Reflections on Buddhist Impermanence

2,500 words

The unexpected death of a young and healthy person is shocking.   On such occasions the impermanence of life suddenly reveals itself as the ultimate reality, and it includes oneself. The insight takes the form of a realization ― in the root sense of that word ― the vanishing nature of one’s own existence becomes real ― a felt reality.

I use the example of a sudden unexpected death, but unpredictable catastrophes of other kinds ― like natural disasters ― can also precipitate the same reaction.

The reaction I am speaking about is not grief or terror, but the resulting derogation of ordinary priorities, goals and objectives to meaninglessness. Desires and aversions, likes and dislikes, attractions and un-attrac­tions, spontaneously disappear. They generally reconstitute themselves in time but for some, they linger and must be intentionally re-installed. On the flip-side, the evaporation of the ordinary objects of desire also brings clearly to mind that death has happened to someone else. “I am still here.” This evokes a sense of personal liberation, a serene interiority and a joy in being-here-now that, however momentary, is accompanied by a cessation of time-flow. It is a profound self-appre­cia­tion and is quite unique. The experience is know­ledge-based ― an insight ― a seeing of one’s reality as it actually is for the first time. Some call it the opening of a third eye. Inevitably, this feeling of joy in the simple timeless fact of being-here-now recedes with the return of the ordinary pressures of life. It’s like waking up from a dream.

Buddhism

I have heard people refer to the profound liberation they have experienced on such occasions, and bemoan the fact that there was no way to keep it from evaporating in the stresses of daily routines. I believe that much of Buddhist practice can be understood as an attempt to grasp the nature of these spontaneous transformations and then to devise mental and behavioral exercises that will establish them as a permanent feature of daily living.

But this choice generates a contradiction. The irony of trying to make the experience of insuperable impermanence, revealed in the disappearance of a “self” (death), a permanent feature of a new, transformed and purposeful “self,” should not be lost on us. It was not lost on the Buddha. It is what is responsible for the second phase of Buddhist teaching, emphasized by the Mahayana Reform: universal emptiness.

Universal emptiness means everything is impermanent. The experience of impermanence is itself impermanent. Buddha, who counselled generating a mind-set he called “no-self” (meaning that nothing contained within itself the necessary and sufficient reason for its own existence) was quite aware that the re-establish­ment of “goals and objectives,” even one called “the experience of impermanence,” risked evoking the re-emer­­gence of a “self” that might very possibly pursue the permanent acquisition of those goals with as much desire as before. For a system that identified both permanence and desire as mental illusions that are the source of suffering, this was disastrous. Interest in simply being-here-now would be lost in the frenzy. The heedless practitioner could easily re-instate precisely those unconscious reflex reactions that cause suffering and had been transformed by the death experience to begin with. It meant that the medicine identified as the cure, could easily become the source of a new and potentially more virulent contagion.

So it required a frank acknowledgement: the very application of the means that would achieve a sense of impermanence had themselves to be understood as impermanent, or the initial insight would be lost, blinded by its own light. The attempt to apply and simultaneously undermine the practices that would lead to liberation and the simple resting in the present moment led to the creation of the confusing and apparently contradictory statements that have come to be associated with Buddhism. Zen doctrine especially, which was inspired by the focus of the Mahayana reform, has been accused of being arcane and inaccessible precisely because of its enigmatic expressions. Hence we hear, in the Diamond Sutra, a document of Mahayana origins, dialogs like the following:

“The fruit of the highest, most fulfilled, awakened mind is realized through the practice of all wholesome actions in the spirit of non-self, non-person, non-living being and non-life span. Subhuti [the Buddha’s interlocutor in the dialog], what are called wholesome actions are in fact not wholesome actions. That is why they are called wholesome actions.

. . .

Subhuti, do not say that the Tathagata [the Buddha] has the idea, ‘I will bring living beings to the shore of liberation.’ Do not think that way, Subhuti. Why? In truth there is not one single living being for the Tathagata to bring to the other shore. If the Tathagata were to think there was, he would be caught in the idea of a self, a person, a living being, a life-span. Subhuti, what the Tathagata calls a self essentially has no self in the way that ordinary persons think there is a self. Subhuti, the Tathagata does not regard anyone as an ordinary person. That’s why he can call them ordinary persons.”[1]

This practice of constantly negating doctrinal statements that have just been made is a deliberate attempt to create confusion and to force the reader to see the problem and think about it. These contradictory assertions are not themselves fully intelligible; they are not meant to be. They do not clear up the issue but rather emphasize its unintelligibility as a stimulant for thinking. Eventually, it is hoped, the fact that the teacher is intentionally trying to undermine the very clarity and “truth” of what he just said, should bring the practitioner to the realization that there is no permanence in anything ever, even Buddhist doctrine, and that therefore the pursuit of anything whatsoever as a permanent acquisition is an illusion and a waste of time. The aim is to get the student to “back-in” to the insight ― not as a concept but as a realization ― that being-here-now is the only thing that’s real and the insight into impermanence is only a tool that will lead to it. The ultimate desired state is to be-here-now in full enjoyment with no regrets about the past nor any interest in the future.

The understanding of the emptiness of things might be relatively easy to embrace at the early stages of practice when the objects of acquisition are material and the gratifications they offer are gross and evanescent. Objects of sensual desire are the first to be let go as the practitioner advances in her/his identification with impermanence. But other objectives, more spiritual in nature, like having certain insights, or being recognized for having humility, or a reputation for generosity and service, can entrap the aspiring Buddhist in ego-building for they presume the existence of a permanent self. These are subtle and it is not always easy to discern the way to avoid the pitfalls waiting on both sides of the question.

Zen koans (short pithy riddle-like sayings) in particular are claimed to be designed to bring the mind to a complete halt. The person meditating arrives at the intended insight from sheer exhaustion. It is not an active grasping or comprehension as much as a passive letting go. It is called enlightenment.

Enlightenment/Nirvana

Enlightenment is not a one-time thing. Enlightenment occurs over and over again precisely because like everything else it is impermanent. It is different at each occurrence because the capitulation to permanence that it is reacting to (and from which it draws its energy and richness of content) is new. But despite this absolute uniqueness as a personal insight, when translated into conventional terms it always amounts to exactly the same thing: being-here-now. It’s just that the flow of time has made it so that all three terms have evolved and are new for each occasion.

If you take the term “enlightenment” to refer to an action occurring, the state that results from that action is called nirvana. Nirvana means literally “snuffing out” as one would a match or a candlelight, and evokes the extinction of cravings and desires which the Buddhists have identified as the cause of all individual suffering and the ultimate source of all social disharmony. But because all things are impermanent, nirvana, too, is impermanent. The unenlightened state is called samsara, and there is no physical/metaphysical difference between nirvana and samsara. They are the same reality. The only difference (and it is a huge difference) is subjective ― how this same experience is perceived and the attitude that the practitioner has assumed toward it. In nirvana, the experience is perceived as impermanent, the passing perception of a non-self, one who is affectively detached from it, while in samsara, exactly the same experience is perceived as a necessary desideratum or aversion pursued with passion and the anxiety that always accompanies hot pursuit along with a disregard for the damage it may do to oneself or others. Nirvana and samsara are intimately related. It is samsara whose frustrations lead to the realization of emptiness and the embrace of being-here-now that constitutes nirvana.

So there is no permanent Buddhist salvation, because salvation consists in letting go of the misperceptions of permanence, including the fictional permanence of salvation. The accompanying sense of liberation and the joy of timeless self-embrace serves as confirmation that the experience is authentic. This unique sense of joy in being-here-now provides an intense happiness. But there is a potential trap here as well. This happiness itself can become the object of desire and pursuit and the fact that it does not last (it is also impermanent) can become a source of frustrated desire every bit as enslaving as the grossest lust. Similar to the advice of Christian mystics, practitioners are warned against clinging to them or pursuing them.

Thus salvation simultaneously is and is not. And because it does not exist as a permanent state of mind (no state of mind is permanent) it cannot be considered fully to exist. In fact, since all “things” of whatever kind ― conscious, living or inanimate ― arise as the effects of the causality of other things and are subsequently subject to entropic forces that ensure their ultimate dissipation, they are also simultaneously both themselves and not themselves, they can be said to exist and to not exist. Hence Buddhism claims to arrive beyond being and non-being.

The same thinking is applied to the coming into existence and the dissolution of those material composites that we call “things” (dharmas in Sanscrit) including biological organisms like ourselves. Everything that exists ― whether it be psychological phenomena or a physical entity ― is the result of causes beyond itself both for its initial coming into existence and for its continued duration. So in a very real sense, what anything is should be understood as the extension of those causal activities. Any given “thing” is itself because of all the other “things” not itself whose activity is essential to it have been or are active in its being-here-now. Therefore everything, simultaneously, is both itself and its necessary causes which are all other than itself.

The appreciation of what something truly is cannot be had until this analysis becomes incorporated into the perception of that thing. We don’t really see any given human being correctly unless we are aware of all the things that keep her/his body alive ― food, air, water, just to mention the most basic. For indeed, if that chain of causes should ever disappear, the organism would also disappear, and quickly. Looked at from this point of view, we can see that our “ideas” of things are a kind of “short-hand” or macro-image that intentionally ignores the 90% of the iceberg that lies beneath the surface. All things are intimately connected to other things, eventually involving the totality. What Buddhists ultimately mean by perceiving things as essentially empty of self, is that everything involves everything else. We are always aware of the myriad of non-self factors that are actively present in the encounter with any phenomenon whatsoever. Things are only themselves because of the plethora of things that are not themselves that make them be what they are. Ultimately that means everything.

Thus Buddhist impermanence also involves an immense widening of perspective on reality. Reality is ultimately incomprehensible unless it is understood in all its relationality, for how things are related to one another is not only accidental, it is constitutive of what they are. To fully appreciate reality, therefore, necessarily involves an embrace of the totality of existing phenomena which also includes what goes on in our heads.

Impermanence and “being-here-now”

This perspective is so different from the way we normally pursue our daily lives that some may think it immobilizing. If, in order to relate to baking a loaf of bread, they say, I have to be conscious of the entire universe, how can I focus on the simple task at hand? Buddhists answer that the awareness of the involvement of all of reality in the ingredients and human activity of baking bread does not hinder the process in the least. In fact it enriches the significance of both the work and the worker to such an extent that it transforms the experience. It becomes a mystical experience embracing what is happening here and now in all its depth and extent without breaking step. What the new perspective brings to the event implies a new respect and love for what is actually going on in the present moment. It makes the subjection of such activity to selfish ends, and perhaps utilizing unjust means, increasingly unthinkable. Imagine if the workplace were filled with people who were steeped in perceiving everything in the light of the totality. Being-here-now means doing the task at hand with a new awareness of the cosmic background. It does not mean stopping work to sit in contemplative rapture. That would be an example of the trap the Buddha warns against. This experience becomes part of the flow of real events in real time, events that are passing and impermanent, touched, felt, cherished and let go.

This is what is meant by mindfulness. Something essential has been introduced into the experience that was not present without it ― something that brings the activity in the orbit of the Dharma, the ethical dimension. For it is only in understanding things, people and human actions in the context of their real relationships both as effects themselves and as causes of other effects, that they can be treated as they should be: with justice, compassion and generosity.

[1] Diamond Sutra, taken from sections 23 and 25, quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh, Awakening of the Heart, Parallax, Berkeley, 2012, p. 330

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Autogenic Disease

Autogenic Disease

I want to explore a key notion: “autogenic disease.” I am using the term to refer to what I claim is a generalized, multi-millennial, specifically Western pathology where the human mind, in an act that seems to belie the presence of intelligence, identifies its own body as alien and tries to destroy it.

Contrary to what we in the West like to tell ourselves about our mental prowess, and despite all our brainy achievements in science and technology and our reputed “materialism,” the fact that we are biological organisms in a material universe seems to exceed our ability to comprehend. We do not accept it, and we do everything in our power to refute, ignore, disregard and repress it. We may admit we have … but we do not believe we are … bodies … and we conceive our destiny in other terms entirely.

That other destiny, of course, is spiritual immortality. Thus is generated the potential for an insuperable disgust for what we actually are. We are biological organisms in a material world where all biological organisms of whatever kind die. Western culture, forged in the crucible of its own distorted version of Jesus’ message, does not believe it; and that, I submit, is the source of our malaise. Western Christianity appropriated the message of Jesus and used it to support a ritual and symbolic form of Platonism. It claimed that we die only because our material bodies were corrupted by human sin; it projected another world of “spirit” from which we fell and to which we long to return … and in so doing internalized a disdain for all things material, including our own bodies. That religion shaped European humankind whose culture now rules the planet. The suggestion that this is an ominous development that presages some kind of universal disaster, is fully intended.

Among the myriads of life forms that the earth has spawned, humankind is the only one that is capable of this kind of insanity, for we are the only species that can despise itself. To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault. It’s a function of having an imagination. Since we can imagine being other than we are, we are capable of wishing we were especially when things are not going well. If being happy can be defined as “having what you want … and wanting what you have,” Western culture promotes unhappiness for in fact, it tells us to not like what we have, and it encourages us to want what is beyond any possibility of obtaining.

In our Christian past we had other ways of obeying our cultural imperatives and escaping our organic reality. Mainstream monasticism is a prime example; it offered salvation for the “spirit” through a lifelong programmed pursuit of the “mortification” of the flesh. But generally we have abandoned it, due in part to the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, which tried to make everyone a monk and everyday life monastic, rendering withdrawal into monasteries superfluous. In modern times our escape vehicle is technology. We are persuaded that our technology will launch us out of our earthbound lives and into an orbit of cerebral happiness. At the present moment, the pathology of displacement has gone so far that many of our people look forward to the day when technology will make us something other than human.

Popular culture generates images that reflect this dream: bionic individuals, robotic cops, iron men, mutants and laboratory-created superhumans of various kinds. These projections are more than adolescent cinematic fantasy. Already many of us have bodies that have been significantly modified by medical science with joint replacements, coronary bypasses, organ transplants, pacemakers, and a warehouse of chemicals that sustain a functioning balance that our bodies may not be able to maintain on their own. We believe if only we have enough time that someday we will conquer all the inimical forces of nature that cripple us and embitter our lives … we will provide ourselves with the means for the universal absorption of knowledge and control … we will overcome all our shortcomings, our mental and physical limitations, our vulnerability to disease, the causes of misunderstanding and relational disharmony … we will do away with diminishment of any kind … and, yes, someday we will conquer death.

For all our materialism, you will notice, these projected conquests anticipate transcending the stubborn, stultifying impotence of our biological organisms — organic matter that must struggle to survive in a material universe. We see all our problems as stemming from the inefficiency of our bodies to deal with the invariable “laws” of nature. Our bodies do not correspond to the limitless scope of our imagination. We can imagine anything, but reality gets in the way — specifically this body-in-this-world, ours or others,’ betrays us — and we find we are just not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or detached enough to realize our dreams. What we want slips through our fingers. It is all reducible to a mind-body disparity: our minds can think what our bodies-in-this-world cannot do and we will not accept it … and here’s the rub: our cultural Mother has told us since time immemorial we don’t have to. It tells us to strive for what we don’t … and can’t … have: to live forever in a state of ecstatic happiness.

We have assigned to our technology no less a mission than overcoming the limitations of the way matter has evolved on earth since our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Our efforts are based on a conviction that all our “unhappiness” is due to nature. And so we want to learn how nature works, not because we cherish it and want to collaborate with it, but in order to transcend it and advance our principal goal: to no longer have this body in this universe. We don’t want what we have … we don’t like what we are: human beings.

Every victory in this direction encourages us to trust the path we have taken and to believe in “the dream:” someday we will redesign everything; we will become strong, invulnerable, immortal … and we will be happy … because someday we will stop being what we are; we will stop being human beings.

If getting what you want is one path to “happiness,” wanting what you’ve got is the other. While these two statements seem to have parity when viewed abstractly, in practice they are wildly disproportionate. For in the West, after two millennia of Christian tutelage we have placed all our bets on the first and abandoned the second. What we want is to live forever, and despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the most pathetic of delusions, we now think we have a natural right to it. That we are not immortal we take as standing proof that there was indeed some kind of “fall” that caused all this. For the last 2000 years all our energies have been focused on overcoming the “limitations” of the body — flying off to some spirit world where perishing matter cannot follow us — a world concocted by our “spiritual” imagination. And even when people stopped believing in the other world and spirits, they didn’t change their immortal aspirations — which by that time had been elevated into unquestioned “truth” — they simply re-applied the dynamic to another content: the technological paradise.

Hence from paradise in another world to paradise in this one, it’s still “paradise” — a never-never land that does not exist. The result is that the practical pursuit of learning to live with what-we-are and adjust our wants (and our sense of the sacred) to what we’ve got has totally atrophied. This madness of make-believe has so penetrated every aspect of our lives that our global economic system itself is irreversibly grounded on the myth of endless expansion, satisfying a population of endlessly increasing numbers with limitless desires to accumulate and consume, provisioned by a universe made to yield endless supplies to our endlessly innovative technology. Our global survival system is locked into these fantasies as its only source of drive and direction; the system runs on investment, and investors will not buy stock unless they see growth. Growth is sine qua non, despite the known fact that the earth’s resources cannot meet our imagined needs. It’s as if we were on automatic pilot watching ourselves plummet to disaster, powerless over the very machine we created to carry us aloft.

The role of the Church in promoting impossible aspirations has now been taken over by the new ideological guardians of our well-being: the entities responsible for the production of goods and services and insuring their avid consumption. The message to consumers of an earthly “paradise” is being delivered by a chain of interconnected actors: commercial advertisers, career politicians, purveyors of mass information, paid by wealthy corporate providers of consumer products and services, whose businesses are kept growing by powerful financial, energy and human resource enterprises protected by a coercive legal and police apparatus all run by the very same wealthy and powerful people. What drives it all is the new “immortality:” the promise of the happiness of being endlessly lifted out of the limitations of our material organisms by technology.

Death is “conquered” (in reality, endlessly postponed) by medical technology … or when that fails, death is held in contempt as we are wont to do with an opponent who constantly gives the lie to our pretensions. We take a delusional satisfaction in projecting that someday we will finally get what we want — we will win the definitive victory over death. In the meantime we forego the contentment that comes from cherishing what we are … wanting what we’ve got.

Cherishing what we are. Most people have never had the experience. “Stress reduction” programs … therapies, exercises, meditations, rituals … that aim at achieving such an adjustment are relegated to the private sphere where they are tolerated as “personal taste” or derided as crutches for the weak, but no one would ever consider organizing society around them. And so “speech” that promotes exaggerated need and discontent in order to increase sales is officially “protected.” It is not entirely unlike the mediaeval Church that told us we were all corrupt from birth and damned without its products and services. That “speech” was also officially protected. Any thing that contradicted it was burnt at the stake.

Our wasteful economy is based on the illusion of endless resources mentioned above; it literally cannot function without it. There is no thought of promoting and providing contentment and stasis: a zero-growth goal requiring, first of all, a peace of mind that comes from the elimination of inequality, a guaranteed access to the basics for all, and then simplification, reduction in consumption, the encouragement to eliminate the superfluous, avoid wasteful display and unnecessary luxury, aim at optimal functional efficiency in the energy-consuming machines we use every day: our cars, our houses with their refrigerators, washer-dryers, cook-stoves etc. The word “luxury” has lost its original sense of being “too much” — wanton excess — and has now become a necessity, a desideratum, encouraged, of course, by those who profit from the sale of luxury goods and who are fast becoming the only voice we hear. Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, the conspicuous display of one’s “achievement” as a human being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything provided by technology — the new paradise. This pursuit, I contend, is a major source of the inequalities among us; for in order that some may acquire more than they need, others are forced to live with less than they need. Pie on earth is as dysfunctional for us as pie in the sky.

Do not misunderstand. I am not starting a new list of do’s and don’ts or advocating the rejection of technology. I am using these examples to illustrate a mindset. I am talking about changing the foundational attitudes that stem from our primary perceived relationship: who we think we are and how we are related to the world around us. How we apply technology to everyday life follows from those attitudes; that primary relationship is what I mean by religion.

 

Part Two: energy and entropy; LIFE and death

“Ultimate control” ultimately implies, of course, the conquest of death. It has been the West’s holy grail since ancient times, and Christianity, once our program of choice to win this victory, has been abandoned by the dominant culture and its quest taken up by technology. Through the marvels of medical science today we are experiencing the postponement of death to a degree that we never have before; it seduces us into thinking success is just around the corner. But death at some point, even for those who have unlimited access to the technology of postponement, must be embraced. We are material organisms in a material universe. Death comes with the kind of existence we enjoy. It is not an alien intrusion or a punishment for “sin,” much less an unfortunate anachronism come too early for the predicted conquest by technology. Matter is what we are, and this is what matter does. We need to know why that is.

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

All energy sources are examples of the same fundamental instability. A gently meandering river becomes a violent torrent when a precipitous drop over a cliff creates a huge disequilibrium in the water’s mass and hurls it through space at speeds exponentially accelerated by gravity. The energy in a waterfall is the force generated in the water in the effort to restore gravitational equilibrium. When that force is exploited to accomplish work, it is called power. In another example, the way batteries work is that electrons are forcibly stripped from the atoms of a particular substance, like lead, in one location and forcibly introduced and held with anoither substance, like acid. The artificially displaced electrons attached to the acid are under tremendous pressure to return to the lead atoms from which they were taken — atoms that are now highly charged because their protons are bereft and “hungry” for their electrons. When a pathway — a circuit — is created allowing those electrons to return and restore the equilibrium that was lost in the transfer, their compulsive motion in traveling “back home” can be exploited to do work, much as falling water can be used to drive machinery. This is how we harness power: we interrupt and exploit matter’s attempt to restore equilibrium and stasis.

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

We call the disappearance of energy, death. A biological organism dies when the various components at all levels of composition — bio-chemical, molecular and atomic — which had been gathered out of various locations, assembled and held together “unnaturally” (i.e., it is something they would not do on their own) under the forcible drive and direction of a zygote’s DNA to form a living individual, can no longer hold together and they return to their former states. The “particles” remain, their individual energies now determined by their own entropy. Nothing ever disappears except the energy gradients involved.

That is how LIFE lives: it appropriates the force of entropy and diverts it to its own ends. LIFE is anti-entropic. The living energy available to an organism during life is the expropriated tension-toward-equilibrium (= dissipation and death) of its gathered components.   It is precisely its “being-toward-death” that provides the organism the energy — the ability to do work — like a battery whose artificially skewed electron-to-proton ratio creates the energy we call voltage. The irresistible “gravitational pull” — like falling water — to restore equilibrium is the energy utilized by LIFE, and which we exploit for our identities and our endeavors, just as we exploit the movement of electrons to start our cars and power our cell phones. So the very LIFE we cherish so much is really the appropriation of our components’ “desire” to abandon their unnatural conjunction as us and return to their former state … i.e., to die. To dissipate energy — to die — is the energy source tapped by LIFE.

If somehow you were able to do away with “death,” therefore, you would also eliminate the very well-spring of living motion: entropy. Death in a universe of matter, I submit, is intrinsic to LIFE.

Sex and evolution

All biological organisms are manifestations of matter’s conversion of its ultimate weakness — entropy, death — into the energy of LIFE.   Matter does what it does because it evolved that way over eons of geologic time; its “limitations” are an intrinsic part of its development, the accompaniment and by-product of the process by which organisms adapted themselves to their environment and survived. In our case human weaknesses like our strengths emerged organically from the process of surviving under environmental conditions that obtained over very long periods of time … and they persist because those conditions have not changed. What evolved is now internal to us and binds us with an unbreakable valence to the environment that elicited that evolution. There is no “essence of humanity” independent of that particular process. We humans are-here … and we are what we are … because of it, and for no other reason.

One of matter’s more creative achievements was to use reproduction to bypass the natural entropy of all living matter. But there was a twist. We have to remind ourselves that at the dawn of life simple cell division — cloning the same individual — was superseded two thousand million years ago by the counter-intuitive innovation of coupling two distinct individual organisms producing a third independent of each; sexual reproduction was invented by eukaryote single-celled animals and it allowed for the production of genetically superior cells with a far greater range of capabilities. We are the beneficiaries of those seminal discoveries; they determined the basic structure of the bodies and behavior of everything that came afterward. It happened before the Cambrian explosion, and those advances made possible the emergence of all complex multi-celled organisms in existence, including us. The sex-based relationships that are so fundamental to our personal identities and our social lives originated in that epic achievement.

Sexual reproduction outflanks death but it does not overcome it. This was the “immortality” devised by matter’s living energy, and it was obtained at the cost of the reproducing organism which dies. Individual organismic death was integrated into matter’s energy transcending itself and evolving. Nature’s concern is not the individual, it is something else … .

“Matter” evolves by working with and within itself. It’s a very slow process of random interactions that may (or may not) finally yield a viable result — a result that can “live” within the whole. Matter is one thing and one thing only — material energy — homogeneous, universal, invariable. Because it is the one and only thing there is, every new form that its internal intra-actions take can survive only if they continue to “fit” within the ultimate sea of homogeneity of which they are a part. There is no other option. Matter has to work this way because there is no “existence” apart from this ocean of being. The metaphor of rockets that break free of earth’s grip and reach into “outer” space doesn’t work here. There is no escape velocity to take us outside matter’s “gravitational field” because outside matter there is nothing. Material energy, such as it is, is the absolute condition of anything being-here at all, and entropy — the process of reducing all energy to a lifeless equilibrium — is the source that LIFE mines for its energy.

I am convinced that very few people realize this and there are even scientists and technicians that work with matter’s properties everyday among them. I vigorously contend that this view is difficult for people to understand, not because of the complexity or abstractness of the ideas but because we have been programmed to think of things in the opposite direction. We reject matter’s existential universality and ascribe LIFE to an outside “spiritual” source that — no matter how it is contradicted by what we see with our own eyes — we cling to as our escape vehicle from a material world that we have been taught is alien and hostile to our destiny as human individuals. The inability to understand that we are matter is the source of our disrespect for matter and disdain for its ways. We have been telling ourselves another story for so long … and we have developed so much of what we think and do around that other story … that we spontaneously project that matter is inferior to “mind” and supine before the “will” of our rational intelligence, as if they were two different things and our brains weren’t themselves organic matter. Matter to western culture is alien, and at best a slave to kick around, not the sacred matrix which spawned us and in which we remain always immersed like a sponge in the sea, the root and ground of our intelligence itself. We behave as if there were nothing in mat­ter we need to listen to … to learn from … to be patient and deferential toward, to collabor­ate with, to embrace, to serve … nothing sacred. We think of ourselves as “spirits,” cerebral “gods,” all-powerful bodiless brains, whose destiny it is to mold a lifeless profane matter to suit our individual desires — to remake the world in the image and likeness of our personal illusions. And we have been encouraged in our self-exalting hubris by our mother culture’s various epiphanies through the millennia — the principal one of which for us has been mediaeval Catholicism and its “reformed” Protestant progeny — and the legacy they passed on to our modern culture of finding ways to escape from embracing our reality as biological organisms in a material universe.

I do not reject technology. I propose we use it to deepen our contentment with what we are — individuals within a material totality — not to run from it into a world of illusion. Part of contentment, of course, is the commitment to equality among us for access to the goods of the earth. Knowing who we are and how we are related to our source and sustainer is what I mean by religion. I believe such a radical reformation of religion would transform the way we organize our life on this earth — an earth which gave birth to us and to whose limits we remain forever bound.

 

Hylophobia

Substance dualism and the failure of philosophical theology

Posted originally Aug 13, 2015. This is an introductory essay promoting a metaphysics of matter — a cosmo-ontology built on the findings of science. It maintains that the persistence of assigning “spiritual” grounds to our thoroughly material existence is an indication of a stubborn atavism that has been engrained in our culture by more than two millennia of substance dualism. The continued assumption of the priority and independent existence of “spirit,” despite proof that the concept is cosmologically non-func­tional, haunts theology and continues to place an impenetrable barrier between the universe as it really is and our understanding of its connection with the Sacred. Matter — the only thing there is — is granted only marginal existence in our minds, and because of this hylophobic recidivism, is forever consigned to the realms of the profane … and we, who are matter, remain forever alienated from the divine.

I want to coin a word — hylophobia [1] — constructed from the Greek words for “matter” and “fear.” My intention is, following the custom of the medical octors, to call attention to an everyday phenomenon by giving it a pretentious Greek label; in this case, one designed to insinuate pathology for what might otherwise pass as normal.

Hylophobia means “the fear of matter,” but for me it represents more than fear: it is the residue of a world-view, allegedly obsolete, called “substance dualism” which says there are two physically / metaphysically distinct “substances” in the universe: matter and spirit. Reductionism — reducing matter to what it does at the level of physics and chemistry — is one of its principal symptoms, but there are others and they all betray the same attitude: a disdain for matter reflected in the denial of its transcendent properties. Hylophobia lies at the root of the autogenic disease of western culture — a collective delusion where individuals believe their own material organism is their enemy, and try to destroy it.

It is also the basis for the reluctance of western Christian theologians to embrace immanence as the fundamental concept that defines the relationship between “God” and the material universe.

I contend that hylophobia, like all true cultural pre-sets, is pervasive throughout the affected population. Its universality makes it virtually unnoticeable. It is not associated with any particular social ideology or political preference, and while it affects religion catastrophically, one of the signs that it is embedded deep within the western subconscious is that it is as virulent among religious progres­sives as conservatives. It is simply part of the horizon.

The case of “progressive” theologians is particularly revealing. I am speaking about those who have publicly declared their rejection of the traditional concept of a transcendent “God,” a concept that leaves room only for a thin and threadbare immanence, if any. Transcendence means “otherness” and it makes “God” distant and inaccessible. They are on the right track in rejecting it, in my opinion, for a heightened sense of “God’s” intimate co-existence with the universe brings welcome support to a theology trying to prove the relevance of Christianity to the modern world by facilitating: an accurate and mutually satisfying rapprochement with science, a primarily communitarian religious response and therefore a deeper, other-focused individual spirituality. It also means that religious exclusivism can not be justified and should no longer be tolerated..

This is significant for our discussion because Transcendence and Immanence ultimately correspond to the metaphysical dualism of spirit and matter. You cannot favor an immanent “God” without once and for all demolishing the prejudices and distortions of substance dualism. Specifically that means overcoming our traditional western denigration of “mortal” matter and our age-old belief in the existence and natural immortality of “spirit.” It is a liberation from the illusions of the past that we seem unable to accomplish.

1

Western Christianity has been characterized since ancient times by a belief in extreme divine transcendence — a transcendence that left virtually no room for immanence — because it said that “God” was pure spirit and shared nothing with the universe of matter.

Transcendence was originally inherited from the Judaism of the Septuagint well before being philosophically justified by “spirit.” According to Genesis “God” created the world from nothing and that means that “God” and humans have nothing in common except the fact that “God” loves us, made us for his own purposes and we are bound to those purposes whether we like it or not. “God” is like a potter who shapes his products to function as he intended. The relationship is entirely exhausted in the category of ownership; we are “God’s” property, intellectually and materially. But we are no more like “God” than the potter is like his clay. Aside from love and proprietary connections we are total stran­gers.

Then, toward the end of the second century c.e., Christian theologians embraced Platonism. Plato said that “God” was pure spirit and on that basis claimed that he shared nothing with anything composed of matter. The Christian use of Plato to explain the structure of reality thus reinforced Jewish transcendence and gave it a Greek philosophical foundation in the distinction between spirit and matter which it did not originally have.

Immanence, on the other hand, means that “God” and the universe “dwell” in one another — they share what they are by nature long before any consideration of how they may be bound by contractual obligations stemming from ownership or love. Immanence implies that “God” and man are genetically related — constituted of the same “stuff.” It seems indisputable that the founders of Greek Christianity like Paul and John, well before the dominance of Platonism, held conceptions of “God” that were immanentist. It is precisely this immanence that Paul alludes to in his speech at the Areopagus in Athens when he said, speaking of “God:”

Yet [God] is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; [Probably from Epimenides of Crete] as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ [From Aratus’s poem “Phainomena” [2] (Acts 17:28).

Being “‘God’s’ offspring” evokes a genetic sharing as between parent and children.

These New Testament allusions suggest a deep physical / metaphysical ground in nature, but they do not spell it out. The inescapable point is that a real immanence implies a real natural sharing of some kind between “God” and man — a sharing that comes with birth, necessarily based on the existential relationship between source and emanation, not earned by the efforts of the human being nor conditioned on human reciprocation to “God’s” creative initiative. What exactly is this real thing that both “God” and a universe made of matter have in common?

There have been various answers to that question, depending on the philosophical system that was being employed in the explanation.

The Platonic version which came to dominate Christianity from late in the second century, had a complicated, three-step explanation. In step one it was declared that “in the beginning” God dwelled alone in solitary bliss; Plato called him “the One.” The “One” was utterly unique and genetically unrelated to anything besides itself. “God” was inaccessible to all but his own “mind” (nous or logos). In step two, then, this Logos, personified (reified) as is customary in the Platonic system, “reads the mind” of the “One” and translates what he sees into a World of analogous Ideas. In step three, finally, like a Craftsman working from blueprints, the Logos infuses those ideas into an amorphous “matter” as into a “receptacle” and the material universe is born, a distant reflection of the divine essence.

Those “ideas” are the “essences” or “natures” of created things. Hence a mediated, genetic relationship is established between “God” and the cosmos that is based on the remote similarity between the “idea-essences” of the material world and the incomprehensible spiritual essence (ousía) of the “One.” Notice, matter has no place in this scheme. So, to the question, Exactly what is it that “God” and the universe have in common, in Plato’s version the answer is: “the creative ideas in the mind of the Logos.” “Ideas” for Plato, remember, are spiritual entities, the products of “spirit.” “God” is present to his creation as the model they imitate.

Later, Aristotle’s metaphysics did not fundamentally alter the “ideal” relationship between the divine essence and the essences of created things. In the middle ages Thomas Aquinas added “being” to the list of “ideas” involved. “Being” was an idea, but in Platonic fashion it was reified and identified as a real thing. It was “God.” But since “being” was an idea that included all other ideas in its embrace, the entire theory of a sharing between “God” and the universe was called “participation in being.” Thomism was an expanded version of the Platonic vision and therefore the sharing was in the realm of ideas. We shared in the essence of “God” by remotely imitating the divine perfections, all of which were captured under the umbrella of “being.”

What about matter? Since in the Platonic system “spirit” and its “ideas” were the only real reality in the universe and “matter” was the equivalent of non-being — a kind of empty receptacle — material things were what they were only by participating in the reality of the spiritual ideas (forms), which remotely resembled the divine perfections. Being came through the form, the essence. Matter did not count.

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Plato’s conception of “remote similarity” between “God” and the universe grounded in the Craftsman’s creative “ideas” was not sufficient, however, to establish a “salvific” relationship with “God” — one that won back our lost immortality — for between anything made of matter and the “God” who is pure spirit, no contact is possible. We “fell” into matter, remember, from the World of Ideas and so contracted mortality. Embodied humans could not share in divine immortality. The weak “remote imitation” basis for divine immanence in Plato’s system could hardly explain the kind of robust statements that John and Paul were making about “God” as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” and the guarantor of immortality.

Augustine. It is at this point that the Christian philosophical theology of Late Antiquity picks up the thread and adds to the narrative. It claims that the Logos became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to bridge the infinite gap between the immortal God and mortal man. Jesus’ resurrection was the first manifestation of the new immortality given to man as a share in Christ’s double “nature” (ousía) one of which Nicaea declared to be the same as “God’s.” One appropriates that shared immortality by incorporation into “the Body of Christ,” i.e., being baptized as a member of the Christian Church. In this vision of things “immanence” was not natural, it was supernatural — the result of the Christ event. It occurred principally in the human soul, its effects on the rest of creation derived from there. With Christianity “immanence” meant the indwelling of the Triune “God” in the soul of the baptized Christian.

The Christian Platonism of Late Antiquity differed from the pagan versions in that its Jewish origins prevented it from explicitly identifying the divine-human gap with the matter-spirit divide. Christian Platonists were frustrated. They were constrained by Genesis to say that matter was “good” because it was created by “God,” but they were also convinced by Plato that matter was evil and anti-human. How to reconcile the two. The solution was definitively articulated by Augustine: Adam’s sin caused the “fall” and corruption of a matter that had originally been created good (and immortal) by “God.” In the beginning, they said, matter was good but became bad. In practice, therefore, Christian “matter” was indistinguishable from the classic Platonic version; despite its divine origins it was now as Plato described it: the locus of all limitation and seduction, all pain, suffering and death. Matter, because of its corruption by Adam’s sin, came to be associated with the devil.

This situation continued through the middle ages, even though Aristotle came to displace Plato as the preferred philosopher of universal reality. Aristotle was a student of Plato who made significant modifications to his teacher’s system. He developed a theory called hylomorphism. It said that everything, whether natural or man-made, is constituted of matter and form. A statue, for example, is what it is because of the material of which it is made, let’s say bronze, and the form or shape that makes it recognizable, like the god, Zeus. Living things were similar. They were made of organic matter and the specific “form” or “essence” that made them an oak tree or a squirrel or a human being. Matter and form were intrinsic to the thing itself, which he called substance; they were part of its constitution.[3]

“Form” for Aristotle played the role that Plato had assigned to “essence.” It guaranteed genetic development and was the source of intelligibility.   It bore within itself the “purpose” for which the “thing” (substance) existed. “Form” is what made this matter a horse instead of a hippopotamus. It was responsible for what the thing was and therefore what it could and should do. Form made the thing recognizable to human minds and therefore belonged to the category of “idea.” In living organisms it was called “soul” and was also considered the source of vitality.

What made Aristotle’s hylomorphism radically different from Plato’s theory was that “form,” which in living things is “soul,” has no existence independent of the substance it enlivens.   Both matter and form, for Aristotle, were only “principles” of being that did not exist on their own; they were components of the concrete existing thing — labels that identified what was conceptually distinct for human experience, not what was independent in itself. That means that one should no more expect that a “soul” would continue to exist on its own after its body decomposes than that the form of Zeus would still exist after the bronze in the statue has been melted down for other uses. Matter and form are not things in themselves but only different ways that humans look at the same existing thing. All that really exists is the concrete composite, what Aristotle called the substance.

In theory at least, therefore, Aristotle rejected “substance dualism” (i.e., that matter and form were each separate substances) and that rejection implied a monism — that reality was comprised of only one thing which is capable of being looked at as either matter or spirit. Aristotle called that one thing substance comprised of matter and form. His was a metaphysics of substance. In theory, therefore, disdain for matter in this system should have lost its justification, for “matter” is not something separate and distinct from “spirit” and therefore spirit cannot be superior to matter. Each is only a different aspect of the same thing

Aristotle’s position was that the soul disappeared when the union dissolved. But predictably in Christian hands it was disregarded. The entire Christian narrative revolved around reward and punishment of the individual after death. The separate and independent existence of the human soul had to be maintained at all costs even if it meant an internal contradiction. Hence Aristotelian Schoolmen claimed the human soul was the one “form” in the entire material universe that lived on after being separated from the matter it “informed.”

Thomas Aquinas was one of them. While agreeing with Aristotle that the soul was the form of the body and therefore that neither matter nor form was a “substance,” he was also convinced that the human soul was immortal and lived on separated from the body after death. This spelled death for Aristotle’s system, for it meant the monism of substance collapsed like a house of cards.

Aquinas’ “solution” disintegrated on launch. What was arguably possible as an academic exercise became unthinkable when floated in the real world. For, whatever your argumentation, if the soul lives on after death, even if unique among “forms,” then in practice spirit instantly and irrevocably retrieves its substantial status — hylomorphism evaporates, substance dualism is re-installed. Matter is relegated to being a separate and alien encumbrance, the “enemy” of the “soul” which alone is the person. For if the soul alone without the body is the subject of judgment and the recipient of eternal reward or punishment, then the soul is a “thing,” as independent as anything needs to be to be called “substance;” its independent existence renders an opposed “soulless” matter equally substantive.

Any chance that Aristotle would move western thought beyond Plato’s substance dualism was demolished by the unquestioned priority of the separated soul in the achievement of salvation in the Christian system. People are not stupid. It was their destiny that was being deliberated in these esoteric discussions; they understood quite well the difference between a body that dies and a soul that doesn’t. Aristotle’s theory was simply ignored. Even William of Ockham, the consummate Aristotelian, the “bad boy” of mediaeval theology who denied any independent reality to “ideas” that were not representations of concrete reality, never challenged the existence and separate reality of the “soul” now supposedly known through other means, like faith. That meant, in fact, that Plato’s view continued unabated. Aristotle never made a dent in Christian substance dualism, because the overwhelming need to have an individual judgment made Platonism impregnable.

This left Aristotle’s system an empty exoskeleton whose inner rationality had been gutted. Philosophical theology revealed itself to be nothing but a montage of disparate and unconnected rationalizations lacking internal coherence. By the fourteenth century It was becoming increasingly clear that the entire enterprise was an abysmal failure. Any attempt at rationality was immediately undermined by the requirements of the Christian cult that had achieved social and political hegemony. It is no wonder that the ruse of “scientific” objectivity was soon abandoned. The Reformation’s reversion to Augustine to replace a sterile scholasticism represented the return to pure cultic thinking without scientific pretensions that simply accepted biblical categories — the abject sinfulness of humankind and the wrathful vengeance of an omnipotent “God” — as the unquestioned starting point for understanding reality. And keep in mind this was occurring as we entered modern times with the birth of science, the use of firearms, the nation-state and the conquest of the Americas.

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Substance dualism was so entrenched that when Descartes came along a hundred years after Luther and declared quite unambiguously that there were two separate and distinct metaphysical substances, matter and spirit, it didn’t raise an eyebrow. He was simply stating the accepted wisdom. For western Christians Aristotle’s hylomorphism had never functioned as anything more than window dressing that gave a rational veneer to an unrepentant Platonism. Descartes’ clear definition of spirit as a separate “second substance,” the source of all vitality and intelligibility, relegated matter to the realm of the inert. Matter was not a principle but some kind of “stuff” — utterly lifeless by definition: “a substance that could be acted upon but could not act,” a potential for composition completely supine before the power of spirit.

With Descartes substance dualism entered the scientific world as an axiom. It was no longer the subject of philosophical dispute; it granted science the freedom to explore and manipulate anything other than man without concern for its “value,” for matter had been made completely valueless in a world where all value was attributed to rational spirit — mind. Even the “souls” of living things other than man lost the original “spiritual” meaning given them in the Platonic system. Because of the absolute domination of the category of “spirit” by the “immortal soul of man” in the western Christian imagination, plant and animal “souls” were relegated to secondary status — in effect consigned to the sub-category of “matter.” Under the Platonic-Cartesian substance dualism paradigm, “immortal soul” was taken as completely separate from anything material, and even human beings who displayed a little too much “body” in the form of emotion or desire or stupidity or need were treated on a sliding scale proportionate to their perceived rationality. Primitives, menials, illiterate peasants, the retarded, children, women, were all considered sub-human to one degree or another, unable to care for themselves and treated as slaves or worse“for their own good.”

Matter by itself became a lifeless desert. But I want to emphasize: precisely because it was the companion to spirit. All vitality, intelligibility, design, purpose, direction, that characterized material things was claimed to be imparted to them by “spirit,” either in the form of their own material “soul” given to them by a rational “God,” or through the control exercised over them by the rational mind of man. No one in Descartes’ universe ever denied the presence of those “spiritual” characteristics, but they attributed them, exclusively and universally, to “spirit.” “Matter” by itself had none of them, but then, matter was never found by itself.

Exit: spirit

As science progressed, the control that human rationality was learning it could exercise over material things, even over its own organism, increasingly called into doubt the belief that a “divine spirit” had any influence in the real world. The last vestiges of the claim that “God” was a cosmological factor lay in the incredibly intricate adaptation of living organisms to their environment. Nothing could explain how dumb animals and unconscious plants could have come to possess exactly those rationally sophisticated abilities that made them capable of surviving in their complex environments except the infinitely intelligent mind of a Creator “God.” The “essences” of living organisms were thought to be rationally complex energies — “rational ideas” — that resided in non-rational entities; they had to be the result of infusion from without by a super-intelligent, rational “Mind.”

All that changed overnight with evolution. After 1859 it became clear that in fact every sophisticated interlocking feature that meshed organisms with their environments was the result of incremental changes incorporated into the various species’ DNA over long periods of time. What Darwin did was to take the well-known process of selecting the characteristics of domestic animals and plants through breeding, and apply it analogously to the origins of species themselves.   Instead of people, he said, it was nature itself that did the “selective breeding” by the inevitable survival of those organisms whose randomly acquired changes happened to be better suited for surviving. Those without them, of course, died out. The process “selected” among random changes. But “selection” was a metaphor; the organism simply survived. No one was doing any selecting. These changes produced a near-infinite number of living species, and shaped organisms of amazing complexity and relational power. “Mind” itself, rather than its cause, was now seen to be one of its effects.

With Darwin, the belief in the intelligent design of the universe and its species lost all rational justification. Without rational spiritual “essences” — rational ideas as blueprints — needed to explain what things were and how they were structured and behaved, the last reasons for believing in the independent existence of entities like “God” that were spirit, disappeared. Determining the place of the human mind in all this was put off ‘til later. But there seemed little doubt that the material world contained the explanation for what it was within itself. There were no phenomena that could not be explained by the processes indigenous to this world. The existence of “spirit” as a separate and independent kind of being, not only had no proof, it had also lost any explanatory value since every phenomenon imaginable, from massive geological events like earthquakes to intimate human psychological experiences, could be (or were thought to be shortly) explained by material causes. “Spirit” had lost its raison d’être.

But please notice: “Spirit” disappeared from a world that had been believed constituted of spirit and matter. That left only “matter.” But it was a “matter” that had been consigned for millennia to the dark side of the moon — the realm of the purely inert — a “matter” that could be acted upon but could not act, found itself locked into its ancient characterization. “Matter,” whose very definition had been constructed on the presumption of its partnership with “spirit,” now stood naked and alone. It was expected to fill a dual role: not only explain reality’s material functions but also the phenomena once attributed to spirit … but it was expected to do so qua matter … Cartesian matter. There was no new definition of matter to accompany the demise of “spirit.” It was “spirit’s” inert partner … now a widow.

“Spirit’s partner” is Descartes’ eviscerated “matter:” inert, passive, enlivened only by something totally other than itself. Matter remained the same inert substance that it always was as part of an erstwhile binary system, but the vitality in the cosmos, and “things’ ” ability to evolve transcendent versions of themselves, now had no explanation. The phenomena once assigned to spirit were now assumed to be the expressions of this inert, lifeless product of the western imagination. In the absence of a “material” (again, Cartesian) explanation, people tended to deny the evidence that was right before their eyes. An inert substance could not possibly be the cause of life, therefore life must be an illusion. The prejudice here is glaring. For it is just as logical and compelling to say that an inert substance could not possibly be the cause of life, therefore matter must not be inert.

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If we were able to purge our minds of the prejudices and subconscious assumptions about “matter” that we have inherited from our Cartesian past which are the source of our hylophobia, we could begin to look at “matter” in a new light. A purified scientifically informed analysis of matter would reveal characteristics that are both self-evident and explanatory of universal phenomena; and the depth of the disparity between these scientifically verified features of matter and our reflex prejudices also explains the virulence of hylophobia … and why it is aptly labeled a pathology.

Inertia. The first is that “matter” is energy. This flies in the face of the most fundamental assumption of Cartesian matter: that matter is inert. The convertibility of matter and energy which may be adduced as proof for this characteristic is actually a misnomer. All existence is material energy. Sometimes it takes the form of visible, impenetrable, solid particles that we have traditionally called “matter,” and sometimes it takes the form of invisible fields, waves, valences, forces for attraction and repulsion that are involved in the manifold relationships that comprise the material universe. At the sub-atomic level powerful forces that account for the very coherence among the particles that comprise the protons and neutrons of atoms, are themselves also expressible as particles. Gluons are a case in point. The force that holds the quarks together to form protons is known as “the strong force.” But the “strong force” is also expressible as a particle called a gluon. Well, is it a force or is it a particle? It has the properties of both and is analogous to the exchange of photons in the electromagnetic force between two charged particles. Photons are familiar as the “particles” that carry light. But we all know that light sometimes acts like a wave and at others like a particle.

At the base of it all is energy. There seems to be no solidity in the universe that is not more fundamentally expressible and measurable as energy. Matter, therefore, is not properly said to be convertible into energy, for there is no “matter” that is different from energy. Matter is energy. And since energy has been falsely associated with spirit in our philosophical past, to distinguish our new understanding of what energy is, I call it material energy or matter’s energy. “Energy” is matter. It should never be thought of as reintroducing binary structure back into reality. Energy is not the equivalent of “spirit,” it is simply another form and word for “matter.”

Vitality. “Matter’s energy” is the bearer of life. This also contradicts our traditional imagery which assumed that matter was dead and required the presence of something that “transcended” the material to be infused and enliven it. But we know there is no such separate, “transcendent” thing in the universe. There is only matter’s energy out there, therefore if we find that there is life in the universe it can only be because material energy in some way bears the capacity for life within itself. Does that mean that “life” occurs when a certain combination of particles and forces are apportioned, arranged and sequenced in some particular way that we so far are unaware of? Or does it mean that there is some kind of seminal vitality present below the threshold of observability in all matter of whatever kind … analogous to other properties that are unobservable except under certain specific conditions, properties like electromagnetism, or even mass itself? The physical details are not for philosophy to decide. But what philosophy must assert is that LIFE is borne by matter’s energy not something else.

Consciousness. The property least associated with matter in our tradition is thought. In fact the very theory of substance dualism was born in the attempt to explain the presence of ideas that seemed utterly beyond the capacities of matter. We know now that virtually every mental state as well as every image producible by the human mind is matter-dependent. That means that, even if you insist on maintaining that these mental phenomena are not caused by the organic material in the human brain, you have to at least acknow­ledge that if there is any damage or disease affecting the part of the brain associated with these various phenomena, that the phenomena in question will be seriously distorted, defective or even disappear altogether. So that even if there were some unknown unobservable causation here that is immaterial, it is still subordinate to the control of matter; “ideas” are matter-dependent.   Such dependence rather suggests that the phenomena are themselves material products.

I believe that matter must be defined by what it is seen doing at all levels of its complex interrelationships, not just at the level of physics and chemistry. There is no justification for limiting matter by some abstract criterion generated by speculation that is not empirically verifiable. Matter is as much matter when it produces thought and ideas, as when it displays the properties like mass and electrical charge that we associate with its more primitive states. You can’t use a crippled definition of “matter” derived from the presumptive immateriality of “ideas” to concoct a concept of an imaginary “spirit” which is then said to account for the reality of what you see “matter” doing right before our eyes. It is a vicious circle suspended in midair. We see that matter is not inert; it is alive and it produces “spiritual” products like thought and ideas. Every phenomenon that had been attributed to the agency of spirit, is now seen to be the work of material energy.

When confronted with these facts, the American philosopher William James introduced the notion of “neutral monism.” Monism meant there was only one substance in the universe, and he added the important qualifier: it was neutral — neither spirit nor matter — but obviously capable of all the phenomena that up to now had been falsely attributed to two separate substances. James lived in an era when monist idealism was considered a viable option and I believe the term was chosen to allow it to function. In our time, in contrast, since matter has been the subject of such spectacular discoveries — cosmological, bio-chemical, sub-atomic — I prefer the term material energy in order to avoid any confusion that “matter” is only an “idea.”

It’s important to emphasize: there is no intention on my part to deny the existence and human significance of the empirical phenomena that have been traditionally assigned to the agency of “spirit.” Consciousness, thought, poetry, mysticism function as they always have. My entire effort is simply to show that there is no justification for inferring the existence of something other than material energy to explain them. Substance dualism was exactly the result of such an unjustified procedure. Material energy is entirely sufficient for the explanation of all phenomena in our universe; no recourse to a putative “immaterial” source is necessary.

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Now all this put Christian theologians in a conundrum. In the absence of “spirit” they had no philosophical basis for saying the traditional things about both man and “God.” Christian doctrine seemed inextricably wed to metaphysical dualism. For if, as science was saying, there were no such thing as “spirit” opposed to “matter,” then neither the transcendence of “God” nor the immortality of the individual human soul has any ground in reality. Claims for their existence are not only gratuitous, but also meaningless, for what does “transcendence” mean if there is nothing that goes beyond the possibilities of material energy? What grounds transcendence now? Religion found itself completely cut off from the real world — forced to reject all the proven sources of knowledge on whose unquestioned authority everyone, religious people included, depend unreservedly for everyday living.

This “schizoid” existence — believing one thing in the world of work and daily life and another in Church — has accompanied the wholesale abandonment of the traditional Christian churches by the educated classes, especially those versed in science. Religion without roots in the real world appears to be nothing but fairy tales, and indeed, the ever more common orthodox concession that our doctrinal inheritance may now be taken metaphorically and not literally has left many with the impression that the theologians have capitulated and have settled on a strategy of employing religious narrative only for its familiarity while ignoring its claims to factual truth. Under these circumstances “living a Christian life” means allowing oneself to be motivated by nostalgia: to live the way traditional Christians who once believed these dogmas and associated narratives used to live. It self-consciously accepts religion as the exclusive repetition of ancient patterns and eschews all moral and intellectual creativity. It is life in imitation of honored ancestors.   Christianity is as dead for those who stay as for those who leave.

Concerned theologians have attempted to overcome this necrosis by distancing themselves from the wrathful and punitive character of the transcendent “God” of Augustine’s imagination. In that effort they emphasize the immanence of “God.” While pastorally speaking it is the logical step, the inveterate western hylophobia that pervades their imagery about “God” has made their efforts little more than pious rhetoric. They have nothing to ground immanence in, and so “immanence” in their hands becomes rooted in words, “ideas,” — imaginary spirit — and dismissed as just another fairy tale.

They will not acknowledge that the source of immanence has to be the material energy of which we are made. What we share with “God” has to be what we are and that is matter. This follows from our new metaphysics — the cosmo-ontology of neutral monism. Since material energy is all there is, there is nothing else we can share. They also cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that “God” must be material energy itself. Immanence can no longer be grounded in “ideas.” For while these theologians claim to reject the derivatives of dualism — like divine transcendence — if they do not accept the transcendently creative properties of matter, the principal one of which is the energy of LIFE, they have no real ground in which to root their claims of immanence, and they end up re-installing dualism by default.

Divine transcendence is a projection derived from substance dualism. You cannot reject “transcendence” without rejecting the reason why transcendence was accepted as an unavoidable conclusion about “God” in the first place. Correlatively, the “immanence” that is offered to take the place of transcendence cannot be installed without installing the transcendently creative properties of the material energy that is the only possible ground for a genetically shared life between “God” and the material universe. In other words, “God” cannot be “immanent” in a material universe without acknowledging the LIFE creating and sustaining capacities of matter and identify that material energy quite unambiguously as the LIFE that we share, and the origin, source, principle of LIFE is what we mean by “God.” You can’t make a more traditional statement than that.

On a similar note, you can’t continue to generate hope in the immortality of the human individual after death without grounding that hope in something other than substance dualism.   In other words, if it is not “spirit,” what could that be … and can it effectively (affectively) replace the traditional paradigm? Or must “religion,” considered as a program that claims to validly encourage trust in organic LIFE-as-it-is precisely because it is based in fact, be abandoned?   Is religion so tied to the existence of an imaginary spirit that any other format will immediately decertify it? In other words, can “religion” based solely on matter and material processes provide the basis for human hope?

These tensions continue at the level of physical / metaphysical ground precisely because of hylophobia — the residual fear of matter based on the unexpurgated prejudice of its Platonic-Cartesian assumptions. It is the source of the reluctance of theologians to subordinate their thinking to the results of science. This is an obstacle to the pursuit of a viable alternative for religion; hylophobia constantly undermines wholehearted commitment to the neutral monism that is necessarily at the basis of a new paradigm.

I want to emphasize: substance dualism is rationally, scientifically untenable. Any religion based on it can do little more than repeat ancient narratives whose claims to factuality have been completely discredited. But the central place of reward and punishment for the individual immortal soul has rendered any alternative to substance dualism unthinkable in practice. Christianity is locked solid into hylophobia.

The absurd anomaly of a theology that pursues immanence because of its fertility for prayer and a sincere universalism but refuses to acknowledge the need to root that immanence in some physical / metaphysical ground, conjures the specter of a substance dualism that just will not go away. For in the absence of a ground in material energy these theologians posit immanence in circular fashion — hanging it on a sky hook. What can that hook be but rhetoric — “ideas.” They like the idea of immanence but they can only justify it by its posterior benefits, not because of any basis in objective reality. It becomes a completely subjective projection: they opt for divine immanence because it works for the spirituality and ecumenism that they espouse, not because it represents reality. It is the use of these affective circularities, so characteristic of religious thinking that has eroded any confidence in the validity of philosophical theology — theology as a science.

6

Part of what feeds hylophobia is the inveterate aversion to pantheism. Why fear of pantheism should be so intense in official Christian circles comes back to the ecclesiastical narrative. The Church needs a transcendent “God” — a “God” that is “other” than humankind — or it cannot run a program based on obedience. Any hint of a shared life between “God” and humankind prior to the Christ-event runs the risk of justifying individual autonomy and vitiating the mediation of the Church. For a being that shares “God’s” life ab initio also shares divine freedom and creativity, moral and custodial authority and the permanence in being that has been labeled “immortality.” Immanence implies that the norm of morality resides within oneself, implanted there by nature, inalienable and demanding recognition. This runs counter to the role the Church has assumed in a theocratic society.

But even granting that the Church admits some measure of immanence because, historically, the doctrine has always existed as a “minority report” among mystics, no adequate distinctions have been drawn between pantheism and pan-en-theism. This is critically important. For the former states that we are collectively “God,” which is absurd, and the latter that we “participate” in “God’s” life by nature. The concepts are very different metaphysically but the accusation that pan-entheism is really “pantheism” does not acknowledge that difference. Fourteenth century mystics Meister Eckhart and Marguerite Porrete were both pan-entheists who were condemned as pantheists, and Marguerite was burned at the stake for it. Irish mystical theologian John Scotus Eriúgena was a pan-entheist who was condemned posthumously as a pantheist. And even Baruch Spinoza, universally considered a pantheist, in the eyes of Karl Jaspers was a pan-enthe­ist. Clearly the tendency has been to see any natural, genetic, pre-redemption sharing between “God” and man as “pantheism” and the rich and fertile path of pan-entheism, based necessarily on the acknowledgement of divine immanence, has been closed to western religion.

Hylophobia is functioning here, for even those that are willing to move in a pan-entheist direction fail to identify the structure of material reality as the evidentiary source of divine immanence. They try to ground divine immanence in some “idea,” or in a “feeling” of being united with “God,” a “feeling” that is given no basis in nature. They wax poetic over oneness with all creation and creation’s “God,” but they don’t seem to see that it is their responsibility to clarify exactly what that oneness consists of. It’s not sufficient to say it makes me feel good. What is the reason? Because “God” chooses to dwell with us? That’s the Christian narrative of redemption, which justifies Christian claims to exclusive validity … it is not the pre-Christian reality identified by Paul in Acts 17 as the common inheritance and destiny of all peoples, the ground of the universal validity of all religions.

The roots of immanence are genetic and inalienable. We are inextricably bound to “God” because we are all made of the same “stuff,” matter’s energy, the LIFE we share. That’s where theology begins: with reality … the facts … with the way things are. Theology doesn’t control the facts … the facts are given to us by science. Theology tells us what the facts mean.

But no, theology could not allow itself any such simple straightforward solution because, I contend, the solution acknowledges the primacy of matter and theologians consider the subject of religion to be “ideas” or “feelings” or “texts” out of some book — sources that justify theology’s claim for autonomy. Theology tries to confirm its independence of science by coming up with its own esoteric premises that continue to evoke a “spirit” that we know has been proven cosmologically non-functional. The whole procedure is an exercise in circularity. Theology cannot concede what is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes: we are all matter … and we are only matter. There is nothing else but matter. Matter’s energy is “being” … it is all there is. The universe is wall-to-wall matter whose source must itself be the very same matter. That means that “God” is matter. How exactly does that work? The details are for later elaboration. But the point of departure is that whatever is the source of all this universal matter cannot be “other than” matter. Theology will never acknowledge that, and therefore its efforts will always fail, especially its efforts to establish a religiosity based on divine immanence. It refuses to start with reality. If it is ever to break out of the vicious circle it has created for itself theology must begin with the firm and indisputable conclusions of science about the real universe that “God” created … not the universe our ancient ancestors thought “God” created. The vicious circle is broken by theology taking its rightful place as part of the chain of human knowledge. And it is science that provides the facts that are to be interpreted. What we ask of theology is to tell us: what does it mean that everything that exists is made of matter?

Matter is energy, and everything made of matter is a bearer of that energy, embedded in the very interstices of its sub-atomic connections. As matter evolves more and more complex versions of itself, those forms display exactly the same energies across the board — the energy to live and to survive, to interact and relate, to put the whole before its parts, to treat itself as part of a totality. It’s time we took the admonition of Paul in the opening chapter of Romans seriously:

For what can be known about God is plain because God has shown it to us. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. (Rom 1: 19-20)

Even the “text” points us toward science.

[1] I am aware that clinical psychology has already pre-empted that word for a pathology characterized by a fear of forests, but it is a rare condition and few people are familiar with the term. The parallel with hylomorphism makes it likely it will have more traffic in the philosophical sense I am suggesting.
[2] Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References) (Kindle Location 225077). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.]
[3] Matter and form were actually only two of four causes, the other two being the efficient cause (the maker) and the final cause (the end or purpose for which it was made). But these two are extrinsic to the object in question ( and final cause is really a restatement of the formal cause) and not really relevant to the issue of the constitutive elements of the universe. Including them would have been an unnecessary distraction.

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness (II)

This is part II, a follow-up on the previous post, It is reposted from February of this year.

Tony Equale's Blog

2,300 words

The first, and primary focal point of forgiveness in our Christian tradition has been “God,” and, irreligious as it sounds, it no longer applies.

We once believed that “God” was a person who “owned” human beings and had a right to their acquiescence in what “he” wanted from them. Failure to obey the will of “God” was considered an injustice against “God” who was deprived of what was owed to him. “God’s” rights were violated; and as with any person, such an offence needs to be redressed to the satisfaction of the one aggrieved and/or forgiven.

Seeking forgiveness from “God” is accepted wisdom that runs very deep in our tradition. But as we become aware of what really constitutes the sacred, it is not a rational pursuit. For the “God” we have come to understand as the source of creative evolution and our sense of the sacred…

View original post 2,140 more words

Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.

Psalms 85 to 89

PSALM 85

Background. A community lament, possibly post-exilic but historically undetermined. Murphy thinks that if the restoration mentioned in v.1 is the return from the exile, then this new plea may have messianic allusions. The anticipated salvation is personified as a “kiss” between earth and heaven: a symbol of the contract. The messiah was still an earthly messiah.

Reflection. This psalm has been given a “prophetic” messianic interpretation, probably originally from the Jewish community after the exile nostalgic for the Davidic kingship and then by Christians who applied it to Jesus. From a general Buddhist point of view, however, “salvation” can only mean enlightenment ― that through fidelity to meditative mindfulness we see clearly the structural impermanence that characterizes the human condition, stop looking for an escape for a fictional “self,” stop calling on help from an outside source that does not exist, and re-train ourselves out of mutual compassion to bind with our fellow humans in a community of justice and loving-kind­ness. Later Mahayana Buddhists would claim that the very possibility of conquest over samsara implies the existence of a True Self, a Buddha-nature, that ante-dates the false self-created by our delusional dreams. What emerges from the stripping away of the layers of meaningless habits of self-indulgence, self-aggrandize­ment and self-protective isolation, is something that was there all along: a Real Self, the resonance of living in accord with the Dharma, LIFE’s path, something we share together with all things. That Real Self the Hindus call Atman, Brahman, and I call LIFE’s energy ― a notion that corresponds to Meister Eckhart’s idea of the “Godhead” and the Sufis’ concept of Allah. We are THAT, every bit as much as the material energy of which we are constructed. They are the same thing.

1 LORD, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

2 You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.

3 You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger.

That is a gross deflection. LIFE is never angry. We are the angry ones, unreconciled to our condition. We rebel at what we are, biological organisms in a world of living matter, and the severe limitations that places on us ― the greatest of which is death. Will we stay angry forever? When will we accept what we are, impermanent, perishing creatures, and start having compassion on one another. We are all in the same boat. Grabbing food from a starving companion only infuriates everyone, including yourself; it intensifies everyone’s suffering.

4 Restore us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.

5 Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?

6 Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

It means learning to love ourselves, forgive one another for we are all driven by the same conatus to live forever in an entropic universe where all things decompose and die. Reconciling ourselves to our condition brings peace. We are the offspring of LIFE. We can let go. Rest in the flow of LIFE that carries us. There is nothing to do. There is no place to go.

7 Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.

8 Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

We can dodge death for only so long. Everyone will eventually lose friends, family, and the accomplishments of a lifetime. Building a “legacy” that will live in the memory of others is a pallid alternative to immortality. It only fools us while there are those that even care to remember. But they also disappear in the general emptiness, and the colorless shadows that their pale light had once cast on the wall of history disappear with them. Earth and heaven will finally meet when we accept what we are. That moment will be, for us, like a Cosmic kiss: what we are, and what made us what we are, will finally be one thing.  And living in the present moment — the eternal Now — is a foretaste of that ultimate event.

10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

12 The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.

13 Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.

 

PSALM 86

Background. A personal lament of generic focus. It appears to have borrowed a great deal from other psalms and so gives the impression of being a “boiler plate” offering used perhaps as stock prayers for sale by the temple priests and paid for by suppliants in court cases. Murphey says “LORD” in this psalm is Adonai, not Yahweh.

Reflection. Regardless of its origins, this poem expresses the same sentiments as others of this genre. The same metaphors apply. The “enemies” are the enemies of LIFE, the Dharma-path of justice and compassion that turns the earth into a community of loving-kindness.

1 Incline your ear, O LORD, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.

2 Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God;

3 be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.

4 Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

5 For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.

6 Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.

7 In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.

8 There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.

9 All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.

10 For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.

LIFE is our LORD. The world is the work of LIFE. It is everyone’s undisputed LORD and we bow down before it. The Dharma-path is the “truth” of LIFE. To love LIFE is to walk the truth of the Dharma-path with undivided heart.

11 Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

12 I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.

13 For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

Our enemies are our false selves; those fictional creations of ours meant to conjure up a reality that does not exist and which, at any rate, we do not need.

14 O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them.

15 But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

16 Turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl.

17 Show me a sign of your favor, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, LORD, have helped me and comforted me.

 

PSALM 87

Background. A Hymn of praise on the occasion of an undetermined feast. Mt Zion, the place of the Temple, is central to the worship of Yahweh who rules all peoples. As the universal ruler, Yahweh is assumed to have a register of his citizens … and they are from everywhere. Diaspora Jews also live in all these nations mentioned, and many were born there. The image of the presence of Jews in these lands meshes with the universal rule of Yahweh which also paradoxically means that all peoples are also citizens of Mt Zion.

Reflection. LIFE is comfortably metaphorized by the imagery in this poem. The residence of LIFE is in all things composed of living matter, the energy of existence everywhere, but most especially in humankind who are LIFE’s mirror and agent. LIFE’s living matter is the Source from which all things arise. We are all the offspring of LIFE. We are all the mirrors and agents of the Way of Dharma, fundamental morality: justice and compassion. This establishes a reciprocal relationship of all people to one another. We are all born of LIFE, we are all pilgrims on the Way of the Dharma, I belong as much to any one of my brothers and sisters in LIFE as they belong to me. We are one family.

1 On the holy mount stands the city he founded;

2 the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

3 Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God.

4 Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia — “This one was born there,” they say.

5 And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in it”; for the Most High himself will establish it.

6 The LORD records, as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.”

7 Singers and dancers alike say, “All my springs are in you.”

 

PSALM 88

Background. An individual lament, conspicuous for the absence of any belief that divine help was forthcoming. It has been described as the only psalm where there is no victory, no redemption, no release … no sense of hope. And yet the psalmist insists on voicing his complaints to “God.” He may not expect help but he expects to be heard.

The poet is “lying in his grave” from some relentless misfortune, and feels utterly forgotten by Yahweh whose “wrath,” he thinks, lies heavy upon him. He sinks beneath Yahweh’s waves, high water being a frequent symbol of death and chaos in the Hebrew scriptures. Not only can he not count on Yahweh’s help, but Yahweh somehow has insured that even his human companions, friends and family, shun him. They look on him with horror. He is utterly isolated.

It is remarkable that this psalm was even included in a collection of what are very often pious formalities built on the common belief of miraculous divine intervention held in common by the tribes of the ancient near east. It stands as a credit to the poetic and religious integrity of the psalmists and redactors. This poet has the courage and candor to “tell it like it is,” a rare virtue.

Reflection. This psalmist speaks to the human condition like no other. His imagery is peppered with allusions to “the Pit,” Sheol, the place of death and lifeless shadows. There is not the slightest hint that there is any way to escape his destiny. This psalm holds our feet to the fire. We are all deniers. We find it very difficult to admit the truth, that, sometimes for everyone, and for some individuals virtually all the time, life can be intolerable. I am reminded of my friend, Tim, an outdoorsman who at 48 years old fell and hit his head. He severed his spinal cord at the base of the cranium and became paralyzed from the neck down. Lack of blood flow to his legs meant that an earlier wound would could not heal and one leg had to be amputated at the hip. He had to breathe with a respirator and he could only speak by having air diverted from the respirator to an artificial sound box. Doing so was dangerous, however, and on one occasion he went into respiratory arrest when the diversion was attempted and failed. I would pray this psalm in his stead for he was indeed a man who was already “lying in his grave” unable to move arms and legs, unable to speak and communicate, left for days on end to the ministrations of a paid staff of caregivers who were all too inclined to use opioids to relieve his anxiety and save themselves from his constant demand for company and communication.   Like Jesus on the cross who could not move either arms or legs, I thought I could hear him crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? Was such suffering pointless, or was it redemptive? Jesus himself, I believe, was not sure. We have no idea to what depths suffering can reach … it seems there is no limit. Our clinging to LIFE and our dedication to the Torah, the Dharma­path, has to include these possibilities, for they are all too real. The Disneyland mirage is a myth of the worst kind. It is a massive cultural collusion designed to encourage confidence that technology’s consumer products, including modern health care, is actually a way out of the human condition.  There is no way out.  The only way is in.  Embracing LIFE as it is, is the only way.

1 O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

2 let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.

3 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol.

4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help,

5 like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.

6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.

Suffering that entails isolation is the most awful of all. How do prisoners survive months and years in solitary confinement? At this very moment there are human individuals all over the world who are suffering more than we could ever imagine. Nothing says it couldn’t be me. Nothing says it has to be someone else. It’s almost like LIFE is angry and is punishing me. I feel like a leper. People shun me; they smell the residue of burnt flesh and want no part of it. I am trapped and alone.

7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

8 You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

9 my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.

So I turn to LIFE, but LIFE will not extract me from my sufferings. LIFE is not a god who works miracles. LIFE is not in need of worship and praise so there is no sense cajoling. LIFE needs only a place to live … live, then, in me, but save me!

10 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you?

11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12 Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

But I am what I am. I do not know how to die. I cannot ignore this overwhelming desire to live. LIFE, I bear your face, your features, your character, your conatus, your DNA. I am your offspring. I see my face but I don’t see yours. Does the suffering and isolation have to include blindness as well? Why do you hide your face? Of all my sufferings, this is the worst. Why do you hide your face?

13 But I, O LORD, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14 O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?

15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me.

LIFE, I do not apologize for complaining.  What I need now is a god of miracles: someone out there with power. I am dying. I need help, not insight. Until I can let go of my need to live ― a need I got from you ― I will rail against my fate. I don’t know what else to do. You’ve left me to deal with it alone; my one companion is darkness.

17 They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me.

18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my one companion is darkness.

 

 

PSALM 89

Background. This psalm is divided into two sections: a long first section of formalities of praise and repetition of the standard truisms of Yahweh’s power and fidelity to his promises. The object of the promises, however, is not the Hebrew people, but, in a glaring departure from traditional expression, that of the king alone, and he is emphatic in reminding Yahweh of the promises he made to David. Then the poet turns to the second and last part: a lament and open chiding of Yahweh for not upholding his side of the bargain. Suddenly it becomes clear: part one was flattery. Yahweh was getting an ego-massage to set him up for what the psalmist apparently thought would be an irrefutable argument that Yahweh could not ignore ― that you have not only abandoned your contract with the king, but you have allowed your own honor to be trampled in the dust. What power-soaked near eastern autocrat could allow such sentiments to be expressed without reacting?

Roland Murphy (Jerome Biblical Commentary, OT, p. 592) bizarrely misses the dynamic of this psalm and with astonishing naïveté suggests that there were two authors or two totally different psalms inexplicably redacted together. In my opinion, this unaccustomed obtuseness on his part can only be due to an unwarranted attribution of “divine inspiration” that imagines the psalms as devoid of negative sentiments ― pique, ill-will, deviousness, cynicism, even sarcasm ― toward “God” that a more secular critic would be quick to notice.

It confirms for me that the psalmist is working out of a very primitive and simplistic theological framework. For this poet what makes Yahweh “God,” is power. The poet lives in a world where all human action is a response to and an expression of one person’s power over another, in the family, in the fields and workshops, in business and trade, in politics local and international. Not much has changed in practice since then, and so we can easily be sucked into maintaining these familiar attitudes by allowing them to guide our prayer. But we must honestly acknow­ledge: they are obsolete. They have been superseded. We use them as prayer only out of deference to our tradition. They must be purged of what disqualifies them. If they cannot be reasonably updated without breaking bones they must be discarded.

The psalm is also conspicuous for its almost exclusive focus on Yahweh’s promises to the king, not as usually presented, as part of his contract with the nation. That makes the theology erroneous, even for that time. This is another hint that we are dealing with a self-serving religious manipulation that had the audacity to use some liturgical occasion to shore up autocratic power and avoid “regime change” by appealing to Yahweh. The intention was to utilize whatever resource was available: in this case divine help. It used a prayer format but there was little of sincere religious devotion there.

The later Christian use of this psalm as a prophetic announcement of the universal political power of a future messiah they identified as Jesus the Christ adds to its unacceptability. That distortion derives directly from the psalm’s original exclusive focus on the Hebrew king.   By linking together the exaggerated theocratic intentions of the psalmist and an unwarranted identification of that king with Jesus, it was all by itself as impactful as any other factor in the total gutting of the gospel teaching on power as service. It was used to justify the mediaeval Papacy’s claim to universal secular power. This linkage is a complete fantasy and it must be broken. One way to begin doing that is to strip the psalm from its place in the canonical hours. It should no longer be prayed by Christians.

Reflection. This psalm is another object-lesson in how we have to approach scripture in general, and ancient prayer in particular. Just because the psalms are found in the “Bible” doesn’t mean that they express authentic religious sentiments that we can allow to guide our relationship to LIFE. Our first and most basic reaction to the psalms has to be to read them as literature and history. We have to understand the level of religious and scientific development that the poets of that time reflect. We then have to judge whether these sentiments are appropriate for our relationship to LIFE and the moral path we are enjoined to follow, or can reasonably be understood in our terms. Even ignoring gross literalisms, many of the psalms express a dynamic ― a relational attitude ― that is simply unaccep­t­­able. Giving some “things” mentioned in the psalms (nations, enemies, even Yahweh) a symbolic function may work in some cases, but changing the relational dynamics is another thing altogether. It will often simply distort the poet’s meaning beyond acceptability. I believe this psalm, like others that we have encountered in this study, is in that category. I think we are better off just reading it as an historical religious artifact. An obsolete museum piece.  A primitive religious phase that we are well rid of.

1 I will sing of your steadfast love, O LORD, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.

2 I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.

3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David:

4 ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.'”

5 Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.

6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,

7 a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him?

8 O LORD God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O LORD Your faithfulness surrounds you.

9 You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.

10 You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

11 The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it — you have founded them.

12 The north and the south — you created them; Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.

13 You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.

14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.

15 Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance;

16 they exult in your name all day long, and extol your righteousness.

17 For you are the glory of their strength; by your favor our horn is exalted.

There is no mention made of Yahweh’s power on display at the exodus from Egypt. At times in the OT, “Rahab” is used a symbol of Egypt, but it seems not to be meant that way here, and is simply a symbol of chaos and of Yahweh’s universal power established by creation. It should be noted that “universal power” is what gives Yahweh power over the other gods that represent other nations. This in my opinion is what is driving the poet: getting Yahweh to assert his dominance in the council of the gods to prevent some impending international catastrophe from occurring to the Israelite king.

18 For our shield belongs to the LORD, our king to the Holy One of Israel.

19 Then you spoke in a vision to your faithful one, and said: “I have set the crown on one who is mighty, I have exalted one chosen from the people.

20 I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him;

21 my hand shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.

22 The enemy shall not outwit him, the wicked shall not humble him.

23 I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him.

24 My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him; and in my name his horn shall be exalted.

25 I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.

26 He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!’

27 I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.

28 Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm.

29 I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure.

The exclusive reference to the king, his line, his special relationship to Yahweh, the range of his power and the complete absence of any mention of the nation, is a clue to the theological eccentricity here. This is not orthodox Yahwism; it is the king arrogating to himself the prerogatives of the whole nation. The people are mentioned as potential transgressors, but even granting the total failure of the people, the psalmist demands that Yahweh’s fidelity to ”his king” should not be shaken.

30 If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinances,

31 if they violate my statutes and do not keep my commandments,

32 then I will punish their transgression with the rod and their iniquity with scourges;

33 but I will not remove from him my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness.

34 I will not violate my covenant, or alter the word that went forth from my lips.

35 Once and for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David.

36 His line shall continue forever, and his throne endure before me like the sun.

37 It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies.”

Here begins the lament, and once again it is exclusively centered on Yahweh’s abandonment of the king. The people do not figure in this picture except as failures. Damage done to fortifications and city walls is described as being done to the king. Those that do these things are his enemies. The losses on the battlefield are his losses. Yahweh has abandoned his anointed who is only the king.

38 But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed.

39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.

40 You have broken through all his walls; you have laid his strongholds in ruins.

41 All who pass by plunder him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.

42 You have exalted the right hand of his foes; you have made all his enemies rejoice.

43 Moreover, you have turned back the edge of his sword, and you have not supported him in battle.

44 You have removed the scepter from his hand, and hurled his throne to the ground.

45 You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame.

46 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?

47 Remember how short my time is — for what vanity you have created all mortals!

48 Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?

49 Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?

50 Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,

51 with which your enemies taunt, O LORD, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

The traditional Christian application of this psalm to Christ is another reason to reject its use as prayer: the original Hebrew distortion which ignored the community dimension gave rise to the Christian extrapolation, applying it theocratically to Christ. Christians have taken it from the Jews as a prophecy of a messiah who will be given autocratic power over all the peoples of the earth, subverting Jesus’ specific call for leadership as loving service and reverting to the paradigm of coercive power: a subversion that the Catholic Church ratified and arrogated to itself. It provided the theoretical basis for the Church’s claims of universal political dominion over the entire planet and justified harnessing Jesus’ message to serve the theocratic interests of every state self-identified as Christian. It’s time we repudiate these sentiments.

52 Blessed be the LORD forever. Amen and Amen.

This ends Book III of the Psalms

Self-embrace

Please note: section 5 of this blogpost was revised and republished on Saturday May, 26, 2018.

1

In a review[1] of a new translation of a mediaeval Persian religious epic called The Conference of the Birds by Attar, the reviewer, Robyn Creswell, offered some background to the acknowledged masterpiece of Sufi spirituality.

The Sufis taught a form of monotheism that believed not only that there is a single God, but God is all that truly exists; everything else, including our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of his presence. Accordingly Sufi sheikhs urged their followers to disdain wealth and bodily pleasures. By looking inward, believers were taught to recognize the affinity of their soul with God. Through self-discipline they were guided toward a self-annihilating union with the divine.

Creswell then gives a short précis of the narrative. A small bird, the hoopoe whose significance comes from its special mention in the Koran, gathers all the birds of the forest together and

exhorts them to renounce their material comforts and join him on a difficult journey through seven valleys (the first is the valley of the Quest, and the last is the valley of Poverty and Nothingness) to reach mount Qaf the home of the mythical Simorgh (an Iranian version of the Phoenix).

One by one the birds decline, each for their own reasons until at the end of the journey only a handful of the original multitude remain to meet the Simorgh.

They arrive in his presence only to discover a mystical mirror:

“There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw themselves

The Simorgh of the world ― with awe

They gazed and dared at last to comprehend

They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.”

The birds were the very thing they had searched for. It is an eloquent summary of the Sufi teaching that the divine lies within each believer’s soul.

The overall concurrence of the Sufi worldview recounted here with the views of Mahayana Buddhism and Eckhartian Christianity is the more remarkable in that it comes from another religious tradition altogether. Granted that in all three cases we are dealing with an evolution from a more fundamentalist primitive origin that continues to exist (and for two still remains the majority view), the agreement suggests that insights and aspirations that gave rise to such similarities in such different environments in time and place, and coming from such different ideological roots, may be indications of something universal to the human species.

Moreover, unlike the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity and Islam, this view is compatible with science.   This makes for an unexpected four-way consonance that adumbrates a universalist synthesis about reality and spiritual development that is valid wherever human beings are found.

 

2

I propose that the term and concept “Self-Embrace,” symbolized by the birds’ recognition that they themselves were the very object of their quest, captures the essence of the mystical insight common to these three traditions. That insight describes and defines both the metaphysical nature of existence itself, and the ultimate goal of psychological/spiritual development which is cosmic nature’s human recapitulation. Parallel to this is the understanding of all the major traditions that the commonly acknowledged moral paths ― Dharma, Tao, Torah ― have always been understood as themselves the reflection of the same inner dynamism that rules the cosmos. Thebes falls into chaos because Oedipus, however unwittingly, shattered the natural order. All reality resonates in the same key. The harmony comes first, not last; it is we with our unfettered minds who have to listen closely enough to hear it and intentionally join in the chorus. Our morality ― justice, and compassion for all things ― is that enlistment. The implication here is plain: there is a common spirituality that suggests a common dynamic that rules the universe ― a common metaphysics. I want to explore that connection, and the exciting possibilities if it is true.

Self-Embrace and the delusion of permanence

I take the term “self-embrace” to mean that, insofar as anything is able to assume an intentional stance of some kind toward its own existence and character, it will be driven to accept, cherish and defend itself as it is and with whatever tools or abilities it has received from cosmic and biological evolution.

Before beginning any further analysis, to propose self-embrace as the goal of human spiritual development should strike one as paradoxical; that it doesn’t, is a clue to the depth of the problem. For it implies that in some fashion or another self-embrace is not the status quo, i.e., that what in fact actually obtains among human beings is a self-alienation, a discomfiture with oneself, in which the individual does not accept, cherish, defend and enjoy itself as it is. Humans are not happy with what they are, how they feel, and what they do in life. Much of their activity is not necessary for survival, and seems rather dedicated to becoming something else. This is extraordinary, for nothing else in the entire universe seems to have this problem.

Survival is the primary act of self-embrace. I believe the imperative to embrace oneself derives directly from the bearing of existence to-be-here-now clearly manifest and perceptible to us in the compulsion of every living organism to preserve itself. This instinct for self-preser­va­tion is called the conatus by Spinoza. All living things are “born with” that instinct. It is not repressible, and it is absolute, i.e., it has no natural limitation. There is no intrinsic reason perceptible to the conscious organism, man or animal, why the daily struggle for and conquest of survival should ever end.

Most living things accept and enjoy being what they are, and doing what they do. It does not occur to them that their daily victories will ultimately terminate in extinction. Humans, however, are different. They know that no matter how efficient they are at amassing what is necessary for survival, they will die. It’s simply a matter of universal fact: their very organisms are impermanent and will decompose. Why? The answers are all conjecture. No one really knows. The fact, however, is undeniable, and it is responsible for driving a wedge between the conatus and the instincts installed by evolution for the survival of the physical organism and its species.

The Buddha’s insight was to see that the ordinary urges and desires implanted in the human body do not correspond to the need of the intelligent conatus for continued existence. It’s as if there were two affective dynamisms vying for attention in the same organism: a dynamism akin to animals’ urges for day-to-day survival: to eat, reproduce and defend themselves and their progeny, urges that once they are satisfied are temporarily quiescent, and a second dynamism working in the human imagination that never rests; it refuses to be satisfied with daily survival and aspires to the permanent possession of being-here, something that is clearly impossible because, like all biological organisms, we eventually succumb to entropy, the material energy of our bodies decoheres and we die. Altogether, this accounts for what we call the human condition. We are not reconciled to this situation. It accounts for an immeasurable amount of suffering, both in the anguish of individual deterioration and loss and in the social horrors perpetrated by individuals’ delusional attempts to create an ersatz immortality by amassing wealth for themselves and power over others.

3

The problem is the imagination. It allows us to separate ourselves from the present moment and its needs (or absence of needs) and put ourselves in a past that we wish had not occurred but cannot change or in a future that we yearn for but cannot insure, so vividly that we feel all the associated emotions of desire and aversion. The imagination is also capable of fixating on virtually any conceivable surrogate as the symbol of its quest to break out of the life-to-death cycle, despite lack of any evidence for its possibility. The most glaring example of this is the generalized belief that permanence is achieved at the very moment when impermanence is most undeniable: at death. This reveals the human imagination to be utterly irrational and capable of grabbing at anything that it believes will “save” it from material decomposition. We are matter. Matter’s coalescent coherence is temporary ― a coherence snatched from the very jaws of the entropic energy that would return everything to a state of incoherent equilibrium. To claim that when the dreaded decomposition actually occurs that permanence is miraculously achieved, is the height of delirium.

What is even more remarkable is that this thirst for permanence is capable of transcendentalizing the more concrete desires of the biological organism, like the appetite for food, sex, battle, and turn them into symbols of permanence. Hence always eating the food one prefers instead of what is available is a symbol that connotes permanence. That one is not ever limited to what will just keep the organism alive is a symbol of not being needy. It’s hardly necessary to point out how that functions in the case of other intense gratifications like alcoholic beverages and sexual experience. These activities lose the focus on their primary purpose altogether and become symbols of a possession of transcendent life that is pure illusion. Universally acknowledged as desirable because of their euphoric ability to extract the psyche from ordinary experience, they become symbols of transcendence and are pursued as a conspicuous display of power and control, not just for the pleasure they afford. There are multiple addictions in play here. As soon as something is enjoyed for its symbolic or surrogate significance, we know we are in the realm of the delusion of permanence.

The problem lies in the conatus’ alliance with the intelligent imagination. Since what the conatus wants ― endless life ― has no identifiable means of achievement, the human mind must imagine what it might be, and any passing satisfaction is capable of capturing it. This explains , for example, the grip that promises of eternal life in exchange for Catholic Church membership, obedience and monetary support had on the mediaeval Christian mind ― and on the minds of many even today.

The Buddha’s solution was to get control of the imagination ― the mind and its thoughts. He taught that meditation was the tool that would do this. By first maintaining a steady calm of body and mind, concentrated reflection would first of all bring the imagination back from its past and future haunts and set it firmly in the present moment. Once the mind begins to experience the peculiar pleasure of the present moment without the torments of past remorse and future yearning, meditation will inevitably reveal to the mind the all too obvious disconnect between what the individual was seeking, eternal life, and the target content he/she had identified as the means to its acquisition. The foolishness, self-destruction, insatiable frustration, damage to others and to the earth that came in the train of mindless response to selfish desire would necessarily, in meditation, rise to the level of clarity. It was that clarity that the Buddha was after. Once the mind could see clearly that desire for an impossible permanence is what stood in the way of its own peace and threatened the peace and joy of others, it could choose the correct path, what he called the Dharma, the “way.” The way out is to accept ourselves as impermanent evanescent biological organisms ― nothing more or less than what we are. And meditation ― the intense and continuous practice of mindfulness, living in the present moment ― is the tool that will do that. He insisted we trust him on this. It works, he said. He did it. So can we.

Buddhist teacher and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh provides a simple way of illustrating this greatest of Buddhist achievements. All things, including us, he says, are like waves in the ocean:

Some waves are high and some are low. Waves appear to be born and die. But if we look more deeply, we see that the waves, although coming and going, are also only water, which is always there. Notions like high and low, birth and death, can be applied to waves, but water is free of such distinctions. Enlightenment for a wave is the moment the wave realizes that it is water.[2]

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is enlightenment. There is nothing arcane or mystical about it. What makes enlightenment seem so elusive is the recrudescent insistence of the conatus constantly to create, maintain, defend and promote a false self locked into the need to achieve a delusional permanence in the multitude of forms available in our material universe. No matter how often the individual realizes that the false self is really no-self at all, and transform its stance toward reality by living mindfully in the present moment and accepting its impermanence, the conatus, even though perhaps weakened by the assaults of Buddhist practice, is never entirely eliminated. It is always ready to direct its energies once again toward rebuilding the sand castle of our dreams.

4

Accepting ourselves as impermanent is what I mean by self-embrace. Now this is open to further analysis in two areas: (1) experience and that includes discovering the daily practices that will support and advance personal transformation towards the embrace of impermanence, and (2) metaphysics which looks to grasp intellectually the foundational underpinnings in universal reality ― the cosmos ― that confirm, support, encourage and foster a project of personal moral transformation as the disciplinary path for the achievement of enlightenment.

The first, the analysis of experience, is practice. It explores the way our bodies and minds work. It is fundamentally mental because it involves the imagination above all, but it is not a simple rational choice. Feelings, urges, desires must also change. When we finally accept ourselves for what we are, the added psychological suffering ― the sense of suffocation caused by alienation from ourselves ― disappears. This is what Buddha discovered, and what inspired his compassionate efforts to share the discovery with everyone. First and foremost, it was a program of practice, and the practice was meditation. He wanted to end suffering, and to that end he offered a program that worked.

The second area is metaphysical understanding; by that I mean a comprehension that is fundamentally scientific. Metaphysics has been the discipline used to speak objectively about the nature of reality in our scientific tradition. Most often it has involved the analysis of being. But the Platonic confusion between the concept of being and the nature of being has brought the entire enterprise into disrepute. Given Plato’s belief in the substantial existence of ideas as spiritual realities, it was natural to think that by examining the concept of being that one was examining being itself. In fact, since the notion of “God” as a cosmic factor came to be equated with being as the act of existence, philosophers were persuaded that by a careful analysis of the qualities and features of the concept of being that they were discovering the nature of “God” and the dynamic features of “God’s” reality that produced the universe.

Modern science, functioning on the premise that concepts are not spiritual realities that exist out there somewhere on their own but are simply states of the human brain, has limited itself to observing, measuring, analyzing and describing the properties of reality as a material energy. Through the last five centuries of intense study science has been able to identify the workings of material reality to such a degree of proven accuracy, that many are prepared to accept physical science as the permanent replacement for metaphysics.

I have a different idea. I believe it’s time to finally abandon the bifurcated worldview in the west that sees reality as split between a material and a spiritual side, and that “science” is the analysis of the material only, leaving the rest ― ideas ― to philosophy. But ideas are as much a part of the work of science as any other discipline and the analysis of the data uncovered by scientific observation and experiment is guided by the same logic and probative principles as ancient philosophy. I believe we should call the thinking about cosmic reality what it is: a cosmo-ontology ― a study of the existence of the material (scientifically known and described) cosmos. I am not proposing a new science, I am simply acknowledging that all analysis must proceed from and attempt to elucidate the observed and measured data of science. Metaphysics, in other words, has to not merely include the sciences, it must use them as its point of departure and they must remain the heuristic framework throughout its procedures. It is no longer a valid enterprise to pursue metaphysics as a separate discipline with its own conceptual data, starting point and ultimate worldview.

It’s here that the two perspectives ― the psychological/spiritual and the metaphysical ― merge, or perhaps better, where they show themselves to be mirrors of one another: where human attitudes and behavior recapitulate the evolutionary dynamism of the living cosmos. What each and every thing spawned by the substrate is focused on is the same as the what the totality constituted by the substrate is focused on: self-embrace, because, I contend, the substrate which we all share ― matter’s living energy ― is itself only and always a material self-embrace, observable in a material drive to be-here activating and directing the totality as much as any individual within it, including human beings. We are all material energy. We are all “water.” And we are all driven to be-here under the same conditions: we are impermanent composites of components that are common to all..

Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha himself, however much he avoided answering questions about the nature of reality beyond human experience, still clearly crossed the line and made statements foundational for his program of self-transformation that were undeniably metaphysical. The primary example of this is his key concept of impermanence. When Buddha speaks of impermanence, he is certainly referring to human experience, and if pressed could always deny having metaphysical pretensions: “We experience everything as transient and changing, composing and decomposing.” If asked why? (the metaphysical question), he could say “we don’t know why. Nothing says it had to be this way, but that’s just the way it is.”

But please note: he always says “that’s just the way it is.” He never says, we do not know what things really are, but that’s the way they appear to us. He avoids metaphysics at a second level of explanation, but not at the first. The first level is epistemological. The Buddha is a realist, and a metaphysics is implied in that. He believed that what our senses perceived and told us was out there, was accurate and reliable. What we perceived as impermanent was really and factually, always and everywhere, impermanent.

This is not insignificant. Later followers took impermanence to the next level of explanation. They made an unambiguously metaphysical attempt to explain why things are, and we accurately experience them as, impermanent. The principal metaphysician of Mahayana Buddhism was Nagārjuna who wrote in the second century of the common era. The explanatory term he used was emptiness. He said the reason why things are impermanent is that they are empty of their own reason for being-here. Both their coming into existence and their continuation in existence is due to a plethora of causes outside themselves. This is called “dependent co-arising” and while that term antedated the Buddha and is found in the Upanishads, it did not have the same causal denotation as it would later have with Nagārjuna.[3]

Nagārjuna did not have the benefit of modern science and was not aware of the quantum energy that constitutes the reality of which we are made. The totality of what exists, we now know, is what can be called in short-hand, matter. I say short-hand because the “nature” of matter, once thought to be billiard-ball like particles called atoms, is now known to be a vast interpenetrated and interrelated collection of force fields that, depending on our instruments of observation and meas­ure­ment, can appear to us either as waves or as particles. And while we are still far from plumbing exactly how all this varied energy interacts in time to produce our universe, we are pretty sure that it is all there is.

Certainly there is nothing else as far as the eye can see. But is there more beyond our ken? If there is nothing more, then our universe contains within itself the reason for its being-here. That means, whether we have discerned and identified what it is or not, we must already be in touch with it, for we ourselves are, in our very selves, everything that reality is. The only other alternative is that the totality of co-dependent causation responsible for all phenomena ― emptiness, as Nagārjuna defined it ― is itself the product of some higher-level causation of which we have no evidence and are unaware. In other words, that emptiness might itself be empty, a proposition that Nagārjuna defended.

5

We may have thought that last paragraph gave a final description to an ultimate dilemma that we do not have the resources to resolve, because we cannot see beyond the horizon of our sight. Seeing is limited to seeing, and the explanation is either inside or outside the totality. It is either accessible or not.

But I believe that the dilemma mis-states the possibilities. There is a third alternative. The explanation — the causal source — is both. It is accessible to me because it is inside the totality characterized by emptiness and at the same time it transcends the limitations of the things that compose and decompose. There is nothing arcane or “mystical” about this alternative, because the causal source is an existential energy that is physically, observably and measurably the very component of which all things that exist in the totality are constructed. In other words, there is no dichotomy between the things that are empty and the things that are not. Both are commensurate with the totality, the energy as “light source” and the “shadows” as dependently arisen. All things are the locus where both reside, simultaneously. A forcefield that is not empty energizes the components whose coming together and coming apart constitute the emptiness of all things made from it.

Emptiness also means that the realities that we see directly, throw shadows of unmistakable similarity to their own form that constitute other realities. These latter, then, are things whose form imitates and reveals the presence of what launched them out into the world. Sparrows beget sparrows, humans beget humans. They are shadows for sure, we can see that, but what casts them is itself a shadow and imitates the form of an even earlier shadow and form. Nothing is its own explanation of what it looks like and why it’s here; everything comes from something else. How far back can this go? We are looking at the famous “infinite regress” that philosophers have perennially claimed cannot be. They insist that the entire chain must hang from a single immovable hook somewhere ― a form that is not a shadow. Buddhists were not unaware of this revelatory function of emptiness. This following quote is an exclamation (udāna) attributed to the Buddha from an early collection in the Pali Canon:

There is, monks, an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated. If there were not that unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, there would not be the case that escape from the born — become — made — fabricated would be discerned. But precisely because there is an unborn — unbecome — unmade — unfabricated, escape from the born — become — made — fabricated is discerned.

(Udāna 8:3 … tr. Thānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff).   Cited by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 138. On the antiquity of the Udāna: Scholars have questioned whether this collection is related to the udānas collected during the Buddha’s lifetime … there are no compelling reasons to believe that the relationship is not close. (De Graff)

Commentary on this udāna in a contemporary parallel collection of quotations suggests that the Buddha was not referring to some absolute “thing” out there, but rather to nirvana, enlightenment, a human state of mind, an interior appropriation that provides an “escape that is calm, permanent, a sphere beyond conjecture, unborn, unproduced, the sorrowless, stainless state, the cessation of stressful qualities, stilling-of-fabrications bliss.” (itivuttakas 43 (“quotations.” The Fourth Part of the Khuddaka Nikāya).

But the udāna is clearly intended to evoke both, because it very explicitly quotes the Buddha as saying that the state of mind would not be possible if the metaphysical reality were not also there. The Buddha’s reputed statement is only possible because they are one and the same thing, exactly as Mahayana Buddhism discerned. For all the branches and derivatives of the Mahayana reform of the second century c.e., samsara and nirvana refer to the same reality. The only difference is in the perception, the state of mind in which reality is apprehended. Reality is simultaneously temporal and timeless, limited and unlimited, composed and uncomposed. The empty “shadow” entity contains within itself the source of the light that throws it.

Other traditions corroborate this interpretation. In the mediaeval metaphysics of Johannes Eckhart, source and shadow are explicitly identified as the same reality. We have to remember, Eckhart claimed there is no “God,” no “thing” or “person,” an entity apart from other entities that thinks and acts and creates, but rather a “Godhead” that, following Aristotle, was the Pure Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, the pure unmixed energy of being-here expressed as a simple, eternal, impassive, totally fulfilled self-possession ― a serene motionless, non-rational, unthinking and silent self-embrace that emanates the cosmos of material being. The material energy that science has identified as the homogeneous substrate of all things plays precisely the same role that the mediaevalists like Eckhart attributed to “being.”

Spinoza attributed the same emanative energy to his “God,” identifying divine energy so thoroughly with the universe of perceptible things that emanated from it that he called them mere modalities of “God,” earning him the false label pantheist. But like Eckhart, Nagārjuna, and Buddha he was trying to explain how two realities, cause and effect, reside in the same “thing” even while they reside in all things, without either losing its character as cause or effect.

To enter nirvana is to enter a forcefield that is already there. It is to resonate with the existential energy that pervades, suffuses and characterizes everything in our material universe. It is consciously and intentionally to enter a state of being-here-with everything else (what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being”) and in the way everything is-here-together.   It is to vibrate on that same wavelength, with the same frequency, driven by the same appetitive energy for being-here, the conatus, that mystics of all traditions have most remarkably described in exactly the same terms despite differences of time, place, cult and culture. Clearly, their experience was the same. It is to identify your being-here with the cosmic forcefield in which all other things are-here and are joyfully themselves in their shadow relationships with all other things. This is not just a frame of mind. The frame of mind is possible, as the Buddha said so emphatically, because the physical/metaphysical reality establishing that consonance is really physically there. It is to embrace yourself unreservedly for being exactly what you are … just as everything rejoices in being exactly what it is: this perishing material organism that is-here, now. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that the permanence you touch is yours.

How did Eckhart get there? He claimed that it was precisely the fact that this vast network of impermanent shadows was itself a shadow, exactly as second century Indian Nagārjuna said, that turned the Meister, who wrote in frontier Germany in the early years of the 14th century, into an explorer of mystical space. His quest was for the face and features of what he believed had necessarily emanated the entire universe as such a perfect shadow ― such a faithful and accurate representation of itself ― that using the universe including his own individual human yearning self as a map and guide, and working backwards, he could “discern” it. He called it “The Godhead” and believed that his own “soul,” similar to the Sufi mystics, was its mystical mirror. What he saw when he looked at his own face, was the face of the Godhead, what I call LIFE. Nirvana is the personal appropriation of the pure existential energy ― the LIFE ― of living / dying matter. It is the realization that there is nothing else there. The wave is all and only water. WE ARE THAT and our liberation is not to stop being THAT impermanent, vanishing, decomposing matter, but to embrace it.

 

[1] Robyn Creswell “The Seal of the Poets,” The New York Review of Books, October 2017, p. 24 ff.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, NY, 1995, p.138

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratītyasamutpāda