explained. We can see from matter’s role in living organisms that the potential for LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter, for living organisms are all and only matter, and apparently all matter, as far as we can tell, is capable of being alive.

I realize how revolutionary it is to speak in these terms. It has been the claim of the reductionists since time immemorial that LIFE must be the effect of some peculiar configuration of the inert particles of matter, or the integrity of the material universe is compromised. Any other stance, they say, implies that LIFE is a kind of second substance[18] or force other than matter that had to have been introduced into matter from outside matter, i.e., by something that was itself not matter. They reject dualism. I absolutely agree and applaud their efforts. But by their own premises they cannot escape from it. A spirit-matter dualism has been the unquestioned metaphysical assumption in the lands of the West since almost the beginning of the common era. We have since discovered that there is nothing other than matter. So such a spiritualist hypothesis is out of the question. Reductionists continue to defend themselves against an imagined rival dualism because if you start from the assumption of inertness, some form of dualism is the only explanation for LIFE: in the reductionist universe there must be something other than matter to account for LIFE. The assumption of the inertness of matter was set in stone with Descartes who was a convinced dualist, and perfectly content to let “spirit” explain the presence of LIFE. Indeed, it was the dualist conviction that all vitality including  conscious intelligence belonged exclusively to “spirit” that gave rise to the belief that matter was inert and passive. Without dualism reductionists have no explanation for LIFE hence the temptation to claim LIFE is a mechanical illusion, like motion pictures’ imitation of living reality.

*

This helps elucidate the devastating intellectual effect of Carroll’s and Hawking’s “model-depen­­­dent-realism” separating the disciplines into parallel tracks hermetically sealed from one another instead of being hierarchically unified and mutually inter-related. “Model-dependent-realism” allows the various sciences (and religion) to proceed with their traditional pursuits free of any interference from one another. But in the long-run it militates against the kind of conceptual integration that reflects the integrity of the real world. There is only one beautifully integrated world out there, and our minds are a part of it. There is no reason why our ideational constructs cannot reflect that integrity. Reductionism by insisting that the perception of LIFE is not valid, a priori, prevents any such unified understanding from occurring.

By invalidly assuming that matter is inert, reductionists are left without an explanation for LIFE. They have no choice but to insist without proof that what appears to be a property that goes beyond the known possibilities of inert matter in isolation, must actually be the effect of some inert mechanical cause that we have yet to discover, and that the living phenomena that result are inexplicably of an exponentially different level of reality from that cause. (… or, more logically, illusion.) Reductionists have no valid right to deny to the components of living organisms the very property of LIFE that they actually experience in them as composites. They insist on reducing the living material organisms whose components are all directly experienced as alive, to the components as they could be found outside of living organisms … an experience that in fact they are not having … and then, based on that fantasy, make predictions about mechanistic causation that in fact have never materialized: they still can’t explain in reductionist terms how LIFE is “caused.”

It’s all a work of the imagination. By refusing to accept the living potential inherent in matter — an empirical datum of unimpeachable validity — they are suppressing their and everyone’s first, primordial and immediate experience of LIFE as all and only matter, and therefore that LIFE is incontrovertibly a property of matter needing not a cause but a simple activation for it to emerge and be made manifest.

LIFE is not alone with this characterization. Electromagnetism, for example, is another property of all matter; but a particular material’s electromagnetic potential is not apparent until something becomes present in the immediate environment that activates that potential and puts it on display. A simple copper wire, for example, appears utterly inert. It shows no electromagnetic characteristics until magnetic lines of force in motion cross the wire. When that happens, an electric current is induced in the wire and travels in a direction and with a power determined by the strength of the magnet, the speed and direction of the moving force-lines.

That the appearance of LIFE in a perceptible form may depend upon a particular configuration of matter’s elements for its activation, is not the same as saying that LIFE was caused or created by that configuration. LIFE is a property not an effect of matter. We experience LIFE long before we are tempted to think of matter as inert and lifeless, and the LIFE we experience are all living material organisms. There is no experience of life that is had outside of material organisms. There is no “immaterial” life that we ever experience anywhere or at any time. We can experience matter that does not appear alive, but we cannot experience life that is not matter.

*

I contend that LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter, every bit as much as mass, electromagnetism, chemical valence or ordinary matter’s four spacetime dimensions. It is this intrinsic potential for vitality that demands entrance into the explanation of everything made of matter, guiding the discourse of the other disciplines that encounter matter in its purely physical and chemical, as well as its living, sentient, conscious and social forms. From this inverse point of view it is clear that the mystery is not how a dead earth can be teeming with life of all kinds, but how the living components of living organisms can also be found in an inert, non-living form. How did this come to be?

In some cases the inert form is clearly secondary — a by-product of living activity. Atmospheric oxygen is a good example. The transformation that occurs in photosynthesis wherein plants utilize carbon dioxide and sunlight to generate living energy, also produces oxygen as exhaust. Oxygen is a gas that is necessary for the combustion of nutrients in the cells of other living organisms. It is believed that the early earth had too little oxygen to support animal life. Virtually all the oxygen, therefore, that now makes up more than 20% of our atmosphere, on which all animal life including ourselves depends, was the result of the respiration of photosynthetic cyanobacteria (primitive sea-dwelling microbes) converting sunlight and CO2 into oxygen over hundreds of millions of years. In this case a major inert and necessary component of the cellular life of animals and insects is a derivative of living organisms.

Another example is limestone, a type of rock that supplies soils with needed calcium, a base that offsets toxic levels of growth-inhibiting acidity. Most limestone is composed of skeletal remains of marine organisms such as coral, forams and molluscs which had converted otherwise inaccessible calcium from ocean water into their own bodies making it accessible to us. These organisms have made a significant contribution to the geology of the earth, again, over billions of years. About 10% of the sedimentary rocks of the planet are limestone. It is an inert product of living activity that is in turn essential to the nutritional needs of other forms of life. Much of the calcium available to us as limestone is itself a derivative of LIFE.

The LIFE that appears to emerge, is actually inherent in matter and made manifest under conditions that we have not been able to reproduce. There is nothing that requires that LIFE be imagined as coming from outside matter, caused, created, produced and introduced by agents that are themselves outside matter. There is nothing outside matter. Matter is alive and passes life on without assistance from any outside source; whatever causes things to live resides inside matter.

 *

Living energy is fundamentally appetitive; it is focused on the desire to stay alive. Reductionist attempts to explain evolution as the purely fortuitous survival of genetic modifications that occurred through random mutation have failed to fully explain adaptation that is more rapid and more specific than the statistical probabilities anticipate.[19] Darwin stated that evolution’s tendency to fill out with new species all the various environmental niches that are available to it would be inexplicable if evolution did not have “profitable variations” to select from. Random mutations require a time factor that is too deep to produce “profitable variations” that respond to a rapidly changing environment.[20] McFadden observes:

Adaptive mutations occur more frequently when beneficial to the cell, in direct contradiction of the standard [reductionist] neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, which states that mutations always occur randomly with respect to the direction of evolutionary change. John Cairns’ initial experiments incubated E. coli cells unable to grow on lactose, on media containing lactose, and on parallel media without lactose. If, following standard neoDarwinian evolutionary theory, mutations always occur randomly in relation to the direction of evolutionary change, then the same mutation rate would be expected in both sets of cells. However, Cairns discovered that, after prolonged starvation, mutations that allowed the E. coli to utilize lactose increased in frequency. It appeared that the presence of lactose specifically enhanced mutations that allowed the cells to eat the lactose. The E. coli cell appeared to be able to direct its own mutations.[21]

This recent work by McFadden has suggested quantum mechanisms that could permit genetic drift in the direction indicated by the environment.

Other scientists are attempting to find genetic mechanisms at the macro level that explain this “adaptability.” They also acknowledge the limitations of the neo-Darwinian theory of random mutations:

One problem with Darwin’s theory is that, while species do evolve more adaptive traits (called phenotypes by biologists), the rate of random DNA sequence mutation turns out to be too slow to explain many of the changes observed. Scientists, well-aware of the issue, have proposed a variety of genetic mechanisms to compensate: genetic drift, in which small groups of individuals undergo dramatic genetic change; or epistasis, in which one set of genes suppress another, to name just two.

Yet even with such mechanisms in play, genetic mutation rates for complex organisms such as humans are dramatically lower than the frequency of change for a host of traits, from adjustments in metabolism to resistance to disease. The rapid emergence of trait variety is difficult to explain just through classic genetics and neo-Darwinian theory.[22]

In either case, it means that scientists are bearing down on explanations that suggest that somehow, utilizing purely material means, the organism at the genetic level is capable of “reading” (learning from) its environment and “desiring” to change itself accordingly. Evolution would then prove itself to be an active — living — instead of a purely passive — inert — process. While this does not represent the bulk of mainline thinking by scientists of biological evolution it is another significant stake in the heart of reductionism.

Those words, “learning” and “desiring,” are meant to be metaphoric placeholders for an energy, an inclination, a gradient, a disequilibrium between organism and environment creating a tension that is reflected in the genome of the organism — a disequilibrium which science has yet to identify and to which we have yet to assign an appropriate term. Nevertheless, even without a proper label this recent work indicates that material mechanisms must exist that can serve as the instrument for a primitive inclination that approximates “desire.” So while such a mechanism does not suggest the presence of an “immaterial” soul much less intelligence, it must also be said that it certainly does not support the purely mechanistic reductionist thesis that matter is utterly indifferent to its own existence, as it would if it were inert, and that survival is itself a matter of chance. It shows that there is even at the level of the genome a proactive bias toward continuity of identity (implying a self-awareness of some kind), and a corresponding material basis that enables it. Matter is a living existential dynamism that “wants” to continue to be-here, and the “wanting” is as material as any other property.

This “wanting” is universal. The fundamental indicator that some mass of matter is alive is that it wants to stay alive. The instinct for self-preservation is one of the unmistakable signs of life and it is perceptibly homogeneous across earth’s entire biota. Called “conatus” in the West since ancient times and most recently by Baruch Spinoza as integral to his system, the instinct is the same wherever it is found from protozoa to the most highly complex mammals. It displays itself always as (1) a flight from predators and other dangers, (2) an aggressive search and seizing of nutrients and (3) a compulsive need to reproduce. Staying alive is surviving. The conatus is an energy, a tension, whose point of equilibrium — secure existence — is by the very nature of things unachievable because matter is entropic.

It is the awareness of this internal contradiction that is the source of the unique pathos of human life.

 3

Entropy’s empirical effect at the macro-level of human life is death. With death we enter the realm of the seriously poetic that I feel Carroll’s naturalism fails to deliver. His upbeat statements about a life that ends at death sound superficial. His allusion to his own happy marriage and a successful, well remunerated career of a man still young, strong and healthy, suggests that we are being counselled by someone personally unacquainted with tragedy or serious loss of the kind that has been known to cripple the human will to live.

The ultimate challenge in life, in my opinion, is the human condition itself, defined as it is by death or its equivalents, the result of an intrinsically entropic material energy. We may call it the “human problem” because it has such a paralyzing effect on our species. But it is certainly not limited to humankind. It affects all of life. But our nearest cousins, sentient animals, seem not to be aware of death because they are limited in their ability to anticipate the future; their conatus dominates their psychic states freeing them from the sense of impending doom that affects human beings. Regardless, everything alive dies reluctantly and struggles with all its strength to defend its life and that of its offspring. Those who have heard the desperate wailing of a cow that has been separated from her calf will never again make the mistake of thinking that animals do not suffer loss.

*

We know now that matter is not a “thing,” it is energy. Energy is not a fixed and stable quantum. “Energy” is another word for dis­equi­li­brium. Energy refers to a state of tension that results from things not being where they “want” to be … and which are therefore driven … pulled, drawn, impelled … to traverse the distance that separates them from the place where they belong. It is the manifestation of an “unnatural” instability under pressure to do whatever it takes to rectify imbalance and achieve stasis. The resulting potential-for-movement is the energy LIFE uses for its purposes.

All energy sources are examples of the same fundamental insta­bility. A gently meandering river becomes a violent torrent when a precipitous drop over a cliff creates a huge disequilibrium in the water’s mass and hurls it through the air at speeds exponentially accelerated by gravity. The energy in a waterfall is the force gen­era­ted in the water in the effort to restore gravitational equili­brium. When that force is exploited to accomplish work, as with a water wheel, it is called power.

In the case of batteries, electrons are forcibly stripped from the atoms of a particular substance, like lead, and forcibly intro­duced and held “unnaturally” by another, like sulphuric acid. These are called lead-acid batteries. The artifi­cially displaced electrons are under tremendous pressure to return to the atoms from which they were taken — atoms whose protons are bereft and “hungry” for their electrons. When a pathway — a circuit — is created allow­ing those electrons to return and restore the equilibrium that was lost in the transfer, their compulsive motion in traveling “back home” can be exploi­ted to do work, much as falling water can be used to drive ma­chin­ery. Other types of batteries do the same thing using other substances, like nickel-cadmium. This is how we harness power: we interrupt and appro­priate for ourselves matter’s attempt to restore equilibrium and stasis.

*

The very nature of energy is disequilibrium; it is not a thing but a “need” to restore stability. It only lasts as long as the need lasts; once balance is achieved, the energy disappears. The dissipation of energy in the effort to restore equilibrium is called entropy. The very nature, therefore, of material energy is entropic. It tends to seek equilibrium, to dissipate itself and disappear. This even happens to the more funda­mental particles which are composites of even smaller energy packets. Protons, for example, are com­posed of quarks held together by gluons, the “strong force.” But even that force is not eternal and someday the quarks will return whence they came, the proton will succumb to entro­py; it will dis­inte­grate and its energy disappear. The entropic dissipation of energy affects all matter in our universe. Therefore the eventual disintegration of everything made of matter appears to be an inevitable feature of life on earth, and probably everywhere in our material universe.

LIFE, on the other hand, is anti-entropic; it exploits entropic disequili­bria: energies that result from displacements and driven to seek equilibrium. LIFE appropriates the force of entropy and diverts it to its own ends. The living energy available to an organism during life is the expropriated tension-toward-equilibrium (= dissipation and death) of its gathered components.

We, living matter, call the disappearance of energy, death. A bio­logical organism dies when the components at various levels of composition, macro and micro — bio-chemical, molecular and atomic — which had been gathered out of various locations, assembled and held to­gether “unnaturally” (thus creating a massive multi-level disequilibrium) under the forcible drive and direction of DNA to form a living individual, can no longer hold toge­ther and they return to their former states. The “particles” remain, their individual ener­gies now determined by their own entropy. No­thing ever disap­pears except the energy gradients involved.

It is precisely its “being-to­ward-death” that provides the organism the energy — the ability to do work — like a battery whose artificially skewed electron-to-proton ratio creates voltage. The irresis­tible “gravitational pull” — like water falling on a paddled wheel — to restore equilibrium is the energy utilized by LIFE, and which we exploit for our identities and our en­deavors, just as we exploit the flow of electrons to start our cars and power our cell phones. So the very LIFE we cherish so much is really the appropriation of our components’ “desire” to aban­don their unnatural conjunction as us and return to their former state … i.e., to die. The conversion to entropy is the energy source tapped by LIFE.

If somehow you were able to do away with “death,” therefore, you would also have eliminated the very wellspring of living motion: entropy. Death in a universe of matter, I submit, is intrin­sic to LIFE. This is an insuperable contradiction for human beings and constitutes what we call “the human condition.”

*

One of living matter’s more creative achievements was to use reproduc­tion to bypass the natural entropy of all living matter. The dying organism reproduces itself and its progeny receives a full quota of energy at zero entropy. But there was a twist. We have to remind ourselves that at the dawn of life, simple cell division, mitosis — endlessly cloning the same individual — was superseded by meiosis, the counter-intuitive innovation of coupling two distinct individual org­an­isms producing a third indepen­dent of each, also known as sexual reproduction.

Sexual reproduction was invented by eukaryote single-celled animals 1.2 billion years ago and it allowed for the creation of genetically superior cells with a far greater range of capability. The achievement was exponential, for it not only accomplished its principal goal, the transcendence of death, but it also created species — communities of individuals based on biological relationships which carried LIFE into the future in place of the individuals who died. We are the beneficiaries of those seminal discoveries; they determined the basic structure of the bodies and behavior of everything that came afterward. It hap­pened before the Cambrian explosion, and those advances made possible the emergence of all complex multi-celled organisms in existence today, including us. The genetic sex-based relationships that are so fundamental to our personal identi­ties and social lives originated in that epic achievement made by a single celled organism so tiny that it cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Sexual reproduction outflanks death but it does not overcome it. This was the “immortality” devised by matter’s living energy, and it was obtained at the cost of the individual organism which dies. LIFE transcended death by appropriating it. Individual organismic death was integrated into matter’s energy transcending itself and evolving. Nature’s concern, apparently, has never been the eternal life of the individual, it is something else … .

*

Scientists argue about the mechanisms involved here, but the details are ultimately irrelevant to the individual human being who is faced with an inescapable contradiction intrinsic to the human organism itself: there is a conatus — an irrepressible desire for endless LIFE — emanating from the very same matter that is entropically programmed to dissipate and die. Death’s sting is felt even more intensely because the relationships that make life meaningful — built on LIFE’s reproductive strategy — are terminated for the individuals at death. A death that may be acceptable to those inured to their own physical pain becomes intolerable when it means the permanent loss of irreplaceable loved ones: partners, spouses, siblings, parents, children, kindred, friends. The sense of isolation and abandonment that accompanies loss of such devastating proportions can be immobilizing. There is no solution to this problem. It will not go away and it is not only confined to the old and deteriorating. It pervades all of life and is dismissed only at the price of a shallow immaturity or a selfish and cowardly refusal of intimacy and commitment.

In human terms, we are inconsolably addicted to LIFE in human community. Saying the same thing in abstract philosophical terms: we are only satisfied by communitarian existence, which in a material universe means being-here together. In the “philosophy” that Carroll agrees must guide the relationship among the intellectual disciplines, existence must be the controlling concept, because in all biological LIFE existence is the driving force.

Our individual relationship to LIFE is not limited to intellectual analysis. We are not only computers. We are sensitive human beings driven by the conatus whose loving embrace of what we are produces a pathos we all share. This pathos is at the root of all our poetry. We take our relationships seriously, and the fact that entropic life means that struggle as we will, each and every loved one we have will be lost to us either by their death or ours, spits in the face of the efforts we make to bind ourselves to one another with hoops of steel. If you are readily reconciled to this situation, it is my personal opinion that there is something lacking in you. “Cast a cold eye on life on death, horseman, pass by …” If you think the poet meant that that was the way he wanted to live, think again. I hear Yeats saying something else: this is what we are reduced to — the only alternative left to us — under the broken regime of entropic matter. It’s a seething anger that echoes Dylan Thomas’ “rage against the dying of the light.” This is the problem that Carroll does not address: the human condition. Death is not just a neutral biological event for us, it is a disaster of catastro­phic proportions because of the internal contradiction in matter’s energy. Matter is simultaneously conatus and entropy — LIFE and death. And for someone who claims to offer a picture so “big” that it will explain the “Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself” such an omission reveals a lack of depth that can only be described as pathetic.

*

Death or its equivalents is the purview of religion. All religions are focused on taking away the sting of death. Some, like the Western religions of the “book,” evolved a belief that “life will be changed, not taken away” and the human person will live on in another world of “spirit” where all relationships will continue forever. Others, like Buddhists, avoid any talk of an afterlife and suggest rather that the problem resides with the unrealistic expectations that result from placing too much credence in the promptings of the conatus. The quest for permanent existence, they say, is a self-imposed false hope that aggravates suffering. Buddhism is entirely compatible with the conclusions of the reductionists’ worldview, and Carroll’s inexplicable silence regarding Buddhism’s capacity to accompany science and address the internal contradiction at the heart of matter, in my opinion, displays his lack of any real interest in the “poetic” side of the issue. His interest in religion seems confined to insisting that in any form it is incompatible with science.

Existential suffering is a real phenomenon for human beings. And if you are going to insist that “religion” is incompatible with science, then it seems to me that, at a minimum, you have to show that you understand what religion does, and attempt to provide some alternative way of confronting (not just dismissing) existential suffering — i.e., the human condition. Being human is as real a manifestation of matter’s energy as any atomic, chemical or biological phenomenon. What is the “meaning” of lives and loves that disappear? Carroll’s promise is empty for he offers no meaning. There is no “poetry” in Carroll’s “poetic naturalism.” He has not convinced me that he has yet to feel the full brunt of what it means to be living matter in this material universe.

4

Religion in the West, admittedly, has become a problem for modern man. It is so dominated by a false literalist narrative inherited from antiquity that it explains if not excuses Carroll’s antipathy. Carroll is right. Religion’s antiquated narrative is incompatible with science. If that was his concern, he should be reassured that there are many “religionists” who have gone beyond the West’s antiquated narrative. We acknow­ledge science’s authority in matters of cosmological importance and we are com­mit­ted to developing a new narrative that is compatible with science. Out of commitment to the poetic side of his “poetic naturalism” Carroll might consider joining us in our efforts.

Granted that traditional religion is obsolete, we also recognize that religion has helped people cope with decline and death. Whatever other shortcomings Religion may have, it has provided “meaning” in the form of explanation and poetry. Carroll recognizes we have a right to both. But he will not entertain the possibility that religion, purged of its defects, might be the poetry his explanations are lacking.

Western Religion’s traditional “solution” of the human problem was not factual. The narrative that there is another world of “spirits” from which we came and to which our disembodied “souls” will return after death is pure fiction. I agree. There is no other world. There are no bodiless souls; our personalities, which are the neural reflections of the coherence and temporal identity of our material organisms, disappear when our bodies disintegrate.

We are entropic beings. We participate fully in the limitations endemic to LIFE in this exclusively material universe. The “poetic” dimension should acknowledge and addres­s the apparent contradiction between a material energy that is instinctively programmed to live forever (and spontaneously cultivates relationships in view of that expectation) and is simultaneously destined to succumb to an organismic entropy that terminates all the relationships created during the lifespan of the organism. I may not care if I live or die, but I am not resigned to the loss of the people I love.

How does religion address this? How does it both acknowledge and confront the inherent contradiction in the human condition?

The first step is to distinguish religion’s intent from the traditional means chosen to achieve it. The means chosen, the narratives all preceded the era of modern science and therefore were inevitably imaginative in character. So, Yes! The religious narrative must be adjusted to accommodate the new knowledge. This adjustment is not complicated: pre-scientific “facts” — creation accounts, miracles — are taken as mythic, i.e., metaphorical not literal. But myth is not only a fictional story. The traditional myth also embodies the religious intent of the narrative; and the religious intent, may remain true even after the discreditation of the literal story.

Let’s make this concrete: The biblical book of Genesis contains the Judaic myth of creation. Until the modern era people believed that this was a literal account. We now know, however, that the earth and life on it was not the intentional, purposeful work of an omnipotent humanoid Craftsman; it was the self-elaboration of matter occurring over fourteen billion years. The ancient authors were probably well aware that they were making up a story. But it was a story that made sense according to their lights and it projected their religious intent: Creation implied “Will.” Humankind and the world in which it found itself was the product of intention, choice, love.

*

The intent of the biblical authors was to ground religion in relationship. Effectively what that means is that the quest for secure existence, which is the objective of the conatus, finds its ultimate answer in the benevolence of the source of existence. Were they right? Obviously they were wrong about the cosmological facts; but were they also wrong about the intent: the claim that Creation was a product of “Will,” a project of love, and that just being alive meant you were already in a reciprocal relationship with your existential source? Does the familiar, the relational, the human, the interpersonal, truly characterize existence, or is “being human” with its focus on relationship an anomaly, a freak of nature, an idiosyncrasy that needs to be sheltered under blankets of denial from a harsh mechanical universe that has no idea what we are talking about?

Consider: from our analysis in section 2 of this essay, we know that matter is alive and appetitive. Unless you are prepared to insist that something entirely new … something entirely other than the matter present, entered the scene and ruptured the linear continuity of what had been steadily evolving since the initial expansion, the appearance of LIFE has to be understood as the emergence of what was there all along, a step in a process that was already underway. There is enough evidence to make it reasonable if not compelling that the fundamental indicator of life — the instinct for self-preservation — had been operative analogously at all phases of matter’s appearance, even at the sub-atomic, atomic and molecular levels. Conatus is the desire to live, to survive. No matter how primitive the level in which it is found, LIFE is the desire to continue living, being-here: LIFE is intrinsically, inherently, “Will” in the sense that Arthur Schopenhauer used the word:

For Schopenhauer, this is not the principle of self-consciousness and rationally-infused will, but is rather what he simply calls “Will” — a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything. Schopenhauer’s originality does not reside in his characterization of the world as Will, or as act — for we encounter this position in Fichte’s philosophy — but in the conception of Will as being devoid of rationality or intellect.[23]

As living forms evolved, the way they manifested their conatus evolved along with them. Primitive cellular behavior developed new strategies of survival that included multicellularity with its necessary internal lockstep collaboration among individual cells along with an external communitarianism connecting members of the same species to one another for securing food, defending against predators and having partners for reproduction. Eventually consciousness evolved into intelligence and “Will” came to include purpose and intentionality as we humans understand and use the word. None of these later developments, however, represented an interruption in the simple, fundamental thrust of the conatus, established at the first moments of matter’s existence: the will to be-here.

Religion projects that relationship is the foundational underpinning of all reality. Before the scientific era, that assumption was extrapolated from humankind’s experience of its own relationality and creativity, and it was expressed by imagining a “humanoid” deity who chose to create the world as his artisanal product the way a human Craftsman would — intentionally.

Later, in Greek hands, Jewish belief in a humanoid “God” became part of a wider assumption that something other than matter existed in the universe. Platonic Greeks posited an invisible substance called “spirit” that was alive, intelligent and could never die. The theory was called “dualism” because it imagined that there were two completely distinct and opposed substances in the world: matter and spirit. It had been falsely assumed that we humans were “spirit” and belonged to another world, a world of spirits, and that we were pathetically alone with our rational intelligence in this world made of matter. But we now know that there is no such “thing” as spirit, there is no “other” world and “consciousness” exists in a continuum across all the levels of existence.

When, under the impetus of reductionist science, “spirit” disappeared as the source of LIFE, “God,” who was assumed to be spirit, disappeared with it. Matter, without spirit, was orphaned in the reductionist universe and was assumed to be inert, passive, mechanical and utterly devoid of life. It meant that relationship lost its rationale. Religion, without a philosophical foundation in “spirit,” could not conjure a cosmic “relationship” out of nothing. Matter was considered inert and lefeless, and what we called LIFE was considered illusion.

But I have a different view. LIFE is not illusion because our perception of LIFE is beyond the possibility of error. We know LIFE when we see it because we ourselves are alive. Yes, we are matter, and only matter, the material offspring of this material universe; but rather than eliminating, I maintain that being matter validates our spontaneous option for relationship because “Will” is not grounded in rational “spirit” — it is grounded in living matter.

*

LIFE on earth displays a remarkable homogeneity. I see in protozoa and other primitive forms the very same instincts that drive my own conatus. The LIFE we share is similar in all of us and suggests not only the same origination but an ongoing activation of the same energy.

The active commonality immediately evokes a single source and matrix without specifying what that source is or how the participation occurs. The only LIFE that exists has been passed on. LIFE, it seems, can only arise from LIFE. Just by recognizing that there is a LIFE-source whose essential appetitive energy all living things autonomously and simultaneously activate as our respective conatus, is sufficient to ground what I mean by religion. We are one thing by reason of LIFE.

Religion comprises the symbolic structures that serve as vehicle for the human relationship to all the participants in this family, including its unknown existential source and matrix. I contend that it is absolutely appropriate to relate to LIFE; LIFE, after all, is responsible for what we are … and that we are-here … even though in its manifestations it is not exclusively human, and in fact cannot be said to reside any­where but in the places where it is observed functioning, i.e., in all things made of matter including us. We know LIFE when we see it. It is, as far as we can tell, exactly as universally immanent as it appears. It can legitimately be characterized as: an aggregative and integrative tendency in unconnected atoms and molecules, a vegetative force of growth by nourishment in plants, a sentient and mobile dynamism in animals, and a conscious intelligent communitarian drive in human beings. It is also, as we saw in section 2, hierarchically ordered: each level of emergence incorporates and builds out from the level(s) that went before. No one way of being alive can be said to take priority over others, so none can be said to be secondary, caused, or the result of delusion.

LIFE is also, indisputably, as a posteriori as it appears. In other words, while LIFE as a dormant potential naturally preceded its perceptible emergence in living things, its actual activation was the work of the existing agent or agents — those particular cells — that first became aware of that potential and appropriated for themselves their power to live, i.e., to “will” to be-here. For it seems indisputable that at the moment that LIFE emerged some proto-cell or complex molecule had to morph into a self-embracing organism capable of self-directed behavior focused on self-susten­ance, self-preservation and self-transcending reproduction.

Before we go any further I would like to clarify what exactly our conclusions are saying, and what they are not.

  • This is absolutely not an attempt to prove the existence of the traditional imaginary “God” of supernatural theism. That “God” was an individual transcendent humanoid entity who created the universe and intervenes in it at will to change the course of cosmic and human history. He was believed to communicate with humankind through “revelation” and interpersonal contact. There is no such “God” and this study is not an attempt to conjure him into existence, much less to validate the assertions made by those who claim to be the privileged recipient of his revelations and the executor of his will.
  • We are simply trying to describe LIFE across the entire spectrum of living things by identifying its fundamental characteristics, and we have determined that they are a self-embrace manifested in the conatus — the desire to live — the “Will” to be-here which transcends death through reproduction and lives on in progeny. “Will” characterizes LIFE proportionately at all levels of its manifestations.
  • The conatus is recognizable as an appetite for existential continuation which approximates to desire and will; it is a primary sign of LIFE. The organism knows itself to be a “self.” The conatus is an intentionality bound to conscious identity whereby the living entity in question displays a self-interest in its own existential continuity through self-sustenance, self-defense and reproduction. It is a self-embrace.
  • Using abductive reasoning[24] the clear and undeniable presence of the conatus at all levels and all phases of living complexity evokes the concept of a common source and universal presence with an inferential certitude.24 I make no claim, however, that the word “source” gives us any information beyond the bare abstract notion itself. The best explanation for the universal activation of the homogeneous conatus across earth’s entire biota, and plausibly in all of matter, is a common source and continuous matrix.
  • LIFE is matrix. There is no evidence that the alleged “source” of LIFE is a separate independent organism or entity with a unique or singular identity of its own, much less that it is rational and purposeful. There is nothing to suggest that LIFE is not identical with, or at least indistinguishable from, the living organisms where it is currently being actuated exactly as we observe it. The only information about LIFE that we have is what we see it doing and where we see it functioning: it is an appetite that resides with equal intensity and equal autonomy in all living material organisms proportionate to the level of complexity of their organisms and their interaction with the world around them.

I hope these clarifications are enough to establish the bare simplicity of what I consider a compelling conclusion: that the LIFE we perceive in ourselves and in all living things includes the notion of existential will or intent allowing for relationship among all living things including LIFE’s unknown source. The desire for the existential continuity (survival) of self through progeny is an intrinsic and universal property of LIFE whereby it reaches out to living things beyond itself, making LIFE at all levels and between levels intrinsically relational.

The implications of these conclusions for the human being are profound, for it means that our natural inclination toward relationship as our primary valence with the world around us finds itself validated in a cosmic milieu and an endless future trajectory, for we are nothing but living matter and we shall always be. LIFE and its reproductive (genetic) relationships absolutely defines what we are because it characterizes everything that has emerged and evolved from the material energy that is this earth. I contend it is appropriate to pursue a grateful engaged relationship to this LIFE in which we “live and move and have our being” because we are genetically related to it biologically and intentionally. For, while there is no indication that LIFE is an individual entity capable of humanoid interpersonal reciprocation, our instinct to be grateful is not unreasonable because of the clear indications of intentionality — “Will” — in matter’s living energy wherever it is found, and retrospectively in its source. The notion of an endless existential continuity that intentionally embraces all future progeny is intrinsic to LIFE. As the offspring and actuators of that “Will,” we exist enveloped in its pro-creative embrace. We are a chosen thing. We are part of a project of love and our very organisms are programmed to further that enterprise.

5

Relationship to the living source of LIFE and existence is what I mean by religion and I claim that austere as they are, the conclusions of this essay can provide a foundation for a religious view that is compatible with science and with the pyscho-social needs of the human individual. Furthermore, these conclusions can be reconciled with the basic teachings of all of our traditional religions — especially their mystical side — once they have been purged of literalist scientific pretensions and claims for direct revelation from “God.” In other words I believe the conclusions of this analysis can serve as a universal philosophical ground, providing a solid basis for a unified understanding of the universe that reductionists like Carroll have discarded as an unnecessary addition to the physical sciences.

The religious ground envisioned by this approach differs from the traditional religions of the West which were all founded on the belief in the existence of an individual humanoid transcendent “God”-entity. While they all include a “minority report” that envisions an immanent “God,” the dominant belief system, called “theism,” imagines “God” as a human being, much smarter and more powerful than we are, who stands over against the rest of creation as an individual “person,” immortal, all-powerful, and not constrained by the limitations of time and space. “He” is like a male head of household who wants a specifically ordered behavior from humankind encoded in rules that must be obeyed. This “spirit”-God will reward or punish each individual human being after death in the spirit world where he is thought to reside and where the human being will spend eternity.

In sharp contrast, the real LIFE in which we are immersed in this material universe — the only world there is — is not an individual entity. LIFE exists everywhere as a pervasive force that is fully operative simultaneously in all things, immanent in and indistinguishable from their own respective existential realities and proportionately activated according to the level of material complexity achieved by evolution. It appears to be an emanation of the energy of material existence itself because its primary manifestation, the conatus, is exclusively focused on physical survival. As such it is responsible for the continued evolution of material forms which appear always to move anti-entropically in the direction of greater aggregation of parts and integration of complexity conditioned on the ability to exist (survive) in this material universe.

LIFE is completely immanent in the material universe; it is not distinct from the things that are alive. It is only a posteriori, in evolution, that LIFE displays its peculiar transcendence: each and every achievement of evolution has been transcended — over and over again — always plundering the entropy against which it pushes in the direction of greater depth and intensity of existential participation. Evolution has populated at least one planet with an astonishing array of living organisms of every kind imaginable and every degree of complexity filling every environmental niche where survival is possible, all made exclusively of the same material substrate, elaborated from primitive one-proton hydrogen atoms that constitute the gas clouds, stars, galaxies, black holes and other massive structures of the cosmos. The astonishing, exclusively upward anti-entropic display of ever more complex and intensely interior organisms occurring over so many billions of years and achieving such stunning results suggests that LIFE will always continue to reach out toward ever more comprehensive control of existence, horizontally establishing an ever wider beachhead of survival and vertically toward a more intense penetration into the interiority of material existence, the entropic source of its energies.

Reductionists maintain that it is a fallacy to claim that there is an “upward” trend in evolution because they say evolution is not an “active” phenomenon — a response to learning from the environment — but rather a “passive” result emerging from random mutations that do not respond to environmental pressure. I have argued with them on that score in section 2, citing work by biologists who say genetic adaptation actually occurs at rates that are far too high for the classic theory based on random mutation to hold. According to these scientists it appears that some learning from the environment must somehow be penetrating genomic insularity and creating genetic changes that are not random.

From the long-range perspective of cosmic history, however, the undeniable fact of the general correlation of evolutionary complexity with time, i.e., that increasingly complex and conscious organisms have emerged in the same direction as the flow of time, is presumptive evidence of adaptational causality. The massive accumulation of an infinity of phenotypes all growing in complexity and consciousness as a function of time (i.e., evolution never regresses despite potential survival advantage), suggests a pro-active adaptability not explained by random mutations: evolution goes exactly as far as the currently achieved organic complexity and the environmental context will allow. It minimally suggests an internally directed intentionality analogous to a non-rational “Will.” It is the task of scientists to identify the mechanisms that may be involved in this, but even without that help, philosophers still have to acknowledge the facts. Matter is alive and has elaborated this spectacular world.

*

We ourselves, living material organisms of the human species, are direct inheritors and full participants in this cosmic drama. We are all and only living matter, made of the same quarks and gluons, muons and neutrinos held together by the strong force that constitute everything else in the universe … a universe so unimaginably vast and full of matter’s living energy that it jams our mental circuits. With our mysterious and marvelous intelligence we are the most penetrating and relational of the living organisms that our material universe has evolved to date. Our interiority gives us a privileged window on the dynamism of LIFE itself for we ourselves are not only fully alive, but we can see, feel, taste, hear LIFE directly in itself because we activate it autonomously, as our very own identity, each of us, at every moment of our lives. We not only have LIFE, we are LIFE, and we understand it connaturally, intimately, as the inheritors of its powers and the victims of its passion. We feel in the marrow of our bones the emptiness — the insatiable thirst for LIFE and existence that embodies our longing — a thirst in which we live and move and have our being. We own LIFE as ours. But LIFE is not some “thing”; it is a hunger and desire for more LIFE as if we did not have it at all. We are LIFE’s “Will-to-be-here” willing ourselves to be-here … feeling the creative power of our emptiness, nailed always to the cross of our entropic wellspring: living matter.

Religion is our collective human attempt to relate to LIFE, which means to relate to what we are and simultaneously yearn for. The conatus/entropy incongruity is the heart of the human condition. The treasure we carry in vessels of clay is ourselves willing ourselves to be-here even as we drift toward an inevitable death. Religion as relationship to the LIFE-force itself involves embracing ourselves in a most profound way — a way that includes the mortality of all living things because the LIFE we share is the same. We ourselves are the doorway to our encounter with LIFE. How do we do that? Who will guide us? For millennia we tried to relate to a “God” that at death pulled us aside one by one for judgment and punishment. Now, who will teach us how to rest in a colossal living embrace that makes us family with every other yearning thing in the universe? Instead of being held up for ridicule as guilty individuals we have been “willed” into existence as a cherished part of a cosmic totality. Our culture has not prepared us for this.

Religion is a natural, spontaneous reaction of humankind born of the irrepressible conatus along with the sense of the sacred and the awareness of the contradiction of death that it immediately engenders. The conatus and its sense of the sacred originate in matter’s living energy and are a foundational instinct, unmediated and underived, that can be ignored but not suppressed. They appear on the planet with the emergence of humanity itself. Because of the primordial nature of this instinct it took concrete social form — religion — from the earliest moment and has evolved through the millennia molting its outward practices in tandem with the historical context, but always driven by a spontaneous and insuppressible urge. The conatus is sufficient and necessary to explain it. The religious instinct in and of itself does not imply the personal theist “God” of the West; and indeed not only in the east but peppered across the globe, the instinct has resulted in all kinds of religious structures with “gods” that were often indistinguishable from the powers of nature represented by animals or geologic and cosmic forces personified. They are metaphors that all point toward material LIFE as it really exists; even Christianity’s emphasis on the cross points to the central contradiction: a conatus feeding on the energy of an entropic matter — LIFE springing from death.

*

How do we relate to this discovery? I turn for guidance to the great mystics — the people throughout the world who have sought personal contact with religion’s Source. Even though they come from traditions with vastly different images of the LIFE-source, the mystics concur to a remarkable degree on what relationship to it looks like. Their descriptions, born of their personal experience, confirm for me that the relationship to “God” or Brahman or Tao of which they spoke in their time and within their cultural context conformed to what one would expect if the literal object of their gratitude and love were matter’s living energy as I am proposing, rather than an individual spirit/person entity or other transcendent “divine” presence.

For consider:

  1. The mystics all agree that that encounter with [LIFE][25] is indistinguishable from an encounter with oneself. [LIFE] and the living human organism are one and the same thing. Hence, the most intimate, accurate and authentic perception of [LIFE] is had in the embrace of oneself.
  2. For mystics who believe in life in another world, that life is conceived as being fully present here in this life to such a degree that the future aspirations become a subset, and virtusally superfluous: a symbol of the possession of [LIFE] here and now.
  3. Mystics share a universal conviction that [LIFE] is not a separate entity/person but an energy resident in all living things that has no will of its own aside from the endless will to live and to live endlessly in the living individual organisms. [LIFE] and the totality it enlivens are one and the same thing even as each individual living organism activates LIFE as its own and autonomously, and the LIFE force goes on to transcend current forms and evolve ever new ones.
  4. The mystics all say that the core of relationship to [LIFE] is detachment from an ersatz “self” created by a false importance assigned to the individual conatus mistakenly thought to be independent, permanent and self-subsistent. They encourage, instead, the identification with a universal “Self” — a totality that includes not only all living things, but also everything that exists. It is the totality to which the “self” belongs and to which its conatus should be subordinated through a program of training in detachment.
  5. They concur that while rational behavior is essential to being human, it does not provide the permanence that the conatus seeks. Paradoxically, moral achievement, like other forms of individual success, insofar as they are pursued for self-enhancement, are to be the object of detachment — a letting-go that allows the LIFE of the totality to assume the control of the human individual and direct behavior.
  6. They all counsel a relationship to [LIFE] that does not presume interpersonal humanoid reciprocity. They are acutely aware of the fact that [LIFE] is not an individual entity, like a human person. [LIFE] is the existential energy of all things activated proportionately to the complexity and interiority of the organism. Therefore, the great mystics all tend to encourage relational practices to [LIFE] that transcend “conversational” — one-to-one — communication. They avoid traditional religious “petition” for a miraculous intervention to alter reality for the benefit of certain individuals so characteristic of Western Christianity.
  7. They universally counsel love for all things. [LIFE] and the totality that [LIFE] enlivens are in a sense more real and more substantial than any individual.

The mystics in all cases point to a spare and indistinct conceptual structure at the foundation of their experience. As a primary exercise they are all, including western mystics, vigorously focused on the deconstruction of the literalist imagery of their respective religions. They consistently discourage the pursuit of and attachment to anything like visions, consolations, or feelings interpreted as interpersonal “contact,” emphasizing instead trust in the solidity of the LIFE we actuate as our own. They describe the object of their quest — [LIFE] — as the unspoken background that increasingly becomes the object of our direct awareness. They are quite clear that the heights of religious experience for them have occurred when they were simply being themselves, living with the background awareness of their immersion in LIFE. They speak of a sense of contact that is not conceptually clear, an “unknowing.”

Through exercises focused on mental attention the mystics train themselves to transform the connatural sense of emptiness and yearning into an awareness of their immersion in LIFE — possessing and being possessed by LIFE — resulting in a deep and abiding peace.

6

In the real world death is subordinate to LIFE. It’s only in our heads that death dominates; religion helps us adjust to reality. LIFE exploits the energy of entropy, the descent to equilibrium, to launch its enterprises. LIFE has devised an effective ongoing strategy to transcend death, but it doesn’t live on in the individual; it lives on in the totality. Sexual reproduction not only insures that the living cells of the reproducing organisms pass unscathed under the wire to become new individuals built from the actual cells of their parents, but the natural genetic drift occurring at the time of reproduction provides the mutations which evolution uses to create new and unimagined organisms.

Evolution is the partner of sexual reproduction and by means of evolution LIFE has produced this universe of living things creating a vast totality that is genetically interrelated. The family of living species is like an immense cosmic tree, every part connected to every other part by reason of a genetic sharing that proceeds on two levels at once.

The first level is biological structure. Because of the homogeneity of the 27 principal proteins used by the three domains of living organisms, scientists believe that all living things are traceable to one original ancestor cell:

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.[26]

The second is the energy of LIFE. LIFE, it seems, does not arise spontaneously. Traditional beliefs in “spontaneous generation” have all been disproven, and modern reductionist attempts to find some “mechanism” that will turn LIFE on have failed. Where there is LIFE it has only been passed on from a living organism. This seems to confirm the single-cell origin of all living things on earth and that LIFE is an intrinsic property of matter. That means, if we were to think of LIFE as a flame, all currently living things are alive with the same LIFE: they are the continued manifestations of the same fire that has been passed on from the first originating ancestor.

This image — of LIFE as fire — is helpful in another way. If we think of various materials, like paper, cardboard, wood, coal, we know that they all are combustible, i.e., they can all burn. Their “ability to burn” is an intrinsic property that lies dormant until a flame is brought near and for a long enough time that it causes the material to “catch” fire making “combustibility” visible. The property was there all along, but it needed to be activated by fire itself to become manifest. We can think of LIFE similarly. All matter has the potential for being part of living organisms. But it is only when LIFE transmits itself genetically that a new living thing is born and “matter” displays its viability. Once that happens, the “fire” widens and intensifies. It is still the very same fire, now shared among many without in any way being diminished. The fire burns until it exhausts fuel or oxygen or both.

The point of this imagery is that reality is a living totality. We are part and parcel of an ongoing organic process whereby LIFE’s power to exploit the energies of entropy expands continually. LIFE’s parasitism of death results in the continuous production of ever new living composites that transcend themselves creatively in unexpected directions by evolving. These new organisms enter into the ever larger totality of genetically related living things with which they themselves then interact anti-entropi­cally. The infinitely variegated universe of matter is one “thing” with one dynamism by reason of a LIFE-that-plunders-death.

To be part of this universe, therefore, is to be part of a cosmic project of boundless proportions whose inherent dynamism exhibits no discernible reason why it should ever end. If entropy is the ultimate source of the energy that LIFE uses for its undertakings, and if the “dark energy” thought to be responsible for the accelerating rate of expansion of the universe is actually new material (in disequilibrium) continually entering the system, the system is not closed; the process is open and potentially endless, and the capacities of the composites evolved by LIFE’s continued exploitation of the tension-toward-entropy, potentially infinite.

*

Here is where the “meaning” for humankind emerges from our analysis, and provides the substance — the raw material — for the poetry that naturalism by itself lacks. Death, the very source of our anguish, is simultaneously the wellspring of our participation in LIFE and the source of LIFE’s endless transcendent creativity. But please note well, there is a condition: living matter’s reproductive strategy is the only immortality there is. We must understand and be willing to embrace LIFE’s way of living endlessly. We have to let go of our way — fantasy projections like the Platonic paradigm whose historical time and place of birth are well known. We have to embrace the material conditions of our existence. How do we do that after millennia of Platonic conditioning?

The question comes down to this: if I embrace the material conditions of my existence, which “self” do I identify with? An individual “self” struggling to live forever in another world as a “spiritual” entity after a lifetime of competition for material survival in this world? … or a “Self” that embraces its role in the Cosmic Project of matter-in-process for whose communitarian service it has been prepared?

We all spend our early years as helpless children experiencing firsthand the selfless service of others — parents, siblings, kindred, friends — on our behalf. When we mature we reproduce ourselves by joining in a partnership of selfless love with another, each partner prepared to provide years of selfless love to offspring. After a lifetime wherein such selflessness, experienced both coming and going, clearly constitutes the chief activity of our time on earth, it seems more than obvious that we, of all LIFE’s projects, are the most prepared for identifying ourselves with the LIFE-widening goals of the totality. We are communitarian in nature; we are the products of and active participants in a collective project that has preceded us by billions of years to which we now contribute and which will continue on for billions of years into the future evolving versions of LIFE as yet wholly unimaginable. For all our transience as individuals, we are fully reproductive members of this totality and so we participate in its work of self-perpetu­a­tion. The ontogenesis that infallibly guides individual development from infancy to maturity terminates when our organism is capable of reproducing itself by mating with another. Sex, and therefore gendered life, male and female, across the phyla in plants and insects as well as animals, are the totality’s tools for endless LIFE. Our gendered bodies are the agents of living matter’s immortality.

Each organism embodies the totality. Every part and parcel of us is constructed of the same material energy that constitutes everything else in the universe. The cells of our bodies are built from the materials gathered from the organisms — plants, animals, fish, fungus — we consume every day. Humans burn up 60 tons of food and two and a half tons of oxygen over the course of a lifetime in the combustion process of living metabolism. Our bodies are 60% water. The exchange of matter between us and the material environment is so great that, physically speaking, we are one and the same thing. The only thing that seems to be exclusively ours is the “self” — the individual “self” that the great mystics of all traditions counsel us to discount and discard — the “self” that dies.

It is the individual “self,” given a false importance by the impulses of the conatus, that seems to be the only thing that dies at death. The rest — all the matter of which we were constructed along with the contributions, virtual and reproductive that we have made to the totality — live on after us with the same capacity to catapult the collective project beyond our death into the future. So if detachment from the individual “self” is the crowning goal of LIFE, as the great mystics have said, that detachment seems an inevitable achievement. For the human life-cycle seems ordered to the eventual disintegration of the “self,” and the return of the substance of every individual to the living pool of matter’s energy from which we came. We are part of the Cosmic Project whether we like it or not.

Thus the meaning of LIFE reveals itself, not as some dramatic reversal of the material processes of organic life throughout the planet — an imaginary “spiritual” escape into another world not made of matter — but rather the convergence of the destinies of all living things spawned by living matter in a great Project into the future. That Project can be summed up simply as the exploitation of the energy of entropy to achieve the triumph of LIFE over death. Theoretically speaking, in principle there is nothing to prevent all matter, everywhere, from being incorporated into living organisms. The only limitation — the only condition of membership in this spectacular totality — is that it be matter.

Religion, especially in its efforts to help us cope with the human condition, need no longer create fairy tales of other “spiritual” worlds where we will live forever, and conjure up fictional conditions for entry. Religion can counsel our acceptance of death as inherent to life, the wellspring of our living energies, and it can hold up as great models for us those who embraced death fearlessly and even with joy. The central role of the cross in the Christian tradition is validated, not as disdain for this world and flight to another, or as punishment for being born human, but as the poetic symbol of the transformation of our “selves” from individual isolated selfishness to a selfless participation in LIFE’s Project.

ENDNOTES

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_M._Carrol note: Carroll’s blog has a foto of the gravestone of Ludwig Boltzman which has engraved on it his entropy equation, S = k.log W.

[2] Carroll, Sean, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled: Why I won’t take money from the Templeton Foundation.” Slate. May 9, 2013. Cf the same article on Carroll’s website: http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/05/08/on-templeton/

[3] TBP, p.110

[4] Ibid., p. 111 The Book in which that view is presented is called The Grand Design, Bantam books, NY, 2010

[5] Oxford University Press, NY, 2012, for an extensive review see: Tony Equale, “A Dalliance with Dualism?” Nov 2012 tonyequale.wordpress.com/a-dalliance-with-dualism-2

[6] Columbia University Press, NY, 2015

[7] ibid., p. 115

[8] Hawking, op.cit., 2010, p. 5

[9] Ibid., p. 165

[9a] Unger, Roberto Mangabeira. The Religion of the Future (Kindle Locations 196-201). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

[10] Ibid., p. 180

[11] Sean Carroll, “The Why Questions: Chapter and Multiverse” The Wall Street Journal, Sept 24, 2010

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hawking, 2010 op.cit., p. 94

[14] ibid., p.5

[15] Carroll, op.cit., WSJ 9/24/2010

[16] Gould, Stephen Jay, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Random House, NY, 1999. Cited in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria

[17] See below (endnotes 19 to 22 and relevant text) for further elucidation of this point.

[18] “second substance” was Descartes’ term for “spirit” as opposed to matter.

[19] Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili, The Edge of Life, Penguin Random House, NY, 2014, p. 220 ff.

[20] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859, reprint Random House, NY,1979, p. 167.

[21] Johnjoe McFadden, Quantum Evolution, Harper Collins, London, 2000, p. 77ff; p. 263. Cf also McFadden 2014, op.cit., p. 223.

[22] Michael Skinner, “A Unified Theory of Evolution” Aeon Magazine, Nov 9, 2016 http://aeon.us5.list-manage.com/track/click?u=89c6e02ebaf75bbc918731474&id=699f3faa56&e=bad7779e73

[23] Wicks, Robert, “Arthur Schopenhauer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/schopenhauer/&gt;.

[24] “abductive reasoning” (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference which goes from an observation to a theory which accounts for the observation, ideally seeking to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abductive_reasoning It should be noted that the highest certitude claimed by science is inferential certitude.

[25] Brackets are used here to indicate that what I am calling LIFE was called by other names by the various mystics, according to their tradition: “God,” Brahman, Tao, etc.

[26] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/05/100513-science-evolution-darwin-single-ancestor/

The Big Picture (4)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

4

Religion in the West, admittedly, has become a problem for modern man. It is so dominated by a false literalist narrative inherited from antiquity that it explains if not excuses Carroll’s antipathy. Carroll is right. Religion’s antiquated narrative is incompatible with science. If that was his concern, he should be reassured that there are many “religionists” who acknow­ledge science’s authority in matters of cosmological importance and are com­mit­ted to developing a new narrative that is compatible with science. Out of commitment to the poetic side of his “poetic naturalism” he might consider joining us in our efforts.

Granted that traditional religion is obsolete, we also recognize that religion has helped people cope with decline and death. Whatever other shortcomings Religion may have, it has provided “meaning” in the form of explanation and poetry. Carroll recognizes we have a right to both.   But he will not entertain the possibility that religion, purged of its defects, might be the poetry his explanations are lacking.

Western Religion’s traditional “solution” of the human problem was not factual. The narrative that there is another world of “spirits” from which we came and to which our disembodied “souls” will return after death is pure fiction. I agree. There is no other world. There are no bodiless souls; our personalities, which are the neural reflections of the coherence and temporal identity of our material organisms, disappear when our bodies disintegrate.

We are entropic beings. We participate fully in the limitations endemic to LIFE in this exclusively material universe. The “poetic” dimension should acknowledge and addres­s the apparent contradiction between a material energy that is instinctively programmed to live forever (and spontaneously cultivates relationships in view of that expectation) and is simultaneously destined to succumb to an organismic entropy that terminates all the relationships created during the lifespan of the organism. I may not care if I live or die, but I am not resigned to the loss of the people I love.

How does religion address this? How does it both acknowledge and confront the inherent contradiction in the human condition?

The first step is to distinguish religion’s intent from the traditional means chosen to achieve it. The means chosen, the narratives all preceded the era of modern science and therefore were inevitably imaginative in character. So, Yes! The religious narrative must be adjusted to accommodate the new knowledge. This adjustment is not complicated: pre-scientific “facts” are taken as mythic, i.e., metaphorical not literal. But myth has another dimension. The traditional myth also embodies the religious intent of the narrative; and the religious intent, I contend, may remain true even after the discreditation of the literal story.

Let’s make this concrete: The biblical book of Genesis contains the Judaic myth of creation. Until the modern era people believed that this was a literal account. We now know, however, that the earth and life on it was not the intentional, purposeful work of an omnipotent humanoid Craftsman; it was the self-elaboration of matter occurring over fourteen billion years. The ancient authors were probably well aware that they were making up a story. But it was a story that made sense according to their lights and it projected their religious intent: Creation implied “Will.” Humankind and the world in which it found itself was the product of intention, choice, love.

*

The intent of the biblical authors was to ground religion in relationship. Effectively what that meant was that the quest for secure existence, which is the objective of the conatus, found its ultimate answer in the benevolence of the source of existence. Were they right? Obviously they were wrong about the cosmological facts; but were they also wrong about the intent: the claim that Creation was a product of “Will,” a project of love, and that just being alive meant you were already in a reciprocal relationship with your existential source? Does the familiar, the relational, the human, the interpersonal, truly characterize existence, or is “being human” with its focus on relationship an anomaly, a freak of nature, an idiosyncrasy that needs to be sheltered under blankets of denial from a harsh mechanical universe that has no idea what we are talking about?

Consider: from our analysis in section 2 of this essay, we know that matter is alive and appetitive. Unless you are prepared to insist that something entirely new … something entirely other than the matter present, entered the scene and ruptured the linear continuity of what had been steadily evolving since the initial expansion, the appearance of LIFE has to be understood as the emergence of what was there all along, a step in a process that was already underway. There is enough evidence to make it reasonable if not compelling that the fundamental indicator of life — the instinct for self-preservation — had been operative analogously at all phases of matter’s appearance, even at the sub-atomic, atomic and molecular levels.  Conatus is the desire to live, to survive. No matter how primitive the level in which it is found, LIFE is the desire to continue living, being-here: LIFE is intrinsically, inherently, “Will” in the sense that Arthur Schopenhauer used the word:

For Schopenhauer, this is not the principle of self-consciousness and rationally-infused will, but is rather what he simply calls “Will” — a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything. Schopenhauer’s originality does not reside in his characterization of the world as Will, or as act — for we encounter this position in Fichte’s philosophy — but in the conception of Will as being devoid of rationality or intellect.[1]

As living forms evolved, the way they manifested their conatus evolved along with them. Primitive cellular behavior developed new strategies of survival that included multicellularity with its necessary internal lockstep collaboration among individual cells along with an external communitarianism connecting members of the same species to one another for securing food, defending against predators and having partners for reproduction. Eventually consciousness evolved into intelligence and “Will” came to include purpose and intentionality as we humans understand and use the word. None of these later developments, however, represented an interruption in the fundamental thrust of the conatus, established at the first moments of matter’s existence: the will to be-here.

Religion projects that relationship is the foundational underpinning of all reality. Before the scientific era, that assumption was extrapolated from humankind’s experience of its own relationality and creativity, and it was expressed by imagining a “humanoid” deity who chose to create the world as his artisanal product the way a human Craftsman would — intentionally.

Later, in Greek hands, Jewish belief in a humanoid “God” became part of a wider assumption that something other than matter existed in the universe. Platonic Greeks posited an invisible substance called “spirit” that was alive, intelligent and could never die. The theory was called “dualism” because it imagined that there were two completely distinct and opposed substances in the world: matter and spirit. It had been falsely assumed that we humans were “spirit” and belonged to another world, a world of spirits, and that we were pathetically alone with our rational intelligence in this world made of matter. But we now know that there is no such “thing” as spirit and there is no “other” world.

When “spirit” disappeared as the source of LIFE, “God,” who was assumed to be spirit, disappeared with it. Matter, without spirit, was orphaned in the reductionist universe and was assumed to be inert, passive, mechanical and utterly devoid of life. It meant that relationship lost its rationale.   Religion, without a philosophical foundation in “spirit,” could not conjure a cosmic “relationship” out of nothing.

But I have a different view. Yes, we are matter, and only matter, the material offspring of this material universe; but rather than eliminating, I maintain that being matter revalidates our spontaneous option for relationship because “Will” is not grounded in rational “spirit” — it is grounded in living matter.

*

LIFE on earth displays a remarkable homogeneity. I see in protozoa and other primitive forms the very same instincts that drive my own conatus. The LIFE we share is similar in all of us and suggests not only the same origination but an ongoing activation of the same energy. The active commonality immediately evokes a single source and matrix without specifying what that source is or how the participation occurs. The only LIFE that exists has been passed on. LIFE, it seems, can only arise from LIFE. Just by recognizing that there is a LIFE-source whose essential appetitive energy all living things autonomously and simultaneously activate as our respective conatus, is sufficient to ground what I mean by religion. We are one thing by reason of LIFE.

Religion comprises the symbolic structures that serve as vehicle for the human relationship to all the participants in this family, including its existential source and matrix. I contend that it is absolutely appropriate to relate to LIFE; LIFE, after all, is responsible for what we are … and that we are-here … even though it is not exclusively human, and in fact cannot be said to reside any­where but in the places where it is observed functioning, i.e., in all things made of matter including us. We know LIFE when we see it. It is, as far as we can tell, exactly as universally immanent as it appears. It can legitimately be characterized as it is seen functioning: an integrative tendency in unconnected atoms and molecules, a vegetative force in plants, a sentient and mobile dynamism in animals, and a conscious intelligent drive in human beings. It is also, as we saw in section 2, hierarchically ordered: each level of emergence incorporates and builds out from the level(s) that went before. No one way of being alive can be said to take priority over others, so none can be said to be secondary, caused, or the result of delusion.

LIFE is also, indisputably, as a posteriori as it appears. In other words, while LIFE as a dormant potential naturally preceded its perceptible emergence in living things, its actual activation was the work of the existing agent or agents — those particular cells — that first became aware of that potential and appropriated for themselves their power to live, i.e., to “will” to be-here. For it seems indisputable that at the moment that LIFE emerged some proto-cell or complex molecule had to morph into a self-embracing organism capable of self-directed behavior focused on self-susten­ance, self-preservation and self-transcending reproduction.

Before we go any further I would like to clarify what exactly our conclusions are saying, and what they are not.

  • This is absolutely not an attempt to prove the existence of the traditional imaginary “God” of supernatural theism.  That “God” was an individual transcendent humanoid entity who created the universe and intervenes in it at will to change the course of cosmic and human history.  He was believed to communicate with humankind through “revelation” and interpersonal contact.   There is no such “God” and this study is not an attempt to conjure “him” into existence, much less to validate the assertions made by those “religions” which claim to be the privileged recipient of his revelations and the executor of his will.
  • We are simply trying to describe LIFE across the entire spectrum of living things by identifying its fundamental characteristics, and we have determined that they are a self-embrace manifested in the conatus — the desire to live — the “Will” to be-here which transcends death through reproduction and lives on in progeny. “Will” characterizes LIFE proportionately at all levels of its manifestations.
  • The conatus is recognizable as an appetite for existential continuation which approximates to desire and will. The organism knows itself to be a “self.” The conatus is an intentionality bound to conscious identity whereby the living entity in question displays a self-interest in its own existential continuity through self-sustenance, self-defense and reproduction. It is a self-embrace.
  • Using abductive reasoning[2] the clear and undeniable presence of the conatus at all levels and all phases of living complexity evokes the concept of a common source and universal presence with an inferential certitude.24 There is no claim, however, that the word “source” gives us any information beyond the bare abstract notion itself. The best explanation for the universal activation of the homogeneous conatus across earth’s entire biota, and plausibly in all of matter, is a common source and continuous matrix.
  • LIFE is matrix. There is no evidence that the alleged “source” is a separate independent organism or entity with a unique or singular identity of its own, much less that it is rational and purposeful. There is nothing to suggest that LIFE is not identical with, or at least indistinguishable from, the living organisms where it is currently being actuated exactly as we observe it. The only information about LIFE that we have is where we see it functioning and what we see it doing: it is an appetite that resides with equal intensity and equal autonomy in all living material organisms proportionate to the level of sophistication of their behavior and their interaction with the world around them.

I hope these clarifications are enough to establish the bare simplicity of what I consider a compelling conclusion: that the LIFE we perceive in ourselves and in all living things includes the notion of existential will or intent allowing for relationship among all living things including LIFE’s source. The desire for the existential continuity (survival) of self through progeny is an intrinsic and universal property of LIFE whereby it reaches out to living things beyond itself, making LIFE at all levels and between levels intrinsically relational.

The implications of these conclusions for the human being are profound, for it means that our natural inclination toward relationship as our primary valence with the world around us finds itself validated in a cosmic milieu and an endless future trajectory, for we are nothing but living matter and we shall always be. LIFE and its reproductive (genetic) relationships absolutely defines what we are because it characterizes everything that has emerged and evolved from the material energy that is this earth. I contend it is appropriate to pursue a grateful engaged relationship to this LIFE in which we “live and move and have our being” because we are genetically related to it biologically and intentionally. For, while there is no indication that LIFE is an individual entity capable of reciprocation, our instinct to be grateful is not unreasonable because of the clear indications of intentionality — “Will” — in matter’s living energy wherever it is found, and retrospectively in its source. The notion of endless existential continuity that intentionally embraces all future progeny is intrinsic to LIFE. As the offspring and actuators of that “Will,” we exist enveloped in its pro-creative embrace. We are a chosen thing.   We are part of a project of love and our very organisms are programmed to further that enterprise.

[1] Wicks, Robert, “Arthur Schopenhauer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/schopenhauer/&gt;.
[2] “abductive reasoning” (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference which goes from an observation to a theory which accounts for the observation, ideally seeking to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”.[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abductive_reasoning It should be noted that the highest certitude claimed by science is inferential certitude.

A Slippery Slope (1)

Some twenty years ago I woke up to the fact that there was no way that Catholics could ever accept other religious traditions as equal to their own, or treat their practitioners as anything but benighted and misled, because they believed that their own founder, Jesus of Nazareth, was God himself. The conclusions were inescapable: Catholic teachings had to be infallible and everyone ought to leave their ancestral religions and become Catholic. There is no way a true dialog — an interchange of equals that respected one another’s religious validity — could ever occur. Suddenly it struck me, the logical results of that position contradicted gospel values and the clear call of Vatican II; they were so absurd, insulting and damaging to the global human family that it provided an indirect “theological proof” that Jesus could not possibly be “God.” As a corollary, it also called into question the existence of a theist (rational, providential, powerful, commanding) “God,” precisely the kind of “God” assumed by the doctrine.

The Catholic Church claims it was started by “God” himself walking on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. What more guarantee of absolute truth could you ask for? It was a matter of simple logic for Catholic theologians to say that any truth or holiness that might be found among other religions had to have come through the Church in some way. No “pagan” ritual, moral code or spiritual practice, in itself and apart from the Catholic Church, could ever mediate contact with “God.” The Church was “God’s” chosen instrument of salvation. It had an obligation to bring the truth to the whole world, and Catholic “missionaries” were even persuaded that it would be OK to impose Catholicism by force. Like the rationale for baptizing helpless infants, if those people knew the “truth” they would certainly choose to be baptized Catholic. “Error has no rights,” the motto of the Inquisitors, held sway here as well. In 1992 Pope John Paul II hailed the acquisition of the Americas by the Spaniards and Portuguese (which included a genocidal conquest and the encomienda system of forced labor) as a boon to the Amerindians because it brought them Catholicism.

We have to recognize that these attitudes flow inexorably from the premises. If Jesus was “God,” then the Catholic Church has to have the absolute truth; all other religions are “false” and whatever of truth they may contain is solely the prerogative of the Catholic Church to discern and decide. Any tactic or maneuver that led to the conversion and baptism of non-Catholic, non-Christian people was praiseworthy regardless of the means employed.

Absurd

The divinity of Christ, a doctrine that seems an appropriate reflection of Catholics’ feelings about the man they believe “saved” them, when looked at from outside the Church is utterly absurd: it totally invalidates all other religions and traditions. Catholics who were in close touch with non-Catholics were aware of the absurdity of Catholic claims because they experienced firsthand the goodness and holiness that other faiths produced in their people. So while it was gratifying when the Second Vatican Council affirmed the validity of other religions and called for Catholics to have a sincere interchange with them, the Council’s common-sense call for “ecumenism” in practice undermined the “divinity of Christ” as traditionally stated and interpreted.

Those who took the first steps along the ecumenical path were confronted immediately with the impasse created by Catholic doctrine. Since no rational person could ever consider any other religion the equal of the one founded and instructed by God himself, no respectful dialog could take place until that obstacle was neutralized in some way. So Christians found themselves looking to reinterpret the “divinity of Christ” in terms that levelled the playing field with other traditions.

There were only two ways to do that. The first efforts attempted to assign an equal divinity to the founders of those other religions. But that “solution” didn’t work because the other religions were not interested in having their founders compete with Jesus on those terms. They never called their teachers “God” and they saw no reason why the Catholic obsession about Jesus’ divinity should force them to abandon the cherished sanity of their own tradition. Their founders, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, Lao Tzu were not gods. They were men and models of humanity.   For Jews and Moslems, in addition, to claim otherwise was blasphemy and idolatry. The Buddhists, for their part, considered the very thought delusional and at any rate irrelevant to the pursuit of liberating self-knowledge. They would not oblige.

That left only one alternative: Saying “Jesus is God” must mean something other than what Catholics have always claimed it meant. Either the statement is simply false or the word “God” has to be taken in a way that is so different from the traditional theist meaning of an all-powerful, all knowing, rational “other” person who created the universe by fiat and communicates his will to humankind as imagined by the “religions of the Book,” that it effectively ceases to denote “God” as understood since the founding of Judaism.

This was earth shattering. The Catholic Authorities recoiled from any such revision, and those who tweaked doctrine in order to facilitate dialog were silenced. The very title of Roger Haight’s book, Jesus the Symbol of God, clearly declared the import of his study and explains why the Vatican will not let him teach or write about such matters. It was predictable. Once you accept the validity of the world’s religions, Catholic doctrinal claims — as traditionally understood — collapse like a house of cards. Needless to say, except in some areas of minor disagreements, interfaith dialog has stalled.

Other untenable doctrines

Catholics who continued with efforts to communicate realized that the divinity of Christ was not the only example of a Catholic dogma that was contrary to the objectives of the gospel or even just plain common sense. “Original Sin” was another; the doctrine was scripturally indefensible, anti-evangelical, scientifically untenable and theologically incoherent. It forced the narrative of Jesus’ life and death to conform to an atonement theory of the relationship between “God” and humankind thereby re-defining “God” as eternally insulted and implacably punitive. It characterized the human being as an aboriginally corrupt and degenerate biological organism whose bodily urges were debased and unnatural.   It denigrated manual labor, debased childbirth and women and claimed death was unnatural, the result of human guilt.

Simultaneously, Catholics were faced with indisputable evidence of the moral integrity, deep holiness and mystical achievements in other traditions. Claims to moral or spiritual superiority for the Roman Church were obviously self-serving self-deceptions.

It became increasingly clear that the untenability and humanly damaging character of Catholic doctrine required that thoughtful Catholics make a “mental reservation” when declaring their allegiance to the teaching of the Church. Such a maneuver immediately meant that many traditional “truths” of the faith — like the divinity of Christ and Original Sin — if they were to be retained at all, would have to be taken as poetic symbols that referred to truths that the imagery, narratives and explanations did not, in fact, literally denote. This would relegate doctrine to the homiletic role of evoking emotions “as if” the doctrine were factual when it was not. Such a re-assignment would fatally undercut any claim to “truth” in the traditional sense; Catholic doctrine would effectively be discredited and assertions of religious superiority rendered ludi­crous. The Authorities would never tolerate that.

In the case of the “divinity of Christ” I proposed at the time that we make a mental reservation about the literal truth of that teaching and think of it instead as a symbol of an authentic humanity possessed by Jesus that could be considered, poetically speaking, “divine.” Jesus’ sense of the character of “God” as forgiving “father,” his mindset on the human condition, his moral actions and his social interactions would be taken as a model of what “God” might look like if “God” were to become visible to humankind. Jesus’ “divinity,” in other words, would be hyperbole for his deep wisdom as a human being. Or, alternately, one could think of the existence shared among all of us, including Jesus, as a proportional participation in the divine existence that comes from our Creative Source; Jesus in this case would be understood to have an extraordinary degree of participation.

In our common moral struggle to “be like God,” which was the core of Jesus’ message, Jesus was more like “God” than anyone we knew. But “God” in this case is not a metaphysical designation, making Jesus the all-powerful Creator of the universe, but a moral one, acknowledging that he was a most insightful, loving and compassionate member of the human family. Furthermore, by understanding the living energies of which we are all made to be “God” or a symbol for “God,” such an interpretation would also be compatible with a view of the universe that has emerged from the discoveries of modern science. That matter is increasingly acknowledged to be somehow alive means that we share LIFE with our Source and matrix.

I made that suggestion twenty years ago at a meeting of interested Catholics. I was immediately warned by one of our number that such a practice would prove to be a “slippery slope.” I took that to mean that to continue to say that “Jesus was God,” even though qualified as metaphor, would, over time, revert to its literal meaning and ultimately reinforce the traditional belief tied to those traditional words. Nothing would change.

At the time I disagreed. I was convinced that we could sincerely take doctrine as metaphor and simultaneously pursue a “doctrinal restructuring” that would systematically reformulate teachings that were patently untrue, institutionally self-serving and damaging not only to the individual Christian’s psychological health and spiritual growth, but an impassable obstacle to the honest sharing among traditions that would promote the deepening of religious life for everyone on the planet. At the same time, there would be no need immediately to change creeds, rituals and catechisms or scandalize the traditional Catholics among us who were not capable of such adjustments.

But retaining doctrine as metaphor was always something of a concession, in my mind. Leaving intact what needed to be changed means that the theocratic intent embedded in the doctrine remains present, ready to reactivate its oppressive potential. The primary example of this is the divinity of Christ itself. It was elaborated at Nicaea in 325 ce. It was embraced and promoted at the time by the Roman authorities for the purposes of shoring up their over-extended, tottering empire. It justified their claims to universal domination and the expropriation of the goods and human energies of their conquered populations. That means that the doctrine in question — the homoousion — was not only untrue, it became an instrument of oppression.   The doctrine needs to be confronted for what it was used for, and reformulated so that its potential toxicity is neutralized forever. The “divinity of Christ” as traditionally understood must be officially repudiated, apologies must be offered for the damage done by it, and it must be restated in such a way that it can never again be interpreted to mean that “God Almighty” founded the Roman Catholic Church, or indeed any religion. I have come to agree: anything less would indeed prove a slippery slope.

The same can be said mutatis mutandis for the traditional doctrine of “Original Sin.”   Its import was to make Catholic baptism a “necessity for salvation” for the entire world. In the mind of Augustine of Hippo who elaborated the doctrine in its classic form, anyone who died without being baptized was condemned to eternal torment because he/she bore the guilt of Adam’s sin and not just its effects. That included infants who died before being baptized. You can imagine the anguish created by Augustine’s “teaching” in an age when infant mortality is estimated to have been 300/1000, or a rate considerably higher than in modern under-developed nations. Augustine’s “theory” justified the growing innovation of allowing adult baptism to morph into a magical ritual administered primarily to helpless infants that guaranteed “salvation” and bound Rome’s subject populations to the Empire’s Church with hoops of steel. The doctrine made it almost impossible for people to believe Jesus’ message: that “God loves us and we are invited to imitate that love by loving one another.” Sending innocent infants to hell was consistent with a punitive Tyrant, but not a loving father. Augustine’s theory of Original Sin radically altered the way we looked at “God.”

I no longer believe that just declaring that dogma is to be taken as metaphor will provide the necessary stimulus for the kinds of reformulations that are required if these dogmas are to cease having their damaging effect on people’s lives. The continued use of the dogmatic expression in question without being accompanied by an explicit disclaimer and explanation of its metaphoric nature is misleading and invites misunderstanding. It is exactly the slippery slope of the warning.

In terms of spirituality and moral development, the unclarified use of these dogmatic travesties prevents the exploration of new forms of expression — new symbols and rituals for the exercise of faith and deepening the relationship to our Source and Sustainer.