Translating the Mystics

2,000 words

The mystics, east and west, are a key resource in the pursuit of the universalism that I am convinced lies at the heart of all religions and traditions, among which I include compassionate atheism. The mystics are cherished everywhere, but in the west particularly, they are not taken seriously as a source of “truth.” They are considered rather as visionaries, poets, holy to be sure and inspiring but not entirely reliable because the considerable emotion they display gives rise to the suspicion that they are subjective.

In the Christian west, Jesus fared no better. Observers will notice that gospel accounts do not record that Jesus enunciated virtually any of the “doctrines” that were later counted as core truths of Christianity. Hundreds of years later, as Christian doctrine came to be “defined,” mainly by councils sponsored by the Roman emperors, Jesus was divinized and treated more like an object of worship than a source of doctrinal truth. He was sidelined like all the mystics, even though it was his “defined” divinity that was called upon to “prove” doctrinal infallibility.

In the east, in contrast, the words and practice of Buddha became the subject of discussion, debate, interpretation and eventually canonization in the form of written documents considered by consensus to accurately reflect the mind of the founder. What there is of authentic dogma and ritual in Hindu-Buddhism, is closely linked to practice and bears no reference to the anatomy of the universe or the favor of the gods. The focus is what in our tradition we would call “prayer life,” and spiritual transformation; that practice, among Buddhists, is specifically meditation. Doctrine amounted to accurately identifying and applying the methods of meditation and, of course, achieving its goals: individual peace and social harmony in this world.

This was not true for Christianity where the words and attitudes of Jesus were used to justify a religion structured around dogma and rituals created by the Roman Empire broadly patterned on its earlier state religion. Early Roman religion was a local version of the polytheism common to the Mediterranean region built on the myths of the gods. It was not complex. Its purpose was to secure divine favor for the advancement of the interests of the polis. Social harmony and consensus among the citizens came as a byproduct of that, but were hardly secondary. By the beginning of the fourth century the old state religion of the mythological gods, whose adolescent antics were ridiculed relentlessly by the philosophers, had lost all credibility and the Roman Empire needed a replacement. It selected Christianity. As part of that award, not only the buildings and temple paraphernalia of the gods were turned over to the Christian Church, but with the “donation of Constantine” came a responsibility: to sustain the worldview and purposes of the Roman state religion. Christianity re-invented itself as the ground for Rome’s theocracy.

The “Way of Jesus” which had produced the gospels was ultimately swallowed up by the Imperial embrace. Jesus himself was not interested in using “God” as a prop for state power, so if his followers were to fulfill the role offered to them by Rome they would have to stop following Jesus. Effectively, the religion that came to bear the name “Christian” found itself required to reinterpret Jesus’ words, attitudes and behavior, lifestyle and motivations, in order to subordinate them to Roman priorities. It made Jesus an inspirational, even consoling figure, but it prevented the codification of his message, which was so thoroughly opposed to the demands of the Roman state that it got him killed. Jesus’ use of the words “kingdom of God” was precisely intended to situate ultimate loyalty and behavioral compliance in justice and compassion among people not in any state authority, whether it be the Jewish nation or the Roman Empire. In the frenzy to accommodate themselves to the windfall of Constantine’s “donation,” Christians had to ignore all this. They did. Some say they still do.

Roman “Christian” Doctrine came to be determined on other bases, some a crass, politically motivated exaggeration, like the Greek philosophical divinization of Jesus pressured by the emperor himself at the Council of Nicaea, and others the result of the interpretative fantasies of Hellenizing Jews like Paul of Tarsus and John following Philo, and neo-Platonic Roman philosophers like Augustine of Hippo who concocted “doctrines” like Original Sin which were not part of the Jewish doctrinal legacy and never even alluded to by Jesus. Nicaea, taking place in Constantine’s own private villa and with his dominating personal participation, proceeded to its decisions despite the fact that not only did the assembled bishops try to resist the emperor who insisted they use the word “homoousios” to describe Jesus’ divinity, but also with Jesus himself who, as recorded in the gospels, explicitly denied being “God.”

What “divinization” missed was the heart of the matter.   What made Jesus a great spiritual teacher was the fact that he was an ordinary human being whose extraordinary human experience had brought him to a profoundly human reinterpretation of the theocratic Jewish tradition and turned it into a potential universalism of irresistible appeal. It was providential that his message was preserved in the gospel narratives of his life and work or we may never have known what it was, for it is not borne forward by the dogmas of the religion. He saw “God” as a loving Father, not a demanding and punitive Monarch who would reward you with conquest and slaves if you obeyed him. The gospels, written by his earliest followers for whom it was entirely enough to say that Jesus was God’s messenger, have preserved for us the character and significance of his message. The claim that he was a “god.” or even, outrageously and blasphemously that he was “God” himself, served to distort, undermine and fatally emasculate the radical transformative power of his discovery and his invitation.

Re-forming Christianity

But while the theocratic exploitation of Christianity has created outrageous doctrine that because of its antiquity, we realize now, will never be repudiated by the Churches whose success is tied to the appearance of tradition, the authentic religious endeavor should nevertheless move resolutely to the task of a new kind of codification: to identify and articulate the vision of Jesus in the light of the universalism it shares with all other religions. And in pursuit of that end, as a first and immediate item of common data across time and traditions, the experience of the mystics should be considered foundational. What Jesus and the mystics all have in common is the recognized superlative nature of their lived religious experience and practice. “By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus is recorded as saying. Indeed. It is the only test of religious truth.

Religion is practice. It is the art of living humanly. It is not primarily focused on “truth” taken as objective “scientific” knowledge. This should not be misunderstood. Knowing what things really are is important for determining what they can and should do; that holds true for humankind as well. But in our case, knowing what we are as human beings comes at the end of a process of discovery. We know what we are by seeing what we do that works. So practice, the lived experience of people like Jesus and the mystics who have achieved unequaled success in the art of living, has been the origin and energizer for most religions throughout history.

Unfortunately, because of the “other worldly” emphasis of mediaeval Christianity, some mystics expressed their discoveries in terms of visionary experiences. Despite their own clear rejection of assigning any importance to these forms of expression, the word “mystic” in the popular mind evokes enthusiasts who have psychedelic and hallucinatory experiences. But in reality, as a serious reading of their work will show beyond any doubt, their “doctrines” were about the moral and emotional transformation of the selfish individual into a generous and compassionate human being, for the benefit of all, and the practices necessary to achieve it.

Religious reform, then, which amounts to a re-appropriation of religion’s original vitality, should be equally based on the experience of these extraordinary people.

Jesus was one of the mystics. Christianity originally began as an attempt to follow and elaborate on his lived experience. That process got sidetracked and in many ways actually reversed by the Roman take-over. That reversal is not an insignificant development in the history of humankind. Among other things it has meant, after two thousand years of Christian “truth,” the domination and exploitation of the rest of the globe by White European Christians who falsely identified the wealth and power of their nation-states with the success of their “faith” applying the theocratic justifications embedded in Romanized Christian doctrine.  Correcting the false directions taken by Christianity and undoing the damage done by Christian theocracy will require reinstalling the lived experience of Jesus and other mystics from across the globe at the foundation of a new doctrinal edifice. There is no alternative. Many who have accurately seen the source of the problem, and yet, in an attempt to respect traditional institutions, believed that somehow the damaging effects of doctrine could be ignored and authentic religious experience pursued on a parallel track, have again and again had their hopes dashed as “reform” has been demolished by theocratic doctrine. We should have known better. The very attempt is schizoid. It belies the obvious integrity of the human organism whose thoughts and actions can be split from one another only at the cost of sanity. It is not insignificant that some have defined holiness as a profound and available sanity. What is eluding us transcends “truth.”

The mystics’ vision

I suggest starting here: Mystics, east and west, broadly speaking, agree on one foundational experience that characterizes their practice: the self is intimately one with all things. It has two aspects: (1) There is an intimate connectedness among all things creating an inescapable bond of unity with the whole universe. This is, in practice, most often seen in action within the human community in the form of justice, compassion and mutual assistance. (2) The practitioner’s self has a unique role in the establishment of the religious relationship which grounds universal connectedness. The human individual’s intimate relationship to all things originates in the depths of the self. The self is the wellspring of the principle of unity.

In practice, while the first expresses itself most often in human society, it is fundamentally universal; we see it functioning today in a concern for the whole planet. The second corresponds to a sense of ground residing in one’s own interior depths. It also sets up a relationship with that ground which may or may not be interactive as between two “persons.” All this remains to be explored in detail.

Both of these aspects of common practice give rise to other secondary explanatory “doctrines” which differ among the traditions depending on the “scientific” (philosophical) context provided by the local culture in which they are occurring. But I want to emphasize: the two foundational items are features of direct experience. They are not beliefs or objective truths “out there;” they are the descriptions of personal experience that are universal among the mystics. There is, initially, no talk of “God” or of any explanatory “entities” not encountered directly in the process of living. Such second tier explanations are claimed to be “revealed,” or conjectured, or inferred, but in all cases they are ancillary and, despite the dominant role they may come to play for the particular tradition, they are the doctrines that vary most among the mystics. What all mystics have in common with little divergence is the originating experience: a oneness with all things realized through the source of unity found in the depths of one’s self.

This is absolutely universal among them. For the mystics, we are intimately related, by dint of something resident in the self, to everything that exists, even the inanimate. I want to sit quietly with this for a while as experience before analyzing it in future posts. I think it is fair to say that it is not unfamiliar territory for any of us.

What you see is what you get

2400 words

Of all the cultural phenomena we share as a species across divisions of land and language, religion stands out as perhaps the most common. Its characteristics are similar everywhere. It is the expression and the enjoyment of a bi-valent relationship that has many of the characteristics of a family. Like a family, religion binds together a number of individuals on one level, who, on another level, claim to be related to the same source of their organic life ― as the offspring of the same parents are brothers and sisters to one another. This two-directional characteristic is common to all religions. Even though some may emphasize one or the other of the two components, religion, as suggested by its Latin root re-ligere, “to bind,” celebrates the mutual binding of those who are all bound to the same source of life.

The claims of Religion, like the family, are based on objective, physical reality: the generation and survival of the living human organism. The expressions that religion creates ― creeds, rituals, moral behavior ― are all, in theory, designed to support and enhance those relationships that bind those bound to LIFE.

What sets religion apart from other families, however, is that the relationship to the source of life is disputed, not only with regard to its character, but also to its very existence. The foundational source of the religious relationship ― the “parent” ― is not visible. There is no known cause of human life beyond the reproducing human individuals. As far as human knowledge is concerned, no one directly knows who or what the ultimate, originating source of our life is.

Despite that, the great majority of humankind seems to have always had a conviction that such an ultimate source not only accounts for our abilities and dispositions as humans, but is responsible for our continued existence as a family in the here and now, and plays a determinative role in the direction of human social affairs, especially the macro-political. (Political power has been believed since ancient times to be a direct result of divine selection and conferral; and the chosen ruler has been taken to act in the place of the absent “god.” That means that religion and politics are intimately linked. Indeed, in the history of humankind most governments have been theocracies, and even our supposedly “secular” American system is grounded on tacit religious assumptions which many feel should be made explicit.) A implication is that the state is a religious entity. This is not an insignificant aspect of our history as a species.

This conviction of a common organic source has led religion to claim that its common destiny as a family is not gratuitous, but has arisen naturally and inevitably from its origins which continue to sustain human social existence here and now. In other words Religion, as a global phenomenon (disregarding local exceptions), is not a self-defense mechanism, a “circling the wagons” by terrified human beings who find themselves naked and alone in an alien and hostile universe. In the aggregate it has assumed just the opposite. Religion is the attempt to extenuate into adulthood the sense of family that naturally arises for every individual during the long period of nurturing that follows birth. Psychologically speaking, religion is simply the expected continuation ― the unsurprising furtherance ― of a lived reality in which the individual is loved, cared for and directed by the people who gave it life. As the individual continues its identity, it continues to expect that a protective, familial context will enwrap it.

An illusion?

Sigmund Freud in his 1927 book The Future of an Illusion, identifies the child’s fantasy of always having a hovering, protective parent providentially overseeing every event of its life ― a source of psychological security and optimism ― as the ultimate source of (western) religion’s projection of an imaginary Father-God. This dove-tails with the family view suggested above. But, basing itself on science, it denies the perennial claims of western religion that it is grounded on the creation and continuation of life. Western religion has always made a quasi-scientific claim about the origin and nature of the universe. It has always assumed the Biblical book of Genesis to be a literal rendering ― a kind of science ― which said that “God” made this universe of matter. It is precisely religion’s physical, material claim that was denied by Freud that makes religion an illusion.

The fact of the matter is we now know that the Genesis account is not literal; it’s an imaginary reconstruction. But at the same time, logically speaking, it seems Freud overreached, because modern science hardly has much more to offer. All science can verify is that there is no rational teleology ― no discernible purpose ― functioning in our universe, and as far back as its origins in the “big bang,” there is no evidence that there ever was. The universe and its evolution are a function of the autonomous evolution of material energy, not the work of a rational craftsman no matter how omnipotent and omniscient it is said to be. But as to the source of life, science admits that it does not know.

The conflict here between Freud and the traditional view is representative of the way we have generally approached religion: as a question of knowledge. Traditional religion claims it knows “God” created the world, and Freud claims that science knows that there is no cosmos-con­struc­ting “God.” But, in fact, no one knows. Western religion did not know that “God” created the world, it believed someone’s imagined narrative; and Freud did not know the origins of LIFE; he simply believed science would “someday” discover it. But regardless of the collapse of his premise, Freud’s decision to explore the psychological origins of religion as a semi-patholo­gi­cal clinging to childhood ― a refusal to grow up ― is now generally acknowledged to have revealed a distortion of religion’s family sense: he correctly saw that western religion involved the projection of “God” as a micro-mana­ging parent. I do not consider religion an illusion, but I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment.

Knowledge

This conflict has divided humankind’s self-perception, and sense of family, in profound ways. But it turns on our reliance on knowledge, and knowledge cannot solve this conflict. But if we approach the question from a different angle altogether ― from human experience ― a way opens that bypasses knowledge and apprehends reality affectively.   By “affective,” I am referring to sensory features of the human organism that have emerged precisely to provide a direct and consistently reliable contact with the entire material environment for the purposes of securing survival. What makes this type of contact objectively valid is that it works. Affectivity is a term that I am using to acknowledge the multiple pathways to the apprehension and embrace of reality other than the conscious thinking associated with the use of words, the symbols of human mental images. A large and complex observational apparatus is available to the human organism that provides individuals with a much wider and richer “picture” of the reality around them ― a picture that cannot always be put into words ― but that is not based on fantasy and projection. The information these less acknowledged pathways supply to the organism is often absorbed subliminally, which the conscious mind is unaware of but the organism as a whole “sees” and reacts to in ways that we call “instinctive.”[1]

By “instinct” I do not mean guesswork, a parallel pathway to knowledge that avoids the hard work of research and testing. I mean the unrecorded somatic reactions that direct a quarterback, for instance, to anticipate with amazing accuracy exactly where his moving receiver will be when his pass arrives; or the unthinking but infallible gyrations changing the center of gravity that occur when someone slips on a banana peel and keeps themselves from falling. In introducing these instinctive pathways, I do not mean either to exclude the more conscious conceptual connections or to trivialize them. I am merely trying to broaden our usual imagery about ourselves to include what science now knows to be an array of unconscious and semi-conscious receptors that enhance our survivability within our environment by giving us a more complete objective picture of reality. The organism as a totality “sees” more than the mind; and what it “sees” is absolutely factual: it helps it to survive.

The fact that these many tentacles to the things around us are not all conscious draws attention to our seamless unity with the world. We are not bodiless “minds,” alien spirits wandering on a planet of hostile matter; we are multifaceted biological organisms immersed in our earth matrix like a sponge in the sea. We are the spawns of this planet, its offspring. We remain connected to it umbilically for life-support; if you separate us from it we will die. We belong here and nowhere else.

When we allow ourselves the affective contact with reality that the entire sensory apparatus of the human organism is designed for ― transcending the narrow, myopic, truncated, word-based mental operations traditionally considered “knowledge” ― suddenly “reality” takes on a new and unexpected dimension. We “see” things as perhaps never before. For the material human organism finds itself in a state of a deep and quiet joy simply being embedded in and connected to the life support systems for which it evolved its particular forms and features. When the human being is allowed to be what it really is: a biological organism fully enjoying its perfect adaptation to the earth’s environment from which it emerged, the disequilibrium that is said to uniquely undermine and sicken human existence, instantly evaporates.

This experience gives rise to the suspicion that, all along, there was an erroneous identification of the human being with an imaginary separate entity called “mind,” together with an idolatrous exaltation of abstract thought ― knowledge ― as somehow divine, that contributed to our malaise. We are bodies, but we told ourselves we were disembodied spirits. We tried to live that way and it made us sick. When, finally, we allow ourselves to be what we are, and our survival community shares, supports, promotes and defends that biological reality, we live in a state of inner peace individually, and in harmony with one another socially.

Growing up

In addition, with the disappearance of the alienation generated in us by our tragic belief that we are disembodied spirits, we find we no longer need to maintain the infantile fantasy of a hovering, controlling “Father-God” whom we imagine to be a “spirit” who wants us to be good. “Being good” in our tradition has always meant to become a “spirit” like him: to identify with our rational minds and to disassociate ourselves from our bodies and everything material as alien to our “spiritual” destiny. And to that end “God” was said to send us impulses (grace) that would generate guilt and aversion for what our bodies incline us to do, and entice us away from “this carnal world” with offers of immortality as spirits in the world of no-bodies to which we have been taught we really belong.

But once we no longer need a “God” to help us to be what we are not, we find ourselves secure in what we are. We discover that we have all the equipment and instincts we need to nestle safely in our earth home with our family, ruled by systems of justice and works of compassion that WE have devised for ourselves after millennia of living together. We put what we learned into the mouth of “God” to make it easier for our children to follow our advice.

We become increasingly awestruck at the child-like qualities of the powerless invisible SOURCE OF LIFE, whose effusive and selfless material energy constitutes our bodies. It is that fertile living energy that has driven evolution and produced these marvelous organisms that we cherish and enjoy. We can acclaim that SOURCE OF LIFE for what it is and what it has done, without even knowing it directly. We don’t need to project onto it our regressive needs to have a parent who tells us what to do and reads us bed-time stories that death is not real. We know what to do. And we know we will die. Our multi-valent, instinctive bodies tell us what to do and they know how to let go when death comes. And we can love our SOURCE OF LIFE for the gentle, fragile and defenseless thing it really is, and what it has made of us, and stop fantasizing tyrants taken from our own worst examples of people who need to dominate others to engorge and deify themselves. We have often imagined “God” that way.

When we finally grow up, we no longer project a “God” of our imagination that is not there. We begin to cherish and try to imitate the real SOURCE OF LIFE that comprises and suffuses our bodies, an invisible living energy at the very core of our being that we are in touch with every moment of every day, that is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves, the ground of our being-here, whom our ancestors called by many names: “LIFE,” “Fire,” “Wellspring,” “Ground,” “Source,” “Breath,” “Love,” “Being,” and, the name that is the most cherished of all: “mySELF,” whom I love as a man worships the woman he loves, as a woman adores the man she loves, SELF-EMPTYING LIFE ITSELF, masked with my face.

I am that very same living material energy gathered, evolved and nested on this planet with my family ― all of us are the masks and offspring of the same divine fire that burns in every living thing. My body “sees” and is embraced by this reality, perhaps without ever translating it into words or pretending to call it know­ledge.

 

[1] Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal, Pantheon, NY, 2012, passim; but see especially chapter 2, pp. 30-52

Knowing and not-knowing

2,000 words

The ancient Platonists proclaimed the unknowability of the “One” based on an analysis of the concept of Being.  The concept was absolutely universal and included everything that existed.  Since it included everything, Being was not different from anything and therefore could not be the object of human know­ledge which functioned by distinguishing one predicate from another.  The human mind knew realities by genus and specific difference, and “Being” had neither. Hence “God” could not be known by the human mind.  The concept of Being justified not only the characteristics of “God’s” nature that were derived from an analysis of the concept, but it also explained why no one knew “God”: he was unknowable.

If, now, I have decided that I cannot use “Being” as the ultimate definition of “God” anymore because, in contrast to Plato, I do not believe that concepts represent independent entities, where does that leave me? I not only have no basis for listing the properties of the divine nature, but I cannot explain why no one knows “God.” The characteristics of “God” that were associated with an analysis of the concept of Being are pure conjecture with no basis in fact. Not only do I not know “God,” I now realize that I don’t even know what “God” is supposed to look like. I don’t even really know what I’m looking for.

What am I left with? Experience. Relationship to the source of my existence ― Religion ― is not grounded in an intellectual premise, an “eternal conceptual truth,” it is just a emergent fact, the result of millennia of human living. My contention is that after all this time we know that we don’t know. We trust what we don’t know. The claims of “divine revelation” made by the various traditions across the globe all shows signs of fabrication or projection. They may legitimately be said to broker trust, but as know­ledge, none are reliable. Of course it is undeniable that we are related to the source of our existence which we have no choice but to trust, but what it is no one has ever known.

I also know that we have elaborated all the tools that one might need in finding what I am seeking. There is no new telescope, no “God” particle, no future re-arrange­ment of concepts, that will get us any closer to knowing what the truth is. That means we know that we will never know. At some point after ages upon ages of repeated confirmation, these facts become uncontestable, undebatable, indisputable ― not in some absolute sense of “principle” that would only be true in a Platonic universe where “ideas” had their own independent eternal reality, but in the real sense of a living organism having learned through experience what it can and can’t do on this earth, what is real and what is not real in real time. The human organism knows it will never see “God.”

There are many similar things we know beyond the shadow of a doubt. That we will all die, for example. It’s absurd for logic to insist that such a claim is “limited” because all we have to go on is past experience. It is said that no past experience no matter how universal and invariable can preclude the possibility that somebody alive today will not die. I’m sorry. After all this time anyone who would seriously make that statement is either a very young child, insane or acting with the sophistry that only abstract logic allows. (I leave out intentional fraud or pathological sub-conscious self-deception, which includes mass religious hysteria). It confirms the ordinary people’s mistrust of abstract thought. Similarly, I contend that it is as solid a conclusion as can be drawn about anything in life that “God” (a word I use reluctantly to refer to the origin, explanation and ultimate destiny of our material cosmos, including us) is simply and conclusively not knowable. The experience is so universal and so invariable that it effectively exonerates those who believe there is no “God.” There is nothing unreasonable about being an atheist. “God” is simply not there to be known.

Someone might object: then why talk about “God” at all? If your argument from experience is so compelling, why doesn’t the experience of never seeing “God” constitute a proof of “his” non-existence and therefore that the entire religion-project is just fantasy?

I would answer that I am very intentionally avoiding the word and concept “God” because I do not believe that the source of our being-here is credibly revealed by either mediaeval conceptual analyses or ancient tribal myths, which have been the source of the idea of “God.” I believe the existence (and character) of our existential source is revealed by the experience of being-here. Religion, in my view, is a collective human project of gratitude and appreciation at the fact of our existence as a family of human beings. That includes a trusting relationship to our source ― which is objectively established by the mere fact that we exist as we are ― even though we do not know what that source is.  We trust what we do not know because we are in awe at what we are and that we are-here.

There is an appropriateness in beginning with the results of human experience and not with somebody’s abstract philosophical “principle” or some ancient tribe’s imaginary “revelation” from another world, because the subsequent elaboration of the religious project continues to be the ongoing development of an empirical relationship occurring in this world ― further experience. Religion is our embrace of ourselves here and now ― our joy in being-here alive, our love and compassion for one another ― that is inseparable from our trusting relationship to our source, for it is all one and the same thing. Let me explain.

If I know that I am not the source of my being-here (because I didn’t put myself here, design my body or mind, and I can’t prevent myself from not being-here) and yet I am-here now, that means my source also has to be-here now because I am dependent on my source even though I do not know what it is. I have to trust it with my very existence. The source of my being-here must necessarily be contemporaneously co-extensive and commensurate with my being-here.

We are the human individuals we are because we are biological organisms. We are made of the living matter that enlivens and delights us. That living organic matter, whatever else might exist in the chain of causes responsible for us being-here, is the most proximate and it is taxative — i.e., it is exhaustive, there is no other evident source. Even if there were some unseen immaterial mind, some invisible rational designer-reality behind and beneath the matter that forms the parameters of our organism and the horizon of our lives, that source has chosen matter ― our matter, evolving autonomously in real time on this earth ― as the exclusive and impenetrable interface between us. From our side of the divide, matter is all we see, it is all we have ever seen. There is nothing else visible. Living matter is clearly the most proximate source of our being-here, but we also have to be prepared: it may very well be the only one. Are we willing to concede that our source may be exactly what it appears to be? Whatever it happens to be, we have no choice but to trust it with our material survival.

Whatever else might constitute our reality, we are matter in a world of matter and our survival is a material achievement. Matter is the reality we must live with. There is no way out. That is a truth we have learned from experience, and a truth that leads to more experience. Living matter is either our source or it is the exclusive instrumental extension of our source, its unique agent.

Religion, then, following this empirical path, shows itself to be the continuing evolution of human experience; it starts from experience and goes from experience to experience. There is no line of division between ongoing human experience and some fixed eternal “truths,” or some unchanging immaterial lawmaker residing in another world. So-called “eternal truths” are idealist fictions, the results of reifying our ideas, of believing our “thinking” somehow belonged to the world of the gods and was not an emergent property of matter. And the “revealed commands,” similarly, are in fact the result of millennia of human experiments in social living ― the wisdom of humankind ― imputed to “God” because they were “sacred.” (Yes, they are sacred. They are sacred to us because they are precious lessons learned from experience that allow us to survive and thrive as a family of human beings, not because they are the “will” of some non-human “person” who is telling us something we could not discover on our own.)

One of the great lessons we have learned is that we have virtually no control over the conditions of our lives. We are totally dependent on the near-perfect interlock between the matter of our organisms and the material in our surroundings on this planet: food, air, water, temperature, materials for shelter, etc. We emerged step by step from the very same earth and never lost our umbilical connection to it. Our destiny is inescapably tied to the material matrix that spawned and sustains us. As we are continuing to learn that the life-support systems on earth are fragile and vulnerable to our ever more demanding presence, our impact as matter on matter becomes undeniable. We can no longer afford fairy tales of belonging to another world. The very fact that our stories tell us that we need to die in order to get to that other world, should be enough of a clue of their origin in fantasy. It’s not hard to understand these imaginings or to have compassion on those who cherish them; they are the daydreams of people who feel trapped. But there is no way out.

 

So it begins to dawn on us that, in fact, we know all we need to know, because what we know about our source is all there is to know. There is nothing else to know. What we complain about not knowing are the imaginary projections of belonging to other worlds that do not exist and not belonging to this one as biological organisms that live and die. What we don’t know is not something that can be known, because it’s not there, and all we need to know is right here in plain sight.  We are-here together, with these incredible, astonishing bodies and the minds they evolved, having arisen from and remaining nested in an earth-matrix teeming with so many life-forms that we have still not been able to name and count them   . . .   and all of it spinning through an expanse of space so vast that we cannot translate the numbers that measure it into images that fit in our heads  . . . filled with spectacular galactic structures made of the exactly the same matter that constitutes our bodies which we are just beginning to explore and understand. That our human organisms emerged from all that tells us all we need to know about our source. If it could do that, it can do anything.

Those who see religion as an escape to another world are unwilling to look at the height and depth, the breadth and intensity of what we are and where we live. They refuse to acknow­ledge that this world is transcendently sacred, in itself, as it is, with us in it as we are, without reference to some other world or some other life, or even some source other than the living matter which constitutes us all.

Religion should be our shout of joy at being-here now, being together, and being free. We are the evolved product of living matter’s total autonomy. Living matter put us here. It can be trusted. Living matter continues to constitute us exclusively, sharing with us its own dynamism for more life, its own trial-and-error autonomy, leaving us free to love, to create, to sit quietly weeping in astonishment at what we are. We are living, autonomous, self-transcending material organisms because we are made of living, autonomous, self-transcending matter.

We know all this. It’s all in plain sight. None of it is hidden, esoteric or arcane. Unless what we’re really looking for is a way out, what more do we need to know?

Christian Universalism, IVa

This is an addition to the previous post of the series on Christian Universalism which dealt with “spirit.”

2,300 words

Many people continue to identify the belief in a separable “spirit,” as absolutely indispensable to their religious lives. They simply cannot imagine “faith” without it. “To believe,” for them, means believing in entities and a reality other than this world of matter. In fact they often describe atheism simply as “materialism,” equating religion with belief in spirit.

Part of what seems to make spirit indispensable is the traditional Christian projection that there is a world other than this one, and it is populated with spiritual entities. Few people are aware that the origins of that view was Plato who conceived of a “world of ideas” where the immaterial “essences” (ideas) of existing things resided. Later this “other world” was identified as the “mind of God,” and divine entities like the Demiourgos-Craftsman and the World Soul also lived there. In Christian hands this eventually became the “Trinity” and was assimilated to a “place” where separated “souls” lived for all eternity with “God.” It seemed like belief in spirit was necessary to support belief in this “other world.”

I would like to get into the weeds on this topic because it is so central to our tradition. Almost all Christians share that worldview.

I want to challenge it. Not because I have an some definitive alternative but because the certainty with which the traditional view is maintained is entirely unwarranted. My challenge is to say that we simply don’t know. But I add immediately that not knowing does not affect faith in the least. I could never say “there is no such thing as separable spirit,” because logically speaking, you cannot prove a negative. You cannot prove that something doesn’t exist. I cannot prove that there is no such thing as spirits, or other immaterial entities like ghosts, specters, angels, devils.

Without trying to deny anyone else their opinion, I want to say definitively that those who claim that the existence of separable spirit is absolutely necessary for faith and that without it you cannot have authentic religion, are dead wrong. I may not know what’s definitively true, but I sure know what’s NOT true. And to say that “spirit” MUST exist as a separate entity, that “God” MUST be one of these separate entities, and that “God” CANNOT be what “material reality” is, is simply not true. In effect, they are all attempts to prove a negative; they are saying “such and such CANNOT BE” when there is simply no way to know one way or the other. I’m not saying I know; I am saying no one knows.

“God” is whatever “God” is. It’s not up to me to decide or demand, and what I would prefer is not the criterion for reality. The same holds true for the “after-life” or some projected world of immaterial entities. There either is or there isn’t such a thing. We have no control over it at any rate, and believing or not believing it has no effect whatsoever on whether it’s there or not. The fact that I may not like the way things are does not give me the right to claim they cannot be that way. They are whatever they are and my job is to find a way to love my life, the people who made my being-here possible and the source and process that has made me what I am, no matter what the ultimate mysteries of reality turn out to be. I am saying they are all ultimately irrelevant to faith. I ask the serious religious person who claims to “love God”: what if “God” turns out to be a material energy, will you still love “God”? What if there is no after-life with you in it, will you still love “God”? Do you love God only because you think “he” will give you what you want?

The key is to commit to reality. It doesn’t matter that we really don’t know what reality is, we can trust it. What do we need to know? By the time we’re five years old or so, we have been around long enough to know that it’s good to be-here. We know we belong to our people and to the planet. Life works. We like it. We belong here. We know we can trust it. Trust is natural. In fact, most of us live our lives without our sense of trust in life ever being broken. And those who have their confidence in life seriously challenged by tragedy, usually regain it before very long as the human organism recovers and becomes re-engaged in surviving. Thinking about tragedy recedes over time. Despair depends on thinking; the unthinking body does not know despair.

Faith that is collectivized as Religion is a trusting relationship to our source, whatever that is. It does not have to know “God” or what “God” might be like. All it knows, and it’s not debatable, is that the human being is not self-origina­ting, self-sustaining, or self-subsistent; it is dependent, contingent and metaphysically empty. It cannot account for its own existence; but it trusts what it is implicitly. What “God” means in the common estimation of mankind is that unknown “something” that ultimately accounts for my being-here as a material part of a vast cosmos that appears to be made of the same matter as I am.

I do not know what’s on the other side of the existence equation: I do not know all the forces and factors that have gone into my being-here-now. What I am calling faith acknowledges that reality, and without knowing exactly what is responsible for my improbable presence here or the presence of the universe itself, I embrace it with confidence as my unknown source, whatever it is. I surrender to the fact of my dependency and recognize that metaphysical emptiness is the air I breathe. It’s what I am. It pervades and affects everything I am, everything I do and everything (and everybody) that I am connected to in my life upon the earth.

It is my contention that not knowing , far from being an obstacle, is actually an essential element of faith, and it is attested to in all the religions around the world. But, not to worry. It’s an element that can never be lost, because no one knows, and the so called propositions of belief that declare that there is a “God” and that “God” is this or that, are not knowledge. They are place-holders for faith. If they are taken as knowledge, faith disappears. Ultimately they are symbols, metaphors, verbal tags developed in the past by people who, like us, did not know, but recognized there had to be something there to explain it. They trusted what they did not know. They selected place holders to stand for our emptiness and that unknown reality that sustains it until the day when it would be found, known, and the mystery of being-here solved; in the meantime, they trusted it. Those place holders are not the sustaining reality. They are substitutes for our trusting ignorance. They stand for whatever the reality is that accounts for the emptiness of the cosmos, but in themselves they do not denote it, define it, describe it or contain it. What it is, is not known, and, as many religious traditions claim, may very well be unknowable. They are symbols. They do not provide literal knowledge. Our sense of trust is built, not on that ignorance, or the tags that stand for it, but on the confidence that our material organisms have for being-here.

Those that assert that the place holders generated by their local community alone authentically symbolize the reality that no one knows, are wrong. The reason they make that fundamental mistake is because they do not think they are only place-holders; they think they are literal reality: knowledge.

Please notice: This denial of the validity of the symbols of other communities is a multi-millen­nial defining characteristic of Western Christianity. Christianity abandoned its early attempts to promote Jesus’ implicit universalism in favor of an implacable and genocidal intolerance that has been its consistent contribution to the disunity of humankind throughout its long history, most clearly in evidence since the installation of Christianity as the State religion of the Roman Empire

The nations and people who internalized Christianity have come to dominate the globe. The crass and habitual denial of validity to all symbols other than Christian is expressed in the Christian claim of supremacy over all other religions, which in the context of the theocracy that wed religion, ethnic and national identity, meant the unrestrained conquest and despoliation of non-Christian people everywhere that Christians went, justified by the alleged supremacy of Christian symbols. Thus the insistence on the literal reality of Christian symbols has led directly to the exploitation, enslavement, plunder and subjugation of people all over the world, as well as the sadistic and genocidal treatment of the non-Christian people who lived within its territorial boundaries.

Jesus’ warning: “By their fruits you will know them,” is actually a mirror for Christians if we dare to look in it. By our fruits we will know who we are and what the intolerance of our religious symbols has made us. We have become monsters to the world, and the globe is tearing itself to pieces in the effort to get rid of the legacy we have left it.

It is all a function of the Christian claims to supremacy. And the claim to supremacy is based on the fiction of having knowledge ― infallible truth. That claim is the one single and indisputable source of western dominion and the resulting global inequity, third world poverty, racial hostility and our seemingly insoluble violent conflicts as a species. And, it is our continued insistence on our supremacy ― our Christian religion welded in steel to our Caucasian ethnicity ― that resists and will prevent any insight into the only real durable solution to our conflicts: our self-embrace as a family of humankind. Our Christian religion has justified our fear, hatred and exploitation of non-Christian people. It is the single most divisive influence in our world and it has been actively undermining human unity and solidarity at least since the end of the middle ages. We have to look in that mirror.

It is sheer madness to use the “infallibility” that justifies the traditional western Christian ideology of supremacy to insist on the literal facticity of symbols ― a facticity that has prevented the solidarity we need to find common solutions. If a particular constellation of beliefs ― beliefs that include the literalness of symbols like spirit that are not in any way essential to faith ― have been identified as responsible for multiplying the torments we heap on one another, it is probably wrong.

*     *     *     *     *

No one knows “God.” We don’t even know whether we are talking about a force or an entity, a person or a presence. We don’t know whether the imagery we have inherited from our tradition is anything more than guesswork and myth. We don’t know that “God” is spirit. But we have always claimed “God” could not possibly be matter, without ever really justifying our prejudice. Could “he” be? Well if all we have to go on is what we see around us, and everything we see around us is made of matter, including our own selves, there is a good chance that if we are dependent on something for both what and that we are, that thing might very well be material. I’m not saying that proves it is. Nothing says our source has to be matter anymore than there is something that demands that it not be matter. I am saying it’s plausible; and those that choose to use matter’s creative energy as their symbol for “God” have as much access to an unknowing faith as the rest of us. Our symbols are not knowledge. They are place holders, and at no point do we confuse them with literal reality. We just don’t know; and at this point in time there is no way to overcome our ignorance.

If we are insuperably ignorant, then knowledge can’t be essential to faith. What’s essential is what we cannot deny: that we are empty of our own being-here and our bodies naturally trust being-here. We trust what put us here, whatever that may be, and we trust where the whole thing is going, wherever that may lead. We don’t “know” any of these things. What we do know and must all agree on, is our undeniable experience: we are empty of our own existence, and we reach out to one another for confirmation, interpretation and support because we empathize with one another. We love being-here and together we are determined to survive. This is bedrock. This is faith. Faith is natural, spontaneous and undeniable. It is the surrender to the human condition. To deny it, to suppress it, to cynically exploit it or destroy it in a tantrum of frustrated anger, I contend, is to lose our humanity.

And if you destroy your humanity because it doesn’t match your blueprint for the “true religion,” I can guarantee you, no “God” will come to your rescue.

Whatever symbols allow us to embrace our emptiness, reaching out to one another in empathy and compassion to support our trust in being-here, are authentic Religion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christian universalism (IV)

the mystery of being-here: creation or emergence; spirit

3,450 words

3.

Understanding what it’s like to have faith is an entirely interior event. Religion is about relationship and as with all relationships, no one can speak authentically about it who has not experienced it. The very nature of relationship, except for its observable and measurable “exterior effects,” is its interior content: the shared reality ― whatever it might be ― between the parties. In the case of the existential relationship, the shared reality is the empty being-here of the recipient ― its conditioned human life. Its dependent “self” is the content of the transaction. Its “self” belongs as much to the donor as the recipient and it doesn’t cease belonging to the donor upon being received. That is the source of its emptiness. The recipient doesn’t entirely own itself.

The content is what the parties related to one another “carry back and forth,” which is the transactional sense evoked by the underlying Latin verb “re-ferre, re-latus.” In the faith relationship the content “traded” and shared is existence itself, what I am calling being-here. What is being given and received is being-here, life. And while this unique and precious commodity is quite deeply appreciated and intimately cherished by the individual recipient, the donating source ― the provider(s), the co-owner(s) ― remains unknown. What provides being-here is not apparent, and the faith that is its recognition has relied on socially available confirmation, imagery and symbols for its expression: hence it is clothed in the language, ritual and story of the local community ― its religion ― and differs from culture to culture. But the general dynamics ― the operating forces, the “carrying back and forth,” the giving and receiving, the recognition of common ownership, the faith ― are the same for all regardless of locality or culture; faith is universal.

Inter-personal

In the human domain those dynamics are what we call “inter-personal.” Faith is the acknowledgement of an existential relationship seen from the side of the recipient whose very person ― one’s very self ― in perceiving itself as being received, simultaneously adumbrates itself in that same act as having been given. The experience triggers a spontaneous evocation of awe, gratitude and a sense of being embraced by the unknown donating source(s). It is absolutely unavoidable and undeniable. All human beings aware of their dependency know this experience. It is universal.

But what does personal mean when there is no humanoid “person” on which the existential dependency is known to rest? To answer that question is one of the principal goals of these reflections. It is the source of the most common confusion in this area: since the operating dynamic from the side of the receiver is necessarily “personal” (for it makes the human person to be-here and to be supremely grateful), it has been assumed that the existential source was also “personal” and “benevolent.” The fact that there is no consensus among the world’s religions in that regard has not been appreciated, and in the West, especially, rejected categorically. In our times science seems to concur with the view that the only “persons” involved in providing existence were the human ones from whom one is descended.

The West insists the source of being here must be a god-“person.” Well, of course, all the western religions derive from “the Book” and are built on an ancient pre-scientific narrative that imagined a personal god who created the world with a purposeful plan like any craftsman, freed the Hebrews from enslavement to the Egyptians, accompanied them in their conquest of Palestine, gives moral commands, expects to be obeyed and answers prayers in anticipation of rewarding or punishing people for their conduct. Such pre-scientific guesswork ― com­mon sense as it may have been at one time ― is completely inconsistent with the discoveries of modern science. No one in ancient times saw “God” creating the world. We now know we live in an evolving universe constructed entirely of material energy whose organic elaborations (all the known species of living things) are driven solely by the compulsion to be-here, an energy intrinsic to matter. The “common-sense” conjecture of our ancestors that a super-human architect and craftsman was responsible for all this amounted to a primitive “science,” meaning a concrete physical explanation of how the construction actually took place, not a metaphysics. (By metaphysics I mean a theory of abstract [conceptually structured] causation).   They cannot be faulted for making a plausible guess under the circumstances. But, as science, it is no longer valid; we now know that it never happened like that. Construction took place in another way altogether: evolution.

Creation or emergence?

It must be acknowledged, moreover, that the very idea of creation ― the conceptual structure that corresponded to what the ancients thought creation meant ― was derived from and remains wedded to that that mistaken science. “Craftsman” and “creation” are correlative notions that refer to concretely imagined events. You cannot suddenly admit that the “ancient science” was faulty but continue to assert that the belief in “creation,” as a concept, was not. The very idea of creation ― and I mean to include in this idea the thought, planning, and intended purpose for the thing created ― came from the imagery. If you change the image of a rational craftsman who does things for a purpose, the idea of what creation is ― the conceptual and epistemic structure ― changes in tandem. With evolution, the word and concept “creation” no longer embody the reality of the way being-here is known to be shared between source and recipient, because the features derived from rationally applied construction are no longer there.

The new imagery is provided by what is now known to be the actual process ― the “transaction” ― that made all the structures, forces, features and species of living organisms of the known universe to be-here as they are: the evolution of living matter. The action is not one of “creation,” it is one of autonomous self-emer­gence. It is the spontaneous expansive activity of a living matter whose non-personal, non-intentional, non-purposeful dynamism is locked into an unchanging energy of growth and intensification. Life moves in only one direction: more life.

With the transmission of being-here by the evolution of living matter and not by a craftsman’s planned, purposeful creation, the new emergent “thing” transmitted remains as much a part of what did the transmitting (the evolving) as what emerged. In this conception immanence takes on a concrete imagery: the emergent species always remains nested and embraced (like a sponge in the sea) by what gave it rise: living matter. The “new thing” emerges incrementally; it never stops being the “old thing” even as, little by little, it becomes unmistakably what it now is and is not what it came from. And in the case of humankind the perception of emptiness includes all the co-dependent co-arising factors ― human and non-human “causes” ― that are active in the emergence of the human organism. The human being knows that it is, undeniably, a biological organism, the direct offspring not only of its human ancestors, but also of a multitude of other things in this cosmos. The human organism always remains comprised exclusively of the sub-atomic particles, valences, forces and fields from which it emerged and whose continued functioning is necessary for its own continued existence. Its “self” always remains what it was made of, even as it launches itself as autonomous.

4.

The Philosophical Inversion

The conceptual change implied by the change in the scientific description also affects our traditional philosophical assumptions. And in one key respect it actually inverts them. This is significant, so let me digress briefly and try to explain.

The assumptions of Greek philosophy made since the days of Plato are that “things” are what they are by dint of their “essence.” Essence was believed to be the idea of the “thing” that was implanted in it by its creator. Since the Creator was believed to be rational and functioned like a craftsman, the idea of a thing was itself derived from the purpose the craftsman had in mind when s/he created that thing. The idea and the purpose were the same; they were the “essence” of that thing.

That “essence” was spiritual because it was an idea. An idea was the product of a “mind” and since the mind was believed to be a spirit, the ideas it produced were also said to be spiritual items ― which is the way we think we experience them, i.e., as immaterial.. An idea does not occupy space, it is able to co-penetrate matter co-existing in the same “place” without contact or displacement. It is absolutely universal and denotes every instance of its essence without exception: the idea of horse includes every horse that ever was, is or will be. It is also uncomposed; it is not made of parts and so cannot decompose (implicitly it is therefore immortal). Matter, on the other hand, cannot occupy the same space, is limited to the one and only concrete thing that it is, is composed of parts which disintegrate ending the “identity” of the thing.

This “world-view” promoted first by Plato and continued in slightly modified form by Aristotle, defined western thinking from about 350 bce until the modern era. It is really only since Darwin’s proposals about evolution in the 19th century that it has become generally accepted that all of the foundational priorities assumed by “essentialism” are completely wrong. As it has become increasingly irrefutable that matter is self-elabora­ting, the need to have “idea-essences” in order to explain why things do what they do is superfluous. Matter does what it does because it is driven to be-here by its own internal material energy and the forms that it assumes and the abilities it produces are in response to what works ― what allowed it to be-here.

Under the Platonic philosophía perennis, reality was made of two separate and completely dissimilar substances, matter and spirit, and was described in a series of conceptual dyads: act and potency, prime matter and essential form, body and soul, essence and existence. In each of these pairs one side corresponded to immaterial ideas and the other to its material partner.   Notice that it dovetailed with the “rational craftsman” theory of universal construction. They were all different ways of imagining how the ideal immaterial “reality” in the universe interacted with matter. In all cases, spirit was the guiding element ― the immaterial idea coming from the craftsman’s immaterial mind; and the trailing, dead and inert “empty receptacle” which received the enlivening directions coming from the immaterial idea, was matter.   Matter in itself, without form, was dead, inert, lifeless, shapeless, not unlike soft and pliable clay in the hands of the potter. Matter could be acted upon but could not act. Matter was pure empty potential that brought nothing whatsoever to the composite except the ability to be molded, shaped, directed and activated by the idea-form-essence / source of life.

There was a scholastic maxim: existence comes through the form. What comes first in an essentialist world is the idea ― the “whatness” of a thing: that which makes a thing to be what it is, gives it life and therefore explains what it does. And in all cases “what” something was, was determined by the purpose for which it was made by its maker, the idea in the mind of the artisan.   Aristotle called it the “final cause” because it determined the end to which the “thing” was designated. The contribution of the material receptacle into which the essential form was “poured” was precisely its emptiness: its shapelessness and its malleability: its non-determinateness and its readiness to being shaped by form; its inertness and need to be enlivened by spirit. Form worked on matter as a potter’s mental plan on soft, wet clay. But although matter had to ultimately yield to the shaping power of form, the resistance it offered engaged and intensified form’s activity, giving a focus and creativity to the resulting composite that drove the evolving history of the cosmos. (The last image was the contribution of Henri Bergson to the philosophía perennis early in the 20th century, in a book called Creative Evolution. Despite its title, it was a reaffirmation of traditional creationist dualism.)

Essentia-lism was an IDEA-lism. It was dominated by the primary and guiding reality of ideas, and by the spirit-minds that generated and understood them. Ideas and spirit-minds were real. They carried and transmitted being. Matter gave an edge and creativity to being only by its resistance to it; it was a kind of non-being. The Neo-Platonists of the second and third centuries imagined Being like pure brilliant light shining from its source (the “One”) into an infinite darkness of non-being and enlightening whatever it touched in proportion to its distance from the source of light. Hence the cosmos was populated with a hierarchy of “things,” combinations of darkness and light, that differed from one another in brilliance to the degree that they more closely or more remotely reflected the brilliance of the “One.”

The philosophical inversion I speak of occurred when the world realized that ideas are not things, and minds are not entities separate from the bodies they inhabit. There are no “essences.” Ideas are the mental states of the brains of human organisms, and minds are the self-perceived identity behind that activity. Evolution is not the creative result of “spirit” overcoming a resistant “matter” and there are no “idea-plans” or purposes implanted in things by a some celestial Potter. It is living matter itself obeying its own inner dynamism to be-here whose incremental micro-adjustments of its own inner components result in combinations that survive when they match the support potential in the surrounding environment. That is what is occurring in evolution. If I were to use the traditional scholastic terminology, the conceptual relationships are turned on their heads. The “form” or shape that something has does not determine how it will survive, it is in stumbling upon the combinations that survive that gives to things the form and characteristics that they have. That means, in scholastic terms, being does not come through the form, form is the result of the struggle to be-here, form comes through being; essence does not precede existence, it is the other way around: existence precedes essence. In other words, it was in discovering how to be-here that things developed the shape, abilities and characteristics that they have. This turns the philoso­phía perennis on its head.

5.

These developments in our common understanding have resulted in the realization that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is superfluous, scientifically speaking. If once upon a time, the idea of spirit was necessary to explain both what things are and how they got here, that is no longer the case. And the simple application of Ockham’s razor ― eliminating unnecessary factors in our explanations ― calls for a re-thinking of exactly what reality is made of.

This creates a dilemma. If spirit was a “theory” that was once the best explanation of the cosmic process, but now is no longer needed, it is quite possible that it doesn’t really exist at all and may never have been the object of our experience as we once believed. We also once believed that the sun revolved around the earth, but no longer. We can be deluded.

But the issue is complex and far from resolved. Spirit’s role in emergence, is one thing. But there are other areas where “spirit” cannot be so easily dismissed. How do we explain our unique human abilities: self-consciousness and self-identity, thinking, imagination, appreciation of beauty, morality, the pursuit of truth, the desire for immortality and the love that forms the steel hoops that grapple us to our friends and families? There are those who would call such things illusion. I do not. There is no way to deny what we experience, and no amount of sophistry a la Daniel Dennett,[1] can eliminate the reality of a dimension of this cosmos, internally observable to humans, that we have traditionally attributed to a separate spirit. To say that the existence of spirit as a separate kind of reality opposed to matter is no longer needed to explain the cosmos does not necessarily prove either (1) that such a thing does not exist (with another function) or (2) that spirit may not bear a relationship to matter that is different from the “substance”-definition and the associated total separation and opposition imagined by our Platonic forebears.

It is this latter alternative that appears to me to be the most compatible with both the discoveries of science and our own undeniable experience. I believe there is no such separate “thing” or immaterial “substance” called spirit; truly spiritual phenomena exist, but they are the emanations of a property of matter that we had ignored, fatally distracted by the prejudices of our Platonic, Cartesian dualist tradition which denigrated matter as dead, inert and passive.

Transcendent Materialism

Stone reductionists, like Daniel Dennett who are willing to call us “robots” or “zombies” and claim our interior experience of consciousness is an illusion rather than question the mechanistic materialism that he subscribes to, are one group. Unfortunately, the word materialism without qualification, has been identified with that position alone. Many believe that it is impossible to salvage that word for other applications and suggest the use a different term altogether for a reality that is, in fact, comprised of the potential for both kinds of phenomena: spiritual and material. They propose we call this alternative view “neutral monism,” in order to emphasize that (1) it is not a dualism because there is only one kind of substance in the universe, and that (2) that one substance is neither what we used to call “spirit” nor what we used to call “matter.” It is neutral. It is some other thing with the properties of both.

Currently we do not have a word for this view.  I call it Transcendent Materialism: “materialism” because whatever “spiritual” phenomena are-here, are exclusively the emanations of a property of matter; “transcendent” because this potential is responsible for matter evolving — transcending one form and bringing forth other, unique, autonomous and definitive forms. “Transcendent Materialism” explains emergence.

Frankly, I am impatient with those who continue to use the word “materialism” simplistically without qualification to mean physicalist reductionism. There has been enough discussion in academic forums on neutral monism in our times to warrant acknowledge­ment of multiple meanings to “materialism.”

Transcendent materialists look on the spiritual not as a “thing” or substance but as a phenomenon ― an undebatable reality of experience. We are materialists, but for us matter itself even in its simplest most primitive forms has the potential for what it eventually displays after eons of evolutionary complexification: life and consciousness. We adduce the ancient principle “ex nihilo, nihil fit,” which means “nothing comes from nothing” to explain the etiology.  In other words, if “B” truly emerges from “A” and from “A” alone, then the full explanation for “B” must exist in “A.”[2] Whatever it is that is responsible for what we once attributed to a separate spirit, is actually a property of matter. Hence matter, in total contrast to what Plato and Descartes were saying, is far from inert, lifeless and passive. Matter is the bearer of LIFE and thought.

Now we understand the reason why being-here is only and always a perception of the sensory apparatus of the conscious organism: “Spirit” is a material reality. Spinoza said it in his own way in 1665: “Extension is an attribute of God; God is an extended thing.” (Ethics, Part II, proposition II).

 

[1] Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005. Chapter 1, “The Zombic Hunch” passim.

[2] Galen Strawson, “Realistic Monism” in Strawson et al., Consciousness and its place in Nature, Imprint-Academic, Charlottesville VA, 2006, pp 3 – 31. The entire essay is an elaboration of ex nihilo, nihil fit.

Christian Universalism (II)

an evolution of The Book

2,500 words

Universalism is not just an idea. It has had a long and tortuous history in the lands of the West ― lands that are now dominated by religions whose origins are in “The Book.” By “The Book,” of course, I am referring to what is known as the “Bible,” which is a large collection of documents, compiled and organized by religious officials at the time when the nation of Judah was being reconstructed after the Babylonian Captivity, about 600 years before the common era.   It contained earlier accounts that were simultaneously religious and historical, of events cherished and passed on by the remnants of people who identified themselves as members of one extended family, the offspring of a man named Abraham, who came from a city in ancient Sumeria, present day Iraq, located where the Euphrates once entered the Persian gulf.

Originally, there was no distinction between religious and historical. Later material began to be included that was more identifiably poetic and moralistic, what people in our time call “religious.” But the Bible was originally constructed on the premise that the history of the nation of Israel (later called Judah) was actually the narrative of the exploits and accomplish­ments of a near-eastern war god, named Yahweh, who had selected the descendants of that one extended family to be his representatives. The history of those people, who called themselves Hebrews, was the history of Yahweh.

The relationship between the Hebrew people and Yahweh was conceived as contractual. It resulted in what came to be known as the promises of the “Covenant” or Testament.” Yahweh promised he would guarantee success in war and prosperity in peace to the descendants of Abraham in return for obedience, praise, sacrifice and the promotion of his reputation among the gods. It was definitely a quid pro quo. Yahweh was to be their only god, hence idolatry, the worship of other gods, was the greatest of crimes. The worship of Yahweh, which evolved into the Jewish religion, was an ethnic, national, political, necessarily theocratic state of affairs. The relationship maintained these features of national ascendancy until Israel’s fortunes turned permanently sour at the beginning of the sixth century b.c.e. When the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar uprooted the entire population of the kingdom of Judah (what was left of Israel) and deported them to Babylon, it became clear in a way that could not be disputed, that the “contract” between Yahweh and the nation of Israel as traditionally understood had fallen apart.

Since political success was tied to fidelity to Yahweh, it was always assumed that if there was defeat or calamity, it had to be because some “sin,” known or unknown, had been committed by the people to merit Yahweh’s “punishment.”  But after the exile, awareness of the overwhelming power of the successive Mesopotamian empires disabused the returning Jews of any hope in their own eventual supremacy in the world of geo-politics, despite Yahweh’s promises; it was dawning on them that defeat was a matter of political impotence, not a punishment for sin. The “contract” had to be re-thought. They were faced with a choice: either abandon Yahweh (which would mean the loss of national identity and absorption into another nation and god), or stay faithful to Yahweh and abandon the traditional terms in which relationship to one’s “god” was to be understood..

New religious thinkers of deep traditional faith who had experienced the exile and come in contact with other “nations” began to look at Yahweh with fresh eyes enlightened by their own widening vision. Authors like the writers of the book of Job and of Qoheleth refused to delude themselves about reality. Face it, they said. Yahweh permits the just to suffer. Why? The ancient formula that all suffering is a punishment for sin . . . that if you suffer it is by default because of you  . . . was challenged. But it was not only challenged, the challenge was published and read and its depth and significance recognized, for it came to be included in the collection of the sacred writings of the nation. These included the prophets whose unwavering conviction of Yahweh’s goodness began to adumbrate the importance of justice across national boundaries despite disparities of political power.   The very injustice done to Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians was an affront to Yahweh, not because they were his people, but because injustice was wrong, and Yahweh was the guardian of right and wrong everywhere. The psalmists were clear: the perpetrators of injustice were following other gods, and they should be ashamed. The psalmists also upbraided Yahweh without apology for not punishing those who make the just to suffer, but they never embraced the fiction that suffering was on Yahweh’s initiative. Suffering is caused by human injustice perpetrated by unjust selfish people who follow false gods; Yahweh does not condone injustice, he does not reward those who cause suffering . . . why, he even fails to punish the guilty.

This unmistakable universalism developed in tandem with a growing sense that Yahweh was Israel’s “one” god because, in fact, he was the only god there was. A monotheistic Zoroastrianism had become dominant in Mesopotamia around the time of the exile and seems to have been the religion of Cyrus the Great of Persia who ended the Jewish exile in 538 b.c.e. An earlier monotheism which had a brief ascendancy in Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten was squashed by the religious elite but obviously was not eradicated from people’s minds. Some have suggested that Mosaic monotheism was inspired by that phenomenon.

The conquests of Alexander the Great around 330 b.c.e. introduced Greek philosophical thought to the region and monotheism was clearly part of it. Theological monotheism ― that there was in reality only one god ― as opposed to henotheism which recognized a supreme god among many gods, was a correlate of universalism, because it said unequivocally, the same one god ruled everyone. And the belief that it was the same “God” who legislated the moral code, meant that all of humankind was enjoined by the same morality.

In the second century b.c.e., the successor state to Alexander’s conquests ― the Seleucids ― occasioned a nationalist reaction in Judah known as the Maccabean revolt.   It was a reassertion of the vision of a Yahwist theocracy against the Hellenizing that came with Greek domination of the region which was once the chess board for the maneuvers of Egypt and Mesopotamia. After a century of civil war within Israel, the victorious rebels, known as the Hasmoneans, came to rule an independent theocratic Jewish nation of Judah for about 70 years in a respectful alliance with the Seleucid Greeks. That ended in 63 b.c.e. when Judah became a client state of the Roman empire.

In Jesus’ time, the Jewish debate between religious nationalists and those who favored collaboration with the “Greeks” that had been at the root of Judah’s civil wars, continued on in the divisions of Palestinian Jewish society among Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes, with the Pharisees and Essenes disputing between themselves the inheritance of the Maccabean vision. Whether Yahwism was a viable political possibility was an issue that many saw as a specifically religious question, to be solved not by political analysis and a realistic assessment of possibility, but only by an accurate theological interpretation of the “promises of Yahweh.” Not only are there indications that Jesus was well aware of this debate, but also it seems plausible that both Jesus and his cousin John had been associated in some way with the Essenes. Reports in all the gospels seem to indicate that Jesus believed that an apocalyptic event was about to occur. Was this a retro-projection made by Christian communities suffering Roman persecution? We may never know.

I believe that Jesus’ message contained, tacitly, a universalist insight ― a potential religious “revolution” of huge significance ― derived from the essential premises of Judaism. It was fundamentally the insights of Job, Qoheleth, the later prophets and psalms. It was an authentically Jewish development that transcended the primacy of the nation of Judah as a political theocracy, and therefore implicitly went beyond the sect (“Judaism”) that was its ideological justification. Jesus, in other words, without making it the center of his vision, embraced the elements of a universalist view that was being spontaneously generated by an evolving Judaism whose ancient forms of expression remained sectarian. Jesus’ views, surely, were spurred in part by a realistic evaluation of the actual course of Mediterranean political history and Israel’s unavoidable subordination. In his frequent evocation of the “kingdom” there was no indication that Jesus meant to lead a return to political power and autonomy. In his statements he was careful about the way he challenged Rome.

That realization ― acknowledging that the ancient promises were not realistic ― had begun as early as the Jews’ exile in Babylon in the 6th century b.c.e. It marked the transformation of Yahweh from a minor Mesopotamian tribal war-god into a supra-national, universal “Deity” of which there could only be one.   However, the dream of Israel’s national-tribal ascendancy continued along with these universalist developments. Many Jews remained attached to the fantasies of national autonomy and supremacy until the Jewish-Roman wars of 70 c.e. and 150 c.e. put an end to them for good.

Was Jesus himself ever partisan to those fantasies? The evidence is not entirely clear, but for sure the purport of his message as recorded in the gospels was moral, spiritual and, explicitly non-political. Jesus’ followers, then, picked up the essence of his tribe-transcending insight and began to find ritual and propositional expression for this non-sectarian message about Judaism, authenticated, confirmed and inspired by his extraordinary personality. Jesus was a Jew; he directed himself only to Jews and remained a Jew until his death, but the implication of his religious vision was a universalized Judaism. Given Judaism’s tribal origins, this may have been a bridge too far, for both the Romans and the Jewish authorities of his time concurred in effectuating his elimination.

With Paul of Tarsus, a diaspora Jew who was reared in Greek culture, the embrace of Jesus’ universal insight led to the attempt to find a justification that was not based on a Judaism that remained tribal and sectarian. Jewish universalism was limited to Jesus’ followers. As a “Greek,” Paul’s own membership in the Christian community was the embodiment of Judaic / Christian universalism. Paul found a ground of support in the person of Jesus himself and the divine mandate that Paul believed was created/revealed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. With this new “direct” source of legitimacy, Christianity no longer looked to Judaism as its source of divine authority and relied rather on a “divinely chosen” messiah, the risen Christ, whose “obedience unto death” had earned him “a name above every name” and, surely, a direct line to God himself.

Once Christianity began to function in observable cultic groupings in the Greek-speaking world, the Christians’ “god” ― Christ ― was informally assumed into the pantheon of the Mediterranean gods by the all-tolerant, all-embracing blithely polytheistic Greco-Romans. Jesus’ later ascendancy to the position of “highest god” made Christianity a powerful tool for the legitimation of Roman rule, and that fact was certainly a primary motivating factor for Constantine’s pressure on the bishops to adopt the homoousios at the Council of Nicaea.

Roman rule, unfortunately, was precisely about wealth and power. It was not Jesus’ “kingdom,” even though it appropriated that language for itself. Christianity became the Imperial recapitulation of the tribal theocracy that had originated in the city-state of Rome. This had the effect of totally reversing Jesus’ universalist insight and using his “divine authority” to support the political ambitions of this one particular state which, even after the profession of Christian beliefs, still operated with its more primitive tribal structures. These included a “mandate from heaven” to rule the world for the Empire now made one flesh with its Church. Christianity was dragooned to fulfill the theocratic role once performed by Roman religion; and it turned itself inside out ― literally ― in order to do it.

The changes in Christian priorities occurred well before Constantine and Nicaea. It was a long development that took three hundred years to mature, driven by the Greco-Roman educated classes who came to dominate Christianity, bringing their two tier ― master / slave ― class system and Platonic philosophical idealism with them. The Roman embrace of Christianity by Constantine was the final step in a long process of acculturation that was in fact a much more natural evolution than history has traditionally portrayed. Christianity became the new face of Roman religion: the guarantor of divine protection and the justification for Roman conquest and rule.

The transfer of the functions of state religion for the protection and advancement of the “city”-become-empire from the traditional gods to Christ, tapped the residual theocratic potential embedded in the original Judaic literature from which Jesus emerged, and turned Christianity back into an Old Testament-inspired sectarian expression of a political theocracy: it became the sect of Rome, and effectively turned the “Father” of Jesus back into an ethnic war-god. The universalism that was at the heart of Jesus’ message was annulled and absorbed into Rome’s claim of universal dominion (a corollary of “God’s” providential will), and Jesus’ “kingdom of justice” came to mean simply a minimally oppressive imposition of Roman law.

Jesus spiritualized the word “kingdom” and insisted, as did the prophets, that “God” ruled the hearts of men because he was the Father of them all. The message was just that simple, but the implications have been impossible for western man to swallow; for it meant that we are all one family . . .   we are all brothers and sisters, and western Europeans, for some reason, could not accept that.  We need a universal religion to express that reality. The Roman Empire’s version of Christianity, which continues among us as the Roman Catholic Church and its “reformed” iterations, is not that religion.

Could this anti-universalist development ever be reversed? A return to the universal insight and message of Jesus would have to refuse all sectarian identification because it would eschew all political pretenses. Jesus’ “kingdom” can only be a metaphor for what rules the heart of man. Augustine’s identification of it with the Roman Empire ― and the Roman Empire and its successors as “God’s” providential will for the diffusion of the “gospel” ― was a theological travesty of the first order. It is this travesty that has come to define an intolerant and supremacist Christianity, the principal tool that created the racism, inequity, and the exploitation of people and the earth characteristic of our times. It has inspired a rebellion of the marginated in virtually all the continents colonized by Christians.  The violent rejection and repression of the exploiters in reaction to this demand for justice — effectively reasserting the supremacy of Christian ethnicity — may have already sealed our fate as a species.

“. . . and yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

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The question Jesus asks, as framed by Luke, has a non-sectarian, universalist focus. He is not asking about whether Israel will still believe in Yahweh, or whether his new followers, who later called themselves Christians, will still believe he is the Messiah, but whether people (any people, all people), who are, like a defenseless widow, seeking “justice,” ― the vindication of their humanity in an inhuman system of murderous oppression ― will still believe they can find it. It is a one-line commentary following on the parable of the unjust judge which Jesus uses to “prove” that if persistent pleading can obtain justice even from the worst of men, how much more from a loving Father.

This, according to Carroll Stuhlmueller in the Jerome Biblical Commentary (NT p.151), is an attachment to the warning in 17:22-37, immediately above, that the coming horrors (surely, an allusion to looming persecutions) would fall indiscriminately on everyone. In the maelstrom of a generalized “crucifixion,” who will remain standing? . . . who will continue to trust? The verses cover a wide spectrum of events where the only imaginable human reaction would seem to be despair. It is in an ordeal of that intensity that Luke’s Jesus promises justice to those who have faith.

 

Whether the evolving material universe can be trusted with the human thirst for fulfillment (“justice”) embedded in our organisms, is a modern version of that question. “Faith” here is bedrock: it is trust in LIFE. Jesus’ question applies to every human being living in every human community across the face of the earth. It is not a riddle seeking solution: “who will be saved and who will not?” It’s not a call to take refuge in some imaginary ethnic or institutional protection, much less an excuse for despair. Faith corresponds to our ultimate human challenge: can we, destined as we are to die, beset as we are with pain and loss, trust LIFE? That Luke’s Jesus was aware of the true anguished depths of the human condition suggests that, given the established injustice of the Roman Empire, the path that led to resurrection could only pass through a crucifixion for everyone. Faith in Jesus is enjoined upon all not because he’s “God,” or Messiah, but because he “proved” that a human being ― he himself ― could trust LIFE through anything.   And Jesus’ trust in his loving Father was itself the very kingdom he heralded.

But the challenge is universal, and the solution, the faith it calls for, is neither sectarian nor propositional. It is trust in LIFE whatever the metaphor, whatever the narrative, whatever the rituals, whatever the imagery we use to relate to it. Jesus is offered as teacher and guide for surmounting the ultimate barrier to trust: crucifixion ― which may be “defined” as the demonic inversion of human community, the intentional dehumanization of one human being by another. It is our ultimate enemy. Francis of Assisi, a mediaeval mystic, for reasons of his own would call it “perfect joy.”

The universal message of Jesus’ death is not that an infuriated Monster-god has finally been placated, but that we can trust LIFE as we would a loving Father no matter what happens ― even crucifixion by our fellow human beings. This is “salvation.” It is what gives Jesus a universal relevance.

 

Any suggestion that salvation is to be found after death in another world, conditioned by institutional membership and dependent on propositional and behavioral conformity in this world, is wide of the mark. It misses entirely the clear vision and profound universal compassion of Jesus for the human condition. The universalism of the early Christians was the echo of attitudes they picked up from Jesus despite his exclusive focus on preaching to the Jewish community.

By the second century, however, early Christian universalism in the hands of the Greco-Roman upper classes would shortly yield to the demands of authoritarian control and deteriorate into a rigid sectarianism fully in place by the time of the election of Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire. The control of the conditions of membership and of “saving” ritual, eventually evolved a propositional panoply ― a compendium of orthodox doctrine ― that served as a protective barrier for upper-class control. These controls ultimately resulted in the ethnic identities, class divisions and political preferences of the Roman Catholic Church, predictably mirroring Greco-Roman social structures and competitive dynamics. “Salvation” became a sectarian expression of Mediterranean culture claiming a universalist mandate for itself. It was the mystification of Roman imperialism. The Roman Empire and its inheritors claimed “permission from heaven” to despoil the world.

Jesus’ question ultimately came to be answered in the negative as propositional, behavioral and ritual conformity took the place of the “faith” that Luke was interested in. Universalism was subverted and Christianity degraded into a punitive, moralistic, misogynistic, imperialistic, slavery-based two-tier sect whose overriding function was not justice ― human wholeness, compassion, mutual assistance ― but imperial political success: internal crowd control and external conquest. Christianity came to represent a cult from hell that shaped our western world and even now continues to sculpt the contours of the global community conquered and controlled by Christians. If the tribes of the global community are still at one another’s’ throats, it’s because compassion has never prevailed among us.

 

“Theology” is a misnomer. It is not the “study of God.” It is an attempt to make rational sense of faith. Theology is a secondary event. The primary phenomenon, faith, is a spontaneous response of trust by human beings in a material universe-in-process from which our human organisms emerged and to which we remain umbilically connected. Faith has been a feature of human life for as long as our records indicate ― long before any of the institutions or programs we now call “religion” existed. It has been integral to the formation and cohesion of human community at all levels; its principal correlate has been human behavior, especially interpersonal support and assistance, hence society, justice, and also the proclivity to theocracy.

To start the process of reflection anywhere else is to fail to acknowledge the universalist nature of the theological enterprise: theology is reflection on a universal, global phenomenon that is as characteristic of humankind as society itself and essential to the human project. I believe this has to be the overriding perspective, the high ground, from which the theologian is always looking at his subject matter. This caveat is especially applicable to the Christian theologian because Christianity has been so notorious in disregarding all other traditions and acting as if “faith” began in the Mediterranean basin in the first century of the common era. That is the “heresy” of Roman Christianity ― the one single “error” that sets it furthest from the message and mind of Jesus.

Roman Catholic reform must be understood in this universalist context. Universalism was the unmistakable implication of Jesus’ profound compassion and it was the immediate “next step” taken by the communities of Jesus’ followers in the aftermath of his death. While it is always valuable to focus on the glaring propositional anomalies of Christianity as the target of reform, such a narrow perspective may fail to see the overall arrogant assumptions of sectarian superiority that can fly under the radar of efforts at reform. Doctrinal error has many facets. But the primary schism is between universalism and sectarianism. You cannot save humanity from tribal and interpersonal self-destruction by denying the very bonds that make us a family.

The primary obligation enjoined by Jesus is compassion.  It is the moral corollary of faith.  Faith’s compassion is “salvation,” the kingdom.  What are the necessary conditions that must be in place if compassion is to prevail?  That is the theologian’s question.