A Suggestion

I have been gratified by the interest shown in these last two blogposts: “Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of ‘God’” and “Catholicism and the Solitary Ideal.” For those who would like explore these same issues from a slightly different angle, see my blogpost of June 2015 entitled “Thinking of Edith Stein (III).”  It can be found in the archives.

Tony Equale

Catholicism and the Solitary Ideal

2,500 words

April 2017

This post is a follow-up on the previous one; it is short but ambitious. It takes a broad historical look at how the celibate ideal, based on the belief in the possibility of a psycho-erotic relationship with “God,” contributed to (1) the individualism that characterizes Western society some say to a pathological degree, (2) the abasement of women rendering marriage as an institution a school of domination and exploitation which is learned by the children, and from there to (3) the construction of an entire civilization built on domination of the weak by the strong and the justification of structural inequality.

That’s quite an indictment, especially when you consider that it claims to have its roots in a religious mysticism that is specific to Christianity. Other traditions have their mysticism, by which I mean a belief in the possibility of direct contact with “God” and a corresponding program for pursuing it, but none have been so amenable to nourishing anything like the cultural defects listed above.

Of course they may very well contribute to other failings found in their respective societies. It’s not my place to analyze or criticize them; I limit myself to my own cultural heritage and the religion that gave it birth. And in my own, a pyramid of religious doctrines arose, constructed upon the naïve belief in an anthropomorphic “God” whose humanoid “personality” was disposed to enter into an intimate personal relationship with a human being, who for all the infinity of difference that separated them, was also, like “God,” a “person.”

In the Platonic universe that spawned these notions, a human person was believed to be a “soul,” that is, an immaterial substance — spirit — whose eternal destiny after death was to live without the body to which it had been unnaturally attached during life. Belief in spirit as a category of being was the leitmotiv of Platonic philosophy which provided the official interpretation of the significance of Christianity beginning in the second century of the common era. Platonism scientifically projected imagined entities like the “soul” and “God” that are with us to this day. It was precisely because both “God” and the human soul were spirit-persons that they could have a relationship of lovers – for love was believed to be an immaterial valence between persons totally free of the complications of the body.

Platonic scorn for the body led to a conviction that such a spiritual relationship with “God” was not only possible but that it was necessary for full Christian redemption; it was only divine love that could substitute for and displace a corrupt erotic relationship between human beings, and no amount of contrary evidence could convince them otherwise. In a religious tradition that believed that the body had been fatally degraded from its former spiritual condition by the sin of Adam, the desires arising from the sex drive were themselves the primary empirical proof that the body was unnatural — corrupt — it refused to obey the dictates of reason, spirit.

This all worked together to erect an unassailable belief in the asexual Christian ideal of the virgin — the celibate hero, the bride of Christ — who lived on the spiritual nourishment provided by his/her divine lover, harvesting the concrete first-fruits of the redemptive reconquest of the body, subjecting it once again to the rule of spiritual reason and anticipating the spiritual soul’s final liberation from the tyranny of the flesh at death.

In such a scenario, those who entered into human marriage were by that fact eliminating the possibility of a faithful monogamous relationship with “God.” That meant they were formally alienating the one source of “super-natural” power capable of overcoming the unruly urges of the flesh. By embracing their sexuality they had consigned themselves to a marginated existence as second class human beings, condemned to eking out a trembling salvation through obedience to the proper authorities. By choosing to marry, and therefore to forego the celibate ideal, both the man and the woman had chosen a path that led away from human perfection. They had opted for an inferior and truncated humanity, forever estranged from the possibility of its ultimate fulfillment because the nuptials with “God” could never occur.

The Solitary Individual

This made the solitary individual the ideal human being in the Christian world. What appeared outwardly to be an eremitic seclusion was said to really be a sign of an invisible sustaining relationship with “God.” Given the uncontested belief in such an ideal and its promotion by the highest authorities, it was natural that on all sides and in all walks of life people would tend, in whatever way was open to them, to imitate the Christian ideal, no matter how absurd or far-fetched it might be.

For example: the warrior ethos of the Germanic peoples merged with the Christian ideal of the virginal bride of Christ to produce the iconic western figure of the Knight Errant, the solitary warrior who fights for justice and the oppressed, for true religion, and for the survival of the clan and nation. It’s easy to recognize this adolescent image as it morphs through subsequent epiphanies, some of which were gross distortions of the ideal: crusaders fighting to regain the “Holy Land” for the true faith from the hated Muslim infidels, and while they were at it, carry out wholesale slaughter of unbelieving Jews; Spanish conquistadores seizing the lands of heathen aliens whom they then enslaved in order to “win them for Christ.”

Marriage

The Church claimed the solitary life reflected the “mind of Christ.” But the historical Jesus was a single man cut down in his youth by political events before he had a chance to marry. His ministry was the work of a youthful solitary firebrand and, unfortunately, Christian perfection – the “imitation of Christ” – came to be modeled on that phase of his life. Whether Nikos Kazantzakis was right and Jesus had a “girl-friend” doesn’t change anything. In either case he was not married; he was an example of the solitary ideal. His wisdom was thought to come full-blown from heaven, not from the family and community that formed him. The earliest Christians appreciated that Jesus’ wisdom came from Judaism; for them, he was the messiah. But as Christianity became a Greco-Roman religion, it lost touch with its Jewish roots; the Nicaean declaration of his co-equal divinity with the Father was effective in wiping out all vestiges of Jesus’ humanity, and that included his ethnicity and family matrix.

The Christian people never lost sight of our gendered reality, however, and Mary was quickly selected to accompany Jesus as part of the model of perfection. But please note, in a way parallel to what happened to Jesus, she was also divinized and de-humanized. She was very early on made into a solitary – a “virgin,” impregnated not by man but by the Holy Spirit – rather than being accepted for the married woman that she really was, and her life with her husband as the source of her deep humanity.

Throughout Catholic Church history, married people, mesmerized by the celibate ideal promoted by the Platonic Church, tried in every way possible absurdly to realize its goals in the place least conducive to their achievement: the conjugal bed. Couples were told to focus their attention during copulation only on the purpose that justified it: reproduction. They were to avoid any direct acquiescence in the pleasures that accompanied the act; to do so was venial sin. The insistence on setting spiritual reason to rule bodily sexuality eventuated in declaring birth control sinful and unnatural because it thwarted the one justifiable reason for sex, and encouraged performing sex for “other” reasons. Couples were encouraged to abstain from sex periodically for the good of their soul; and the practice of “living as brother and sister” after childbearing years in order to dedicate themselves to works of service and ministry usually performed by religious was lauded by the Church and highly recommended. But the clearest indication of the abasement of marriage was the denial of holy orders to all but celibate men; women’s bodies, even if they were celibate, were too bound up with the reproductive cycles of organic life to ever become fully “spiritual.”

The family: a school of exploitation and domination

The married man, father of the family, already considered the owner of everything in his household, a belief inherited from a more ancient culture, would be confirmed in his sense of solitariness by the new Christian ideal. The image would continue to militate against any thought of parity between man and woman and the egalitarian partnership that should have been the Christian ideal.

I claim marriage is a school of perfection every bit as much as a religious community, and the Church should have put all its energies there instead of trying to turn the parish priest into an other worldly monk and the people into lustful sinners in need of his condescending ministrations to avoid damnation in hell. At the time of the Reformation some of the leaders, like von Carlstadt, were in favor of refusing ministry to all but married men, because they saw celibacy as an hypocrisy and family life as the locus of Christian perfection. They eliminated monasteries altogether. Luther said some beautiful things about marriage and he had great respect for his wife.

The Protestant reformers closed the monasteries and convents and devised a model of married clergy, but in reaction Catholicism reaffirmed the supremacy of celibacy and virginity, anathematizing those who would hold “that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony” (Council of Trent, Twenty-fourth session, Canon X). Tridentine Catholicism remained in effect until Vatican II.[1]

The “Catholic Mystique” is still dominated by the mediaeval celibate (solitary) ideal, and even the modern married “reformers” of Vatican II do not write about the school of perfection that is marriage. Their spirituality remains cauterized by the solitary celibate ideal, now universalized into a western individualism that has achieved in the eyes of many the morbidity of an illness. The solitary celibate is the Catholic mystique and along with the papacy, Catholicism’s perennial marketable “brand.”

The center of Catholic life is the celibate “padre.” It has made Catholics deaf to reality. Not even the recent proofs of its unsustainability and the pedophilic “blowback” that it has created can cause them to reconsider. The inability to acknowledge failure is a sure guarantee that is will never be overcome and rectified. No flaw could be more tragic.

Humankind is one species made up of both male and female. Males’ and females’ perspectives differ because our bodies differ. Men and women have different points of view that remain insuperable until they begin to share their bodies with one another. That’s called marriage. Married men and women famously and almost inevitably take on one another’s perspectives through the daily business of living together over a lifetime, men becoming “feminized” and women becoming “masculinized” … each coming to understand how the “other” sees things and thus each expanding their own potential as human beings.

But for their “spirituality” Catholics still turn to solitary celibates who come up with shriveled mono-gender concepts concocted in monastery laboratories by men and women running away from one another and their own sexuality … possibly stemming from an oppressive patriarchal family life they experienced as children. Many of us alive today know what that’s not just theory. It seems to me that to call “neo-feminism” the Christian Ideal could only be a perspective of the “solitary” Christian — the monk, the celibate, the “bride of Christ,” the “religious,” — promoted by a mediaeval monastic Catholicism that continues unreformed to this day.

 Social Revolution

It’s not coincidental that the solitary celibate ideal, historically speaking, happened to run concurrently with a European society that was structurally divided along class lines, a small elite minority upper class, superior in every sense to an uneducated, servile lower class — the vast majority of the population — whom the elites ruled with absolute domination and oppressive economic exploitation throughout the entire time of the political hegemony of the Catholic Church, from the fourth to the sixteenth centuries. Catholic celibates in every case, except for those few who had chosen voluntary poverty as a sign of rejection of the prevailing system, were part of the ruling class. The identification of the Catholic celibate elites with the economic interests and power goals of the European aristocracy has been on indisputable display through­out western political history, but never clearer than during the period from the American and French Revolutions at the end of the 18th century to the full flowering of democratic nationalism at the end of the 19th. The Catholic Church resisted the derogation of aristocratic rule every step of the way. Even today, when inherited class is supposedly no longer the determining factor in the assignment of positions of power, the celibate Catholic hierarchy can be found supporting the interests and the values of the elites with whom they continue to identify.

Is it simply a revolutionary fantasy of mine that IF from early on — from before Christianity took on Plato’s bi-focal vision — the followers of Jesus had maintained his earthy Jewish concept of the absolute identity of the human person with the human organism, that we would have accepted our bodies and the material conditions of their formation as fully human … and therefore fully capable of the divinization Jesus preached? Had we accepted the full humanity of our bodies in principle might we have avoided denigrating the bodies of women as somehow less than human? Would that have militated against the perennial abasement of women by Christian theologians like even the revered “Fathers” of the Church? Would that, in turn, have prevented the exclusionary male take-over of leadership roles in the Church? Would that have maintained the image of the mature married man and woman as the Christian Ideal? And would the identification of Church leadership with the destiny and aspirations of married heads of families have ensured the rejection, reformation or even prevention of the development of a two class society where the strong are permitted to dominate and abuse the weak, and where parents struggling to raise their children are routinely exploited? IF the Church, in other words, had identified married family life and the married man and woman as the Christian Ideal, wouldn’t she have necessarily been a champion of the underclass?

There is no reason, in theory, why that cannot happen …

Tony Equale

[1] Phillip Berryman, History and “The Family,” Lonergan Workshop, Boston College, June 2015

The Big Picture (6)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

6

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

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

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

All life on Earth evolved from a single-celled organism that lived roughly 3.5 billion years ago, a new study seems to confirm. The study supports the widely held “universal common ancestor” theory first proposed by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.[1]

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Big Picture (5)

A review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

For consider:

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

The mystics in all cases point to a spare and indistinct conceptual structure at the foundation of their experience. As a primary exercise they are all, including western mystics, vigorously focused on the deconstruction of the literalist imagery of their respective religions. They consistently discourage the pursuit of and attachment to anything like visions, consolations, or feelings interpreted as interpersonal “contact,” emphasizing instead trust in the solidity of the LIFE we actuate. They describe the object of their quest — LIFE — as the unspoken background that increasingly becomes the object of our peripheral awareness. They are quite clear that the heights of religious experience for them have occurred when they were simply being themselves, living with the background awareness of their immersion in LIFE. They speak of a sense of contact that is not conceptually clear, but is an “unknowing” … and that the object of this awareness is more like no-thing than something.

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

 

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

The Limits of Knowledge (4)

being-here and emptiness (ll)

How can existence in any form, even partial, be existentially empty? If our analysis of presenceas-process is correct in saying that the fundamen­tal dynamism of reality is change and becoming, and that change and becoming are in function of filling a need, then we find ourselves with an internal contradiction. Emptiness is nothing. As such it cannot be an explanation of the dynamism of presence.

If existence were simply static and at rest with itself, we would seem to have no problem. But since existence displays itself as an endless becoming fo­cused on being-here, “dragging” being-here into existence from moment to moment as if it were not here at all, we face a prob­lem whose solution seems beyond the reach of our concepts. For as we perceive it, existence acts as if it lacked the very thing that it is. Lack of “being” can only mean non-being, “nothing.” But, nothing, as we saw, is an absurd notion, because there is no such thing as “nothing.” Nothing does not exist and therefore cannot be known.

Existence, then, appears to be internally contradictory because by always moving to maintain itself it reveals an absence of self-possession. What is this absence? The circle of presence does not contain its explanation within itself. Where do we go from here? Beyond that circle, outside of being-here, human knowledge cannot function. For, outside of existence, there is no­thing.

Haven’t we gotten ourselves into this dead-end? After rejecting the validity of the traditional concept of “nothingness,” haven’t we simply resurrected it in another form, in a new guise, calling it emptiness? For what can emptiness “be” but another word for “no­thingness?”

“emptiness” is metaphor

The impasse stated in this form is only apparent, and it arises from taking emptiness to be a “factual” or literal concept referring to “something” which can only mean “nothing.” But emptiness is not nothingness because emptiness is not a concept, it is, as we’ve said all along, a metaphor. As metaphor, it does not answer, it rather preserves intact the significance of the question.

If we take emptiness as a literal concept and set “presence” and “emptiness” face-to-face, we discover that they cancel each other out; they cannot co-exist in the same mental construction. We cannot ask the question “how can presence be empty?” If “empty” is taken as a literal conventional concept, the question “how can presence be empty” is the same as asking “how can being be non-being.” That contradiction means that we have no way of understanding reality. And I believe it’s because we have confined our understanding of reality to what is mediated by conventional “literal” concepts and the so-called knowledge they produce. In the case we are considering that confinement is fatal. For “nothing” is a false concept, no matter what terms are used to describe it. It does not refer to anything at all.

Once we realize we are not using emptiness as a conventional concept, however, there is no inconsistency. Emptiness is a metaphor utilized to relate us to the living dynamism of reality — reality’s quest to remain itself. We have called it repeatedly, a self-embrace, and following Spino­za, conatus. Bergson called it the vital impulse, Schopenhauer called it will. In each case we are using an analogous human experience as a metaphor to describe this dynamism. We claimed we were justified in doing so because of the homogeneity of material reality. Everything is made of the same “stuff,” matter’s energy, including us. Emptiness does not refer to nothingness, but to a dynamism for self-posses­sion, a self-embrace, which, when mediated exclusively by conceptual knowledge, is unintelligible. But, ironically, while we do not know what it is, when we approach it through our metaphors we realize that we do indeed understand it — intimately, thoroughly, profoundly, implicitly — because we experience it as the inner living dynamism of our very selves. There is nothing in the world more familiar. It is our drive to survive. That is the basis for the validity of the me­ta­phor.

It was otherwise with the traditional use of the abstract concept “nothingness,” as we saw in chapter 1 and rejected. In that case there was an invalid attempt to generate a “proof” for the “necessity” of “being” based on the logical analysis of the opposition between the concepts of “being,” taken literally, and ”nothingness,” also taken literally. “Why,” the traditional metaphysicians asked, “is there something rather than nothing.” You can’t ask that question, for there is no such thing as nothing.  Neither of those concepts — “being” or “nothingness” — was considered to be anything but reliable representations of reality as it really is. It was precisely the impossible “reality” imputed to “nothingness,” however, that gave us the first clue to the untenability of the entire procedure. The essentialists had reified the concept of “non-being” and then tried to make real inferences about the character of “being” from it.

Emptiness as we use it metaphorically, however, refers to an entirely different notion. Rationally speaking, the metaphor concretizes the question as a conceptual quest; it doesn’t presume to provide a rational answer. We are proposing to understand the significance of an existential dy­namic whose internal contradictions we cannot reconcile in conventio­nal rationalist terms. The metaphor “emptiness,” inspired by our bodily human experience and praeter-conceptual understanding of the phenomenon, de­scribes in poetic terms what we do not conceptually comprehend but what we nevertheless experience and therefore understand intimately. This is a far cry from the claim to define the transcendent significance of “being” from a rational analysis of “non-being.” Our use of the meta­phor “emptiness” immediately directs us to a recognition of the non-intelligi­bility of the concepts involved and from there to an acknowledged conceptual ignorance, even as it describes existence as we experience it with uncommon accuracy. Unlike the function of the concept “nothingness,” which supposedly leads us to “know,” emptiness (the metaphor) leads us to “not-know,” or should we say to “un-know.” Emptiness serves to put a human face on the baffling interior living dynamism of all reality which we ex­perience intimately as the very core of what we are. We understand it more clearly, more distinctly and more thoroughly than anything else in the world. And from there we understand all existence even though we do not know what it is

We realize that existence is empty for us because even though we have it, we still thirst for it — we know what that’s like; we wake up with it every day. But clearly it cannot be “known” in conventional conceptual terms, and therefore it cannot be controlled. We understand it, not because we conceptualize it or can identify its cause but because we expe­rience it. We realize how accurately it defines us. It is a clear conscious embrace, a cognitively transparent experience but not a rational conceptual comprehension. We understand it; but we do not know what it is.

out of the impasse?

Rather than generate hypotheses to fill the conceptual gap, I am perfectly content that the final statement to be made on this question is that we can go no further — conceptually. We have encountered what Lonergan might have called a matter of sheer unintelligible fact.[3] The traditional “solutions” to the encounter with this philosophic dead-end, advanced in the West, in my opinion, have taken one of two paths. In the first, science-orien­tated reductionists ignore the problem by simply taking the existential dynamism for granted. They assume the unexplained existence of the embrace of existence and its manifestations in the survival drive and confine their analyses to what has subsequently evolved from it. They do not ask, as we do, what it is.

In the second, philosophers of the perennial essentialist tradition simply dismiss scientific questions as “not ultimate.” They have no respect for mere presence, or “matters of fact.”[4] They claim the real question exists only at the level of abstract “being” (and “non-being”) and proceed to a “solution” by crediting our concepts and therefore the human mental apparatus with something they do not possess — a separate genus of being called “spirit.” These “solutionists” (like Rahner and Lonergan) erect our very demands for knowledge into “proofs.” Thus they continue the fundamental circularities that have characterized Western thought from the beginning. I believe we have no justification for saying that the demand of our minds for an explanation is itself an explanation. To my mind, this is to revisit the Platonic error and the Anselm­ian trap. We imagine reality based on the functions and products of our minds. To present human conceptual knowing (verbalized abstraction) in such a way that its description requires the implied existence of an unknown (and admittedly unknowable) object, is a huge projection.

Rahner says Thomas Aquinas agrees that human knowledge is locked into the limitations of sense experience. “Transcendence” by scholastic definition goes beyond those limits. So everyone agrees, including Thomas: transcendence cannot be known directly. Rahner’s Thomas, however, is made to go further and say that the projections of human consciousness, (i.e., the ability to abstract), imply an absolute principle “pre-appre­hen­ded” by the mind, that never becomes itself the direct object of knowledge but opens us to another “realm” of knowledge. This is not a problem for Rahner because he believes “supernatural revelation” begins where direct knowing ends. The “absence of the implied object,” in his system, plays a vital role in the transition to other “facts” in the form of revealed beliefs.[5]

My analysis is different. At the end of my reflections the discovery of the emptiness at the heart of being-here puts me at a dead-end. I believe this is true of Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Bergson as well. I am aware that the apparent contradiction we encounter in the way matter’s energy is-here leaves us at the edge of a void. We have reached the end of our earth-bound knowing. From a conceptual point of view, the rest is darkness. At that point Schopenhauer and Bergson each limit themselves to a description of that darkness — as “Will” or as “Vital impulse” — it’s where the buck stops. Rahner, for his part, turns to revelation. What I claim, is that the only thing left … if one has the temerity to go further … is relationship.

relationship to the darkness

In some way, then, that is not clear, we suspect that if there is an “explanation,” it lies in that darkness into which we peer but cannot see — what we feel and touch as our very selves, what we understand so intimately and see so clearly and certainly but about which we can say nothing. We have little choice but to accept this situation because, however galling it might be, we ourselves awaken into a condition of absolute immersion in that darkness. We understand it with absolute clarity; we know of its creative power with absolute certainty; and we rely on it for our very ex­istence itself. Matter’s energy, the embrace of existence, is a matter of sheer unexplained empirical fact. It is as incomprehensible as it is absolutely familiar, undeniable and self-evident. It is the very fire and light of our lives, but utter darkness to our minds. It is us … and yes indeed, we understand it.

What do I mean? If an immersion-relationship to being-here is the defining feature of our organisms, ourselves, we fail to embrace the reliability of existence with its endemic thirst and emptiness at the risk of denying our very selves and the conditions under which we and our ancestors have been here and have evolved to become what we are. We cannot do that. We cannot sit in judgment on the circle of existence, matter’s energy, as if we stood outside of it; for not only our faculty of analysis and judgment but our very existence itself is an evolved function of matter’s energy. The internal incomprehensibility of being-here is now seen to have invaded our persons. The emptiness, the hunger to live, which we encountered in the dynamism of existence, material energy’s self-em­brace, we now see resides at the core of our very selves and lights the fire of our conscious presence; for we are-here without escape (not even death can annihilate the material energy that we are) and our very consciousness is a tool of our inherited determination to survive. We accept it. To fail to do so implies personal self-negation.

But notice: upon realizing that our analysis of existence could not explain itself, we did not physically annihilate nor disappear. Of course not. The contradictions we encountered in our rational ruminations had no impact whatsoever on being-here. Existence clearly is not dependent on our conceptualizations; the significance of being-here and the selectivity of rational consciousness do not move in the same plane. There is a reason why we cannot make deductions about reality from our ideas alone … it’s because our understanding of reality is not a function of ideas. Our consciousness is grounded in somatic experience, the organic immersion in matter’s energy. It also supports our conclusion that the neo-Thomists’ “transcendent thrust of consciousness” tells us nothing. Conceptualization with the logic of its required “explanations,” in other words, does not correspond to the reality we have come to realize is process — energy, a living dynamism we’ve described as a congenital self-embrace. And what we’re interested in is what reality is, not how we conceptualize it.

 

[1] Cf Creative Evolution, 1907 passim
 [2] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, Everyman London, 1995 tr Berman.
 [3] For an extensive discussion of Lonergan’s “unintelligible fact,” see appendix 2.
[4] Cf. Rahner, Spirit in the World., pp.162 and 175. And Lonergan, Insight, p.652.
[5] For a more complete treatment of this position see the appendix.

In search of a new doctrine of “God” (II)

The “sense of the sacred” in my view stands on its own as a human phenomenon — a common psychological and social experience. It does not immediately imply the “existence of God,” as some claim. Nor does it appear to be derived from religious socialization; for people who do not believe in “God” also have a sense of the sacred.

Rather, in recognition of the intense emotional investment in whatever is considered sacred, it may be reasonably understood as a derivative of the conatus, our drive to survive as human beings. I will dare define it here: the sense of the sacred is a by-product of our existential self-em­brace. It is the affective resonance of our appreciation of our existence — an appreciation innate to our organic matter which radiates out to everything that has to do with it, from its source, to all those things believed necessary to maintain it.

[ Note: Some readers may object to the use of the term “sacred” because of its religious associations through the millennia. I recognize that it is a problem word in this regard. I will gladly accept the use of another word or phrase for “sense of the sacred” so long as it continues to refer to a subjective feeling imputing an ultimate value requiring recognition. Its interpretation may be a matter of legitimate dispute, but the existence of the phenomenon is not.
Also I am intentionally bracketing the effect of society’s collective appropriation of the conatus’ energy to create religion.]

So we start with a sense of the sacred as a human experience, and pursue an enquiry that tries to determine whether or not it has a justification that transcends cultural programming and personal predilection … or to say it in a different way, an enquiry to determine exactly what may explain it, and what it, in turn, explains. Effectively we are examining the root and ground of the conatus.

Essentialist-spirit­ua­list philosophy grounded the traditional “sacred” in two ways: (1) It said that “Being” was a spirit-“God” who designed and sustained our being with a participation in “his” being, and (2) that human beings each had an eternal personal destiny with “God” precisely and only because we were “spirits” as “he” was.

The cosmo-ontology that we are proposing here affects each of those points differently. As far as (2) is concerned, eternal personal destiny was called into question because our position challenges the existence of the separable immortal individual soul. Personal destiny from now on will have to be calculated on a different basis, and with an entirely different result. To the degree that the sense of the sacred was tied to the (eternal) existence of the immortal individual soul, it is gone.

participation-in-being

But in the case of (1), participation in “God’s” being, the question remains open. In the non-dualist view we are proposing in this study, the sacred is theoretically sustainable based on the “participation” cre­ated by the com­­mon possession of the substrate, matter’s energy. What it comes down to is this: material existence as we have been studying it, performs the theoretical role once assigned to “God” as “Being” — it is that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

How do these competing “grounds of the sacred” compare:

First, traditional participation suffers under an insuperable liability. It is premised, as we saw, on subsistent ideas. But there is no “World of Ideas” that makes traditional “participation in being” possible and there is no world of separable spirit. This will affect the “concept of Being” as the ground of participation. “Being” is an idea; it is not a “thing.”

The term “God” has been so wedded to the essentialist view that some feel it is impossible to use the word “God” without evoking essentialist spiritism. But the issue in this case is the word, not the reality.  There is no question that material energy is an existential factor of sufficient ontological heft to sustain the self-em­brace that gives rise to the conatus and our sense of the sacred. Matter’s energy is indisputably that “in which we live and move and have our being” and therefore, objectively, can explain and justify the sense of the sacred derived from the conatus.

Second, process, that aspect of matter’s energy revealed and mea­­s­ured in time, is fundamental to our definition of existence. The basic “stuff” of reality is not a “thing,” but a dynamism with a non-rational intentionality, a self-embrace for which rational consciousness is secondary, emergent, not antecedent, not directive. Anything built of it, therefore, will also be a self-embracing process, not an idea with a purpose embedded in a “thing.” To the extent that “sacredness” was dependent on the presence of static essences wed to final causes (purposes) and possibly a “divine” terminus, an Omega Point, it is gone. What kind of “sacred” does non-rational process, reflected in the conatus, evoke? My answer: only itself, an endless pro­cess of existing, a self-embrace that is equally functional at every point along the timeline of development.

Third, we can say that a shared substrate that evolves all things suggests a participation that is material, genetic and thoroughly a posteriori. It is not built on an a priori plan moving toward an Omega; it’s built on the aggregation of constituent parts, reproduction, symbiosis, a “genetic” relationship — family, community — the result of a process of invention and integration driven by an existential self-embrace.

If the energy at the base of matter — which I call existence — now performs the existential functions once assigned to “God,” there is no reason, as far as I can see, why it cannot provide the philosophical grounds for our sense of the sacred. But I want to emphasize, the sense of the sacred is a first-level phenomenon; it is indisputably there whether we find sufficient and necessary grounds to explain ity or not. Even further removed is whether such grounds approximate to what we used to call “God.”

“God” has always been considered “pure spirit.” The energy of matter cannot be postulated of “God” with­out imputing materiality to “God.” This is a critical issue for our tradition. That “God” might be material has been considered entirely unthinkable in the history of western philosophy. (But, see the appendix to the Mystery of Matter on the materiality of God.) The word “God” carries an ideological overload connoting “spirit.”

Matter is a living dynamism … does that make it sacred?

So let’s bracket the word “God” for now. Hasn’t the function of the concept, “God,” in fact, been replaced with matter’s energy?

The argumentation is this: the human sense of the sacred exists. What explains it? It is explained by a conatus, i.e., an irrepressible organic drive to survive that implies our love of our own existence and naturally calls everything that creates and supports it, “good,” by which I mean “sacred.” But the conatus — the human drive for self-preservation — is no different from the life force as we find it existing everywhere in our world, in every species and in every substance, accumulated from the elements of the substrate itself. It is a homo­geneous energy to which absolutely everything in the universe can be reduced. There is nothing else! Since we as humans, in our every fiber and function are nothing but this material energy, our sense of the sacred, which is our intense, irrepressible appreciation for our own existence, is justified and entirely explained as a derivative of matter’s energy. Therefore it is the substrate itself with its existential self-embrace that can be called the source of our sense of the sacred.

But the conatus requires a recognition of its creative power that was in evidence in even its most primitive state. Accepting the conatus as a living dynamism at the sub-atomic level, however, takes an understanding that transcends the information available to particle physicists working in isolation. Recognizing the homogeneity of the dynamism of the conatus across the levels of existence requires the use of a retroactive interpretation that looks at, not only what physics can directly observe and infer about the big bang revealed by particle colliders, but at what these particles are observed doing later on at virtually every level of evolutionary emergence. The panoply of forms, pre-living and living, conscious, intelligent and purposeful, that result from the repeated application of the “stuff” and collective strategy initiated at the big bang, is exclusively built of quarks and electrons … unless there is an outside “spirit,” the conatus must come from there.

The evidence for it is clear. Its character as existential self-embrace is within us, and it is through the intimate “experience” of one’s own conatus that it becomes more than a syllogism and overflows into a deeper understanding of all reality. But, that having been said, I want to emphasize, it always remains a syllogism:

Major premise: “life” cannot be reduced to mechanical reflexes (i.e. there is a qualitative difference between life and non-life);
Minor premise: but our planet is teeming with life, and every living thing is constructed only of a physical substrate which on its own and in isolation appears absolutely lifeless.
Conclusion: therefore, either there is another, immaterial, source that introjects life into “matter,” or the substrate, despite all appearances and reductionist claims, is itself a living dynamism.

The syllogism is inductive and after examining premises and evidence concludes that “matter is a living dynamism” activated proportionately (analogically) across the phyla of living things as we have been saying. If it cannot validly do that, the argument fails, and the reductionist position holds, although always with a condition … reductionism, in turn, must itself explain “life.”

Please note: I am not trying to prove the “existence of God” as traditionally conceived … the very idea of a separate “God-entity-person” disappeared with the disappearance of immaterial “spirit” and was only reluctantly acceded to even by mediaeval essentialists using “analogy” to justify calling “God” a “person” and not an impersonal force. I am rather trying to understand the mean­ing of the life-force, the source of my sense of the sacred. In other words, my question has changed. I am not asking “is there a ‘God'”? … or even “what is ‘God’ like”? … but rather “what makes the universe sacred for me”? … or, “what grounds, originates and explains my sense of the sacred”? This is an important difference, for if I slip and claim that I am actually discovering what “God” is really like (however true that may be), I have trapped myself by the “G” word and I’m back in the quest for something that I claim does not exist, viz., the Judaeo-Christian spirit-“God-entity,” personal Designer-Creator, cosmic agent, punisher-rewarder and hovering provider of the OT “Book.” The word “God” comes bundled with all these characteristics. This anthropomor­phic “God-image,” because of its long unchallenged history, resists metaphorization. And meta­phor is the only valid use that that imagery can be allowed to have. Once we use the word “God” we have a hard time conceiving al­ter­native imagery.

[ Note: It’s important to emphasize that in this study I am trying to remain strictly philosophical. I am not rejecting religion … how “religion” may respond to the new understandings we are discovering here is a separate topic altogether. By emphasizing the damaging power of the “G” word I am simply attempting to maintain the in­de­pen­dence of a very fragile, easily derailed speculative imagination, which is the only instrument we have for exploring the sacred depths of reality as it has been revealed to us by science. ]

Once we stop looking for “God,” as the cosmic agent imagined by our tradition and understand that “matter is a living dynamism” and accounts for every structure and function in the universe including our drive to survive and concurrent love of life, we can look at the sacred with altogether new eyes. It is quite different from almost anything that the mainline imagery of our tradition has considered to be “true” of “God.”

Human violence and the “holiness” of “God”

As more and more information emerges about the life and intentions of the Orlando mass murderer, it becomes harder to dismiss the possibility that Omar Mateen was a closet homosexual, conflicted and ambivalent about his homosexuality, who was driven to a state of self-loathing by his Islamic faith and who attempted to express his rejection of his perceived “moral depravity” symbolically by “exterminating” himself and the gay community to which he was attracted. If this is correct it would provide a stark example of the perdurance in our world of ancient categories of “holiness” that are destructive of human life. The fact that these categories functioned to produce a crime of heinous proportions is a compelling argument for rekindling a religious activism — aka “reform” — that will unapologetically attempt to neutralize what is clearly false, dysfunctional and intolerable in religious doctrine.

It tends to confirm my thesis: doctrine matters.

One of the most perplexing paradoxes is the clear connection between the “Holy” God of the Book and a genocidal violence perpetrated by “his” followers on fellow human beings in the name of that “holiness.” In our Judaeo Christian tradition this appeared in the earliest scriptural records of Israel’s “contract” with their god Yahweh.   Wandering Jewish tribes newly liberated from servitude in Egypt claimed that Yahweh also gave them the lands of Palestine that once belonged to Canaanites. Yahweh’s munificence was unlimited; there was only one condition: “he” demanded that they kill every non-Jewish man woman and child living in those lands.

But in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the LORD your God. (Deut 20: 16-18 The Holy Bible, English Standard Version)

It is indisputable that the Bible called for the extermination of people whose only crime was that they practiced a religion that was “abominable” because it acknowledged gods other than Yahweh. It was the clearest statement possible of the connection between a “holiness” linked to “God” and genocide. If we accept historians’ consensus that the date of the redaction of the book of Deuteronomy is 600 bce, this call for a genocidal holy war (Hebrew: herem) on unbelievers anticipated the Koran’s jihad by 1200 years, and may very well have been its inspiration.

There are some inconsistencies between the two versions of holy war, Jewish and Islamic, that might be interesting to examine: for example, the Koran expresses great respect for the Bible and the Jews and jihad was conceived as a defensive response to outside attack, while the biblical herem requirement was clearly xenophobic and an instrument of territorial expansion. But the most obvious incongruity is the fact that it was the “holiness” of “God” that was adduced as the reason for the mass slaughter of other human beings. What could “holiness” possibly mean if one of its obligations entailed the extermination of whole populations carried out not only with impunity but as an act of obedience and worship? Another way of putting it is to ask, what kind of “God” not only permits but actually requires the wholesale slaughter of “his” creatures?

I have been arguing for years that there is no sense talking about the reform of religion without addressing the issue of the “doctrine of God.” Nothing proves my point better than this biblical harnessing of Yahweh to the national ambitions of the Hebrew people. It redefined Yahweh as a local political operative. But that took some doing because Yahweh was not easily yoked to local politics. Genesis claimed that Yahweh created all things. That would automatically make him everyone’s god. If Yahweh was to enter local politics on the side of the Hebrews alone that original universalism had to be inverted. Yahweh first had to be identified with the Hebrew people  bound by a contract that made “him” exclusively their god and they exclusively his people. “He” thereby became a god whose power was only on display in the military victories and international ascendency of his people. His “divinity” thus became dependent on the well-being of the Hebrew nation, for otherwise no one would know that “he” was really “god.”

It was this exclusivity that drove the development of the notion of “holiness.” For what was “holy” in Hebrew was kodesh, “set-apart,” “separated,” a “sacred” that was distinguished from a “profane” that paralleled the separateness of Yahweh from the other gods and therefore the separateness of the Hebrew people bound exclusively to Yahweh by contract.

The “contract” was a simple affair: the people were to obey certain laws, abstain from certain foods and practices, perform certain rituals and above all avoid “contamination” with gods other than Yahweh, and Yahweh would give them power and prosperity.   The uniqueness and the “separateness” that characterized the relationship between Yahweh and his people was thus objectified in the terms of the contract detailing what “holy” human practices corresponded to the “holiness” of Yahweh. The entire phenomenon was generated as the objectification of the “special” and unique relationship between Yahweh and the twelve tribes.

“Moral behavior” in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition was made part of this constellation of practices. The “ten commandments” and the rest of the Jewish law was part of the contract. This is important to emphasize. From the earliest times in our tradition, morality was conceived, not as our groping discovery of what works for the harmony and well-being of human beings in society, but rather as a “special practice” that identified its practitioner as a member of Yahweh’s contractual household. Thus Yahweh was thought to be invested in human moral behavior as an expression of respect and surrender to “him” and not as the autonomous discernment of what is good for people. Both the motivation and the ultimate validation of the moral code was displaced from human responsibility to divine command.

As time went along and the “God of the Book” came to displace all other religious imagery in the Western World, even Greek rationalized morality, logically deduced from the “purposes” the philosophers claimed were embedded and self-evident in everything created, was subsumed under the category of the “contract.” Relationship to “God” was upgraded to a “new contract” by the Roman Empire to include the imperial version of Christianity and the entire “known world” (which happened to coincide with the Roman State). Thus the Roman authorities, wearing the mantle of the “teaching authority” of the Christian bishops, knew exactly what “God” wanted from every individual and in this context the human sexual apparatus, obviously designed for reproduction of the species, when used for purposes foreign to its design, was to be condemned as evil.  Such behavior was “unholy” and broke the contract. It was contrary to the will of “God,” it corrupted the human individual and any society that allowed it would call down the wrath of “God” for having broken the contract. The authorities entrusted with the safety of society had no choice but to expunge any individuals who refused to desist from such “unnatural” behavior. The very survival of the community was at stake.

In Islam, the sixth century Koran repeated the injunctions against homosexuality found in the Jewish Bible connected with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and later in the Middle Ages, when Islamic philosophers began to interpret the Koran in the light of Aristotle and other Greek moralists, they applied the same rationalist arguments for maintaining the traditional condemnations.  Punishments for homosexual activity in Sharía law are particularly harsh:

homosexuals are demonized, banned, beaten, probed, forced into marriage, flogged,  incarcerated, lashed, hanged, brutalized, stoned, thrown from roofs, tortured and shot.

A 2014 fatwa from the mainstream OnIslam.net proclaimed that homosexuality is “abnormal” and abhorrent” and confirmed that gays should be killed: “The punishment for men or women who are unwilling to give up homosexuality and therefore are rejecting the guidance of Allah Most High is in fact death according to Islam.”  An imam invited to speak at a Florida mosque in 2016 said that killing gays was an “act of compassion”. (https://www.thereligionofpeace.com/pages/quran/homosexuality.aspx)

But aside from the harshness, as far as religions are concerned, there is virtually no difference in the moral take on homosexuality between mainstream Christianity and Islam. Some fundamentalist Christian preachers in the aftermath of Orlando have been heard agreeing that homosexuals should be executed. And that should not surprise us because they are both, Christians and Muslims, operating from exactly the same premises: a “doctrine of God” that imagines an anthropomorphic, rational, personal deity who micro-manages human life providentially and who judges all human behavior against the bar of the particular “contract:” a “holy” code of conduct that supposedly mirrors the “holiness” of “God.” No amount of spontaneous compassion for the victims of the massacre or revulsion at the actions of the perpetrator will change this underlying mindset, because the premises which justify mass murder remain intact.

I claim there is no such “God.”

Until we begin to understand that our spontaneous reactions imply a different concept of “God” from the one that supports mainstream religion, we will never be able to avoid the implications of the premises: that there is a “God” whose “holiness” is not defined by love but by a “code of separation” based on special behavior designed to establish the superiority of one people over another. This sectarian “God” is very different from the universal Source and Sustenance of Life in our cosmos. For the “God” “in whom all things live and move and have their being” stands firmly against any attempt to advance the interests of one community over another. “He” is the “God” of all things. It is the premise from which all validity in religion is derived.