“It is what it is … it is only what it is. There is nothing more there than what is there.”
Before going any further I want to acknowledge the simple clarity and absolute ultimacy of those words. I totally agree with them. They are the sole basis and authority for the following discussion on how we relate to our material universe. These reflections limit themselves to the phenomenological dimension: they eschew metaphysics altogether.
It’s because they are clear and ultimate that those words offer a challenge to our understanding of the material universe and the way we humans, who are its genetic offspring, relate to it. We are all and only matter. For over nine years in these essays, I have tried to be as clear and as ultimate about my understanding of reality and what that understanding means for religion. This particular articulation I’ve quoted advances my project significantly, and I am supremely grateful for its assistance. Why should I be so grateful?
Because most of the metaphysical ways of saying what I meant have run the risk of re-introducing a fatal duality back into reality, a duality that I have struggled mightily to eradicate. Metaphysics is not our idiom, and we tend to take its abstractions and imagine them as “things.” I tried to address my apprehensions in two essays posted in August of 2016 titled “A Slippery Slope.”
That traditional duality is expressed in many ways: the “sacred and the profane,” “natural and supernatural,” mind and body, matter and spirit, “God” and creation. All are reducible to the notion that what we call “God” is an entity — a real separate independent stand-alone being, existing alongside of and opposed to other real individual “things” like the things in our material universe, including us. None of those dichotomies are real because the statement about a separate “God-entity” is not real. The differences and separations that they all assume — between “God” or a divine sphere and other things — do not exist. They are conceptual contraries that at one time, perhaps, were believed to be real ontological opposites, but are now recognized as chimeras. Trying to explain this in metaphysical terms is difficult to grasp.
Hence, I use the word “eradicate” intentionally because it evokes the image of “tearing up by the roots.” Using less surgically terminal language often will be taken to mean “the duality is officially deleted but we surreptitiously use it when no one is watching,” i.e., something we claim does not exist but we have recourse to in practice. The practice, of course is religion. Our western religions of the book have habituated us to a hopelessly anthropomorphic imagery about “God” and we tend to interpret any recognition of a divine principle to mean what our imagery has always evoked: a separate divine person. To insist that we are pursuing a meaningful synthesis of our understanding of reality and then refuse to integrate basic practice with the theoretical ground we claim to have established, is to fail at the very doorstep. For how true can our vision be if we can’t live with it? These reflections avoid that approach.
The way we have understood the presence of the Sacred in our lives is the source of the problem; it has created the difficulty we have in describing that presence in a way that sustains a consistency between vision and practice. It is difficult because, due to the conditioning of our religious heritage we do not seem to be able to conceptualize presence without evoking entity, and a rational humanoid entity besides.
Words betray us. They come to us already forged. In this case, the use of the word “presence” has already skewed the discussion. For the word implies that what we are talking about is a “thing.” So how do I both evoke the sense of a “presence that is really there” that goes beyond wishful thinking or the evocation of poetic symbols but that does not simultaneously imply the existence of a “thing,” an “entity,” a “substance” or a “person”?
I am going to suggest the use of a word that I have used many times before that I believe speaks to the heart of matter — I believe it explains what I am talking about, and it is able to do that because, in fact, it is itself the real basis for the explanation. That word is “relationship.”
Now this word, like all our words has a charged history. The scholastics used it but gave it an ontological meaning. We still have a tendency to imagine relationship as a chemical valence, or an interaction of force fields between entities, suggesting an entity in its own right, invisible perhaps, but there, nonetheless … i.e., present. So when we insist that a relationship is real we tend to slip into thinking of it as some thing that stands beside and alongside of other things, an example of the duality we are trying to eradicate. It is not. It is a bearing, an intentionality of the one thing toward another. (As a corollary it deserves mention that, in fact, relationship tends to reduce duality to unity because it generates a concurrence in the two things that are relating to one another that mimics a common identity.)
The mediaeval scholastic application of the category of relation to the persons of the Trinity was both the result of that ontologizing tendency and the cause of a Christian belief that took what were three different ways that human beings relate to the Source of their sense of the Sacred and imagined them to be metaphysical structures — real persons — that are internally constitutive of Deity itself. The absurdity here has been suppressed for so long that a rational discussion is virtually impossible today, not even in the closed door meetings where theologians talk to themselves. But I believe that relationship, correctly understood, is the best way to describe the entire realm of reality consigned to religion: the sphere of the Sacred. Let’s unpack all of this.
First, let’s consider how relationship is real. We’ll begin with an innocuous example: the relationship between me and my cat. I used to have a cat that I fed and took to the vet when she was sick. She was friendly to the point of appearing affectionate. I acknowledge it may only have been an evolutionary adaptation. Whatever my cat’s true feelings were, it worked with me. I “loved” my cat. She was not just a cat. She was my cat.
I may have seen a cat out on the street and couldn’t care less, but once I realized it was my cat my entire reaction changed. Before recognition and acknowledgement the animal was only what she was. After recognition she physically remained exactly what she was the second before but now she is transformed. Has anything changed? No! But then, Yes! because now she is the object of my loving-kindness. And these changes are real. Her entire significance in the human world where significance is significant has changed and following hard on that, so has her destiny in this vale of tears. The precarious life and possible violent death of a stray alley-cat is no longer her anticipated trajectory. And yet nothing has changed. She is what she is … she is only what she is and what’s there is the only thing that’s there.
But of course, what’s changed is my bearing as a member of the planet’s ruling species transforming the environment where she will eke out her survival. But even here, nothing’s changed except my attitude, or better, my acknowledgement of a relationship. That cat was my cat.
This kind of paradigm shift is even more pronounced in the case of human beings. The ability to observe and react to human beings differentially inside and outside of personal relationships actually characterizes much of human behavior and the complex history of clans and nations that has evolved from it. Our being … and our consequent destiny … is determined exclusively by relationship. The astonishing change in attitude that occurs when we accept people as known persons with whom we have a relationship is a prime example of the severely limited scope of the maxim that opened these reflections. “We are only what we are” until we are in a relationship. Then everything (metaphorically speaking) changes (it’s metaphorical precisely because, in fact, nothing changes). For the personal relationship transforms the individual not only in the eyes of the relator but in the individual’s own eyes as well. Relationships reduce discreteness and separation even as they preserve distinction and diversity. Such transformations can, and actually do change the course of human history. They do not affect the “thing,” but they do affect the process in which the thing works out its destiny.
Now this is really a no-brainer, but we don’t turn our attention to the fact that relational factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with “what is really and only there,” profoundly transform reality in the human sphere. And what, after all, are we talking about when we talk about religion, but the significance of the effects of relationship in the human sphere. Religion is not science. Religion is the activation of a bearing — a specific direction in the human process, an intentionality. Religion is what happens when we assume a certain relationship toward the material universe. The material universe includes us humans, who are a slightly more evolved version of biological organisms that share exactly the same matter as everything else there is.
Well, what exactly is that relationship that is supposedly so transformative? It’s a relationship wherein human beings acknowledge that we are the product of a massive elaborative process going on within the super-abundant matter of which we are constructed and from whose more primitive forms we evolved. The very genetic modulations in form and function resulting from evolution already represent something of a challenge to the declaration that things are “only what they are.” For in the case of our own organism at one level we are “only” quarks and leptons, the sub-atomic quanta packets that are the building blocks of everything there is. And yet at another level here am I. At the level of my fully evolved organism I am something entirely and significantly different from the very elements of which I am constituted. The biological evolution occurring over eons and eons of deep geological time could not have taken place if the multiple sustained and consistent interactions evident in the availability of the material components and favorable environmental conditions were not there. No human being like myself, looking at this scenario rationally, could be anything but supremely grateful that the multiplicity of factors that comprised the conditions that allowed my humanity, which I enjoy so intensely, to exist— embodied in a material organism that is so much my own that it has given rise to my very self — were so stable, and that my ancestors had the ability to adapt to whatever instabilities continued to exist within that environment.
Gratitude. Now we are getting into the thick of it. I am grateful that I am here. Doesn’t gratitude imply that there is someone to whom I am grateful? And if there is someone to thank, aren’t we speaking about something other than what is “just there”? How can things be “just what they are” if as a matter of fact their presence is being provided (or has been provided) by someone or something else … which by implication must also be there if indeed it is the real provider of what is there?
Clearly this is what the author of the opening maxim was getting at: he was insisting there is no “God.” Please be advised, so do I. There is only the material universe doing what it has done on its own for the 14 billion years that we can verify its existence. Therefore a sentiment like gratitude that seems to imply something else, must be, in principle, an illusion.
Now this creates a problem, because the sense of gratitude is not only spontaneous and very intense, it is also sustained even after having been informed by modern science about the way evolution functions. As a matter of fact the sense of gratitude is as sustained, continuous and insuppressible as the sustained positive magnanimity that human beings perceive gives rise to it. Gratitude and magnanimity appear to be correlated, for we human beings, by being in an uninterrupted sense the product of a process like biological evolution, which we did not initiate and about which we have little knowledge and over which we have virtually no control, we have a profound sense of have been given, or provided … or to speak more impersonally: thrown, spawned, emanated, evolved … so the very interior feeling of “being only what I am” becomes difficult to maintain. I am constantly confronted with the evidence that I am not what I have chosen or made myself to be but rather I am the product of a multitude of contributing factors that are not me: the reproductive cells of my ancestors and theirs, the quality and availability of food in my now socially controlled environment, the accessibility of health care, police protection, infrastructure adequate to the prevailing climatic conditions, etc. These are the proximate causes of my existence. Even without referring to more remote cosmic conditions that made my existence possible I see that “what I am” depends in large measure on other things — on what I am not.
I really have no choice: like it or not, I have to be grateful, because the very thing that I cherish the most, my life, my self, is dependent upon a host of “other things.” Of course, in terms of strict logic, you may say you have no obligation to be grateful, because there is no one person or self-identified collectivity of persons who are responsible for all these things which make it possible to be here. My existence is not the result of any observable benevolence. But since when does obligation characterize gratitude, any more than the acts that gave it rise? The feeling of gratitude, I contend, does not come from the identification of a donor, it comes from the acknowledgement of dependency — the awareness of being a recipient. I love my life, hugely, and I am supremely grateful to whatever it is — no matter how many disparate and unconnected factors there are — that make my life possible. Gratitude is first and foremost the recognition of having received myself from elsewhere … of not having made myself. It is a spontaneous reaction that arises and is sustained in total ignorance of the source of such largesse.
If we are going to analyze this accurately I believe we have to keep this sequence of discovery in mind and acknowledge what is primary and what is secondary. Nothing “objective” except other conditioned material factors have been mentioned as the source of my precarious existence. What we know is what we are, and what we are is the end product of a multiplicity of agents, the majority of which we are ignorant of and, in fact, we may never know. This indisputable reality that conditions what we are, i.e., that we are radically dependent, is the starting point; it absolutely determines our self-embrace. To accept ourselves for what we really are is to accept ourselves as received from elsewhere, and so totally NOT in control of our own existence that we don’t even know all the things on which we are actually dependent to continue being here and being what we are.
Clearly, in this view, what we are is an item in a vast network of things and processes that transcend our organism in whatever direction we look. So from this angle it seems that anyone who would claim that “what is there is the only thing that’s there” must recognize that the “what” is really an immense totality in motion in which I am borne along like a drop of water in a great river, about which we are all generally aware but which is unknown in all its depth and detail both in things and the forces operative in the process. Without knowing all of what goes into our being here as ourselves, we are not in a position to make any definitive statement about etiology: source and causation. We are utterly agnostic about everything except the one known and clear fact: that we are totally dependent on a vast collectivity that is not us for our being-here and being what we are. And the practical and unavoidable psychological counterpart of this perception is gratitude.
Now I am going to claim that this self-perception entails a correlative self-embrace that is a crucial step in the establishment of humankind’s moral posture. In other words, the recognition and acceptance of dependency — and its associated gratitude — is constitutive of the moral embrace of the human being functioning within a community of human beings who are necessarily affected as a community by this mutual common acknowledgement. The acceptance of dependency (which includes social inter-dependency) brings a particular moral bearing to the business of living together in community that is achieved by no other means. The community of people who are all personally aware of this fact about themselves and all the members of their community are predisposed to making collective decisions that are compassionate and cooperative: advantageous to each and all.
I believe that this is the primary and foundational level of human social/personal life. This is “ground zero,” the absolutely unavoidable constituent bedrock of human social cooperation. It is essential to human survival because the human individual cannot live outside of human community physically or psychologically. Everything else is secondary to this ground. The perception of dependency and the feeling of gratitude for life are critical to human well-being.
Religion is secondary. There is nothing primary or foundational about religion. Religion has no “facts” of its own. Religion is a tool that the human community has developed to assist in the establishment and the continued protection of the instinct to gratitude with all its sources, viz., the perception of dependency. In this effort to preserve this personal bearing that society needs so desperately in order to maintain its cooperative character, in ancient times an entire sphere of causes was invented out of the poetic imagination of our earliest ancestors in order to fill the gap in our ignorance. Today we call it myth. This is religion.
The perception of dependency and the concomitant feeling of gratitude is indisputable fact. It is the only religious fact. The rest is projection. The sources and causes of the dependency and the sources and causes of the sustained magnanimity of available resources are fundamentally unknown even to this day. To eliminate this hiatus in our knowledge, which was much more pronounced before the discoveries of modern science, religion was invented and the unknown sources and causes of the desired attitudes imagined. This occurred wherever human community was found, accounting for the plethora of religious forms across the globe. In each case the result was the same: the unknown source and sustainer of existence was imagined and projected as real, generally in the form of a sphere of creative power, both benevolent and malevolent, that were entities humanoid in character — “gods.”
The gratitude founded on the awareness of dependency that I am now evoking as constitutive of human society and therefore religion, is fundamentally the same as what I have called in other contexts, a sense of the sacred. I spoke of the sense of the sacred as the spontaneous reaction of the individual human being, driven by the innate conatus to survive, aware of his own precarious possession of existence, and the consequent thirst and hunger for a secure source. They are the same phenomenon seen in the first case from a social perspective, and an individual in the second. In each the phenomenon I am talking about is a human psychological bearing, an attitude, an intentionality that derives from the human perception of its own vulnerability … i.e., that human beings do not possess a stand-alone locked-down control over their having been born, or being this person or that, or how long their existence as human organisms will last or where it is going … but nevertheless love cherish and will do anything to preserve their life.
It is what the Buddhists call the awareness of “dependent arising” which is often conceptualized in later Buddhism as “emptiness.” Everything is “empty” because everything is characterized by the absence of independent existence. Please notice: there is no mention of, much less identification of a metaphysical source of existence, or an objective remedy for emptiness. The entire exercise has been on the subjective side. The analysis attempts to plumb the human source of the religious phenomenon and finds it in the common experience of humankind of its dependency which generates religion as its universal response. Essential to that response is gratitude.
Putting all this together with the transformative power of relationship that we explored in sections 2 and 3, we can see what religion has come to mean for the human species. The relationship to life that is characterized by gratitude sustains and justifies a cooperative spirit in the human community. A sense of gratitude deriving from an awareness of dependency transforms the perception of the material environment from being neutral or even hostile to patently familiar, magnanimous and profligate, if not benevolent.
I want to emphasize: the transformative factor in this view of things is not the identification of some “God” person, despite the fact that people will tend to imagine a sustained magnanimity as the gift of a benevolent source, and benevolence evokes personality, as does gratitude. In the view I am espousing, however, all things remain exactly and only what they are and always have been: the evolved versions of material energy released at the big bang. There is nothing else there. The only change is the relationship generated by the community of human individuals who — prodded by an insuppressible innate material instinct for self-preservation — love and cherish the human life they possess and everything that has gone into creating and sustaining it. The individual comes to realize that he or she isn’t just “what he is, or what she is.” They realize they are the point of coalescence of all their multiple causes and therefore bear within themselves each of those causes. They recognize themselves as the spawn and representative of a totality in process about which they know almost nothing.
Ultimately, then, it can be said that gratitude is reducible to the love of life, and the love of life to the embedded conatus. It must be acknowledged that we are to that extent utterly determined. We cannot help ourselves. “We cannot keep from singing,” as the old Baptist hymn proclaims, not because we have positively encountered some divine benevolent donor who has blessed us with the gift of human life, but simply because we cannot do otherwise. We love material life because WE ARE MATERIAL LIFE and we are programmed to love what we are. We can’t help it. If we try to suppress it we make ourselves sick. We are grateful because we have exactly what we are programmed to want; our only problem is we do not have it permanently. (The vain attempt to create this absent permanence by accumulating things and aggrandizing the “self” at the expense of others is the source of all self-inflicted human suffering, conflict, injustice and disharmony among us. Correlatively, the acceptance of impermanence accompanied by an unconditioned gratitude gives rise to an attitude of compassionate loving-kindness toward the entire cosmos of dependent entities which gave us birth and to which we belong.)
These minimalist conclusions may not satisfy those who have become dependent on their fantasies about “God” persons and other “spiritual” entities imagined to live in a parallel world invisible to us, but it helps make clear what exactly we are dealing with. These are the phenomena we are confronted with. As far as facts are concerned, it is all we know. It exhaustively describes our present condition; it is indisputable. How all this began and is able to sustain itself and what it will all become, is a matter of legitimate metaphysical conjecture, and in the context of our universally acknowledged ignorance, no reasonable possibility can be validly dismissed beforehand as untenable. Those who have decided to opt for the traditional western humanoid “God” person(s) have no greater claim to factuality than any other theory about the origins and destiny of our reality. It is all the work of the imagination — every bit of it.
But in addition I want to emphasize: it is all secondary. The primary event is the acceptance of the full depth of dependency that characterizes organic life and the whole hearted embrace of the spontaneous gratitude and loving-kindness that wells up in the human heart toward the multiple factors, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious, proximate and remote that have concurred so marvelously in producing and sustaining my existence. I embrace in an act of loving-kindness all the cosmic forces that produce my existence. This is the ultimate religious act. It transforms the cosmos itself from being “just what it is” to being my cosmos — the beloved ancestor that spawned me. This is not metaphor. It is raw fact. And the love I have for myself is transmitted to my cosmos, my environment, my community, making it cherished, the object of loving-kindness, compassion and concern. There may not have been any affect of love toward me functioning in any of the various “causes” of my existence, including my parents whose copulation may have been devoid of any focus outside of themselves and their own enjoyment. It doesn’t matter. I don’t love them because they loved me but because they gave me existence. It is my existence that I love. The relationship is created unilaterally by my gratitude as recipient — by my love of my LIFE — and it transforms the universe by bathing it in the light and heat of loving-kindness. It turns the universe into my universe, and the earth into my earth, and gathers all the human beings around me into that embrace. All people become my people because I love LIFE.
Imagine, then, a community of people each individually grateful for his or her LIFE and mindful of the many sources of mutual conditioning among us by which each one affects each other. We each embrace all, in our gratitude and compassion, and we are each embraced by all in theirs. For we know what we are made of. We are well aware of our radical dependency. We are dust and fast disappearing. This I contend is the religious event. The one thing necessary. The act of cosmic gratitude is constitutive of the authentic human individual and the cooperative human community. Without it full humanity remains only a potential of the individual organism which continues being “just what it is” until energized by the transforming power of the community’s gratitude, evoking loving-kindness.
So it’s true. Things are “just what they are.” In one sense they never change because “they are only what’s there, and they are there the way they just happened to get there.” But in another sense, once we humans acknowledge our dependency on the cosmic forces that went into our makeup, the relationship of loving-kindness that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially. If you doubt that you have that power, try cosmic gratitude for just one day. You’ll see.
This is the transforming work of human moral power, not some washed-up ancient war-god with a dubious and unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends “dependent arising.” This is where metaphysics begins.