Translating the Mystics

2,000 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-forming Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

The mystics’ vision

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

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

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

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

Christian Universalism (VII)

the just society

9.

Human community is a derivative of universal natural faith. The emptiness that conditions life for all human individuals causes them to reach out to one another for interpretation and support. Biological survival is certainly a primary motivating factor, created by a longer childhood dependency than any other animal species; but family and clan interdependence entailed the evolutionary development of brains that can “read” others. A great deal of the operating time of the human mind is spent imagining what others (who are significant to one’s survival in society) think, feel, desire, intend, and can do for them or against them; and most of human conversation is dedicated to sharing it. We may trivialize it by calling it gossip, but it is what we do.

The ability to sense what others are feeling when something happens, or what they “mean” when they say or do something, is called empathy.   Empathy is the ability to feel the similarity between others and myself ― it implies a high degree of self-awareness. Intelligence evolved, apparently, driven by the need to navigate relationships in a complex society. Its unavoidable by-product was self-awareness ― the know­ledge of one’s own emptiness, and the equally unavoidable expectation of endless life, for despite how inexplicable and improbable it all is, here we are, and we love being-here.

Given the biological reality of the drive to survive, the ability to empathize can go in any direction. There is no guarantee that this extraordinary emotional clairvoyance will not be put to selfish purposes. Knowing that I am “needy” and therefore what “neediness” looks and feels like, I have a window that opens onto a vulnerability in others. What may have served as a tool to alleviate another’s anxiety, can always lose its “other”-directedness; when neediness no longer evokes sympathy, it is reduced in my field of perception to something I can exploit.

Similarly the implicit awareness that there is a warm sustaining wind that bears us all aloft can also evoke a selfish reaction. I trust life and those around me; that means I know that others spontaneously trust me and are not initially wary and self-protective, in fact they are predisposed to support and protect me. I can exploit this spontaneous reaching out ― the very need that is creative of human community ― and turn it to my own advantage. That such a turn poisons the wellsprings of life together is disregarded. Our ability to empathize is not ultimate or absolute: it is subordinate to other forces in the human organism ― like the instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement ― that are easily mis-taken as its contrary. At some point the conatus must consciously be directed to serve empathy or it will distractedly pursue selfish interests.

The spontaneous trust in life with which we come into this world, continues to penetrate and pervade all of our endeavors. An expression of this is the feeling of indestructibility that arises from the unchecked natural expectation of endless life. It is a biological disposition we are all familiar with, especially when young. It is generally held in low regard by adults who call it “adolescent.” It displays a naïve trust in life that can be dangerous. It is associated with having an aversion to the work that society deems necessary for survival. It is also seen as a source of recklessness that can result in fatal or crippling accidents. (That doesn’t prevent society’s managers from exploiting youthful naïveté to build armies of self-doubting teen-age boys “trained” to risk their lives and kill on orders. Young males are redundant for society’s reproductive needs and are treated as expendable.) But we have to recognize that this “frivolous” youthful attitude arises from a natural proclivity of the organic matter of our biological organisms to simply enjoy being-here free of care. Until the work of providing survival has been made so unachiev­able as to require total dedication to nothing else, thus disabusing the individual of dreams of a care-free life, it is the normal condition. We are all naturally care-free; we are spontaneously optimistic because we are made of matter; matter “knows” it belongs here and instinctively expects that all will be well. We must learn that is not the case.

The instinct to be care-free does not necessarily imply irresponsibility. In a random universe the urge to spend our days in play is quickly modified by the realities of survival. I contend that the effort to irresponsibly secure a care-free life for oneself ― selfishly seeking to avoid work at the expense of others ― is the root of social injustice. It is my opinion that the class divisions in society arose in the distant past, when some who had gained control of the survival process, in order to make life secure and care-free for themselves, coerced and extorted the labor of those who could not resist them. They became masters and made the others their slaves. Everyone acquiesced either actively or passively and the pattern became a system. Some claim the original model was the subjugation of women by men.

Master/slave systems provided a concentration of wealth and an organization of labor that was used to build all the great empires on the planet. All of us that are alive today came from one of the civilizations in which those empires flourished, and our current global civilization is in a process of concentration and once control is unified it will be an empire. There are very few human communities, even now, whose work life is not part of the global economy and its class divisions of labor. We have all internalized its principal features and transactional dynamics. We have all been formed by the master/slave system.

Work patterns in a master/slave system share certain distortions. For example, it is to the advantage of masters to eradicate care-free attitudes from their slave-laborers in order to get more work out of them. Instilling fear, and making any kind of satisfactory accumulation extremely difficult, the “masters” hone and sharpen their “slave” tools for their service, robbing them of the joy of life and a sense of security. The aim is to eliminate “frivolity” and make work’s survival achievements the only satisfaction available to the worker. This is done precisely so the masters can avoid having to live under such burdens themselves. They justify this by telling themselves (and their slaves) that there is a difference between them, a difference in their humanity ― that human nature is not universal ― that the masters are superior human beings and the slaves are inferior; that “nature” designed the division of labor.

The reasons adduced in the West for the class divide have been amazingly adaptable through the millennia: first it was claimed that the slaves were more “carnal and unthinking” and the masters more “spiritual and rational” ― slaves were like children who needed the masters to organize life for them; then later it was held that the masters were war lords and paladins who defended the people, and the people worked for them to maintain them in their warrior life-style and insure their protection; then, when new lands were discovered, it was said that the dark-skinned people who were made slaves were not Christian, had never been baptized and therefore were under the dominion of Satan and needed to work for their Christian masters as a discipline of exorcism; and finally in our time that the masters are wealthy owners because they are intelligent and disciplined and the laborers are not. Hence the almost unchallenged agreement is for working people to “go to college” so they can become members of the educated elite and ultimately become owners themselves. The “story,” regardless of how it has changed, remarkably always comes to the same conclusion.

These efforts have resulted in normalizing an unnecessarily hard and sustained work-effort for those who must sell their labor. The business of working to stay alive has been made more onerous than it needs to be precisely because the economic life of society has been organized so the masters can live “care-free” lives, and habituating the slaves against any hope of procuring the same for themselves is an essential part of it. Economic life has been structured along class lines for so long that we cannot imagine anything else. Everyone has internalized these myths. Any hopes the slaves still harbor for living care-free become exclusively focused on the day they themselves can become masters over others. Yes indeed, go to college.

I do not believe in the “supreme value of hard work.” I see that particular “belief” as another dogmatic mystification created by the masters to keep the slaves disinclined to expect that the system will ever allow them to be autonomous and care-free responsible collaborators as workers. Their only hope is to become masters/owners themselves. They are driven to “succeed.”

I contend that in a just society ― one that has made the pursuit of distributive justice its constant priority ― personal insecurity is eliminated or reduced to a minimum and shared by all. Everyone knows that their work will guarantee them survival and a standard of living on a par with everyone else. Resentment at inequality, and the exhausting over-exertion expended by those who are not paid a living wage for a normal day’s work, simply does not exist. Most of us have never lived in such a society, even growing up in our families which often mimic the pressures of larger society in order to “train” their children. I submit that economic life has been so distorted in the societies we are familiar with ― societies that function on wage slavery and the normalization of insecurity that is intrinsic to the master/slave paradigm ― that the unnecessary impoverishment and insecurity of the working classes (and the unnecessary anxiety of the ruling classes) would be totally eliminated if it weren’t for this internalized expectation. Like everything else in human life that exacerbates the insecurity of existential dependency, it is a product of our minds. Our minds create the structures that enslave us. Life is hard; but we have made it harder.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Humans have evolved the ability to imagine what’s not there. One of the “things” that’s not there, says the Buddha, is the imagining mind itself. We imagine that our imagination is an entity, separate and independent, that we identify as our “self” in opposition to the body and all other “selves,” when in fact it is actually a function of the body, a tool of the self-conscious organism that survives only in its social network. The imagination gives the organism the ability to anticipate, “under”stand, and empathize (relate). The real self is the full human organism and the mind is its instrument of survival-in-society. The greatest of human tragedies is that we take the image-maker and the images it concocts to reify and aggrandize itself as if it were a separate self, not the complete human being, ― and then re-imagine society to be made up of similar selfish avatars in competition with one another for ascendancy. It’s like a masked melee of the WWE.

The Buddhist project includes using mind-control techniques ― principally, meditation ― to reduce and eventually eliminate the false images that our arrogant minds generate about who we think we are. The widespread suffering that comes from the frustrated attempts to secure ultimate happiness through selfish accumulation and self-aggrandizement at the expense of others is the primary damage that comes through a runaway imagination. “Living in the present moment” is a mantra that proposes to get us out of the fantasy that we are disembodied independent “selves” and that something will fill our emptiness and make us, as separate individuals, secure and care-free. It calls us to let go of selfish delusions and to focus on our reality as biological organisms who have need of one another here-and-now.

Accepting our emptiness, our insuperable vulnerability and complete reliance on the forces of community life-support, leads to a simple acknowledgement: some version of the golden rule must override all other considerations. We must treat others as we want to be treated. It is the foundation stone of a just society. It is natural, intuitive and universal. We don’t need “God” to reveal it to us. It is the totality of our moral obligation and the whole purpose of our political designs. Any nation, political party or religious sect, regardless of its venerable antiquity and claims to sacred origins, that has not discerned the primacy of that moral imperative, is exposed as false and dangerous to the human project. By their fruits WE know them. The gods we need are the ones who remind us that we are all we’ve got.

The just society is our tool of survival. I wonder if we fully appreciate what such a statement implies. Perhaps it’s clearer in the obverse: without it we will not survive.

The just society, unimaginable only to those who have imagined it out of existence, begins with a simple transformation of who we think we are.

 

 

 

Christian Universalism (II)

an evolution of The Book

2,500 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Universalism

1,800 words

Universal religion does not exist. The only thing in our world that even comes close seems to be an imagined ideal round table where the various religious traditions sit and talk, sharing the understanding of their beliefs with one another. Whatever universal agreements may come out of such exchanges, if they ever actually occur, remain momentary, serendipitous events; they have significance only for the few people privy to it. They are not codified anywhere and generally have no impact on the institutional life of any of the participating members.

Nobody is keeping a record; and for sure no one is building a consensus that might be said to represent a universal understanding of religion and its significance for humankind. The purport of this reflection is to say, very clearly and unambiguously, it’s about time we started doing this. The point of view adopted here is that, much to the chagrin of absolutist authoritarian hierarchies like that of the Roman Catholic Church, religion ― institutional structure, beliefs, ritual and moral behavior ― is undebatably relative to the cultural, historical and linguistic groups that embrace it. Religion is a universal human phenomenon; it is found everywhere, and its factual ubiquity suggests that a thorough, disciplined, sincere, honest, humble, and religiously sensitive study would reveal why. The “why” is the common core of the universal religion we seek. It will embody the reason why humans are religious.

Academic courses and departments of Comparative Religion abound. But I want to emphasize, except for a few creative students of that discipline, the kind of consensus that I am talking about has not emerged there, and in fact is not even contemplated. Comparative Religion is an academic discipline whose objective is the tabulation of the way practitioners of the various religions resemble one another or diverge in the areas of religious life mentioned above. It is a branch of social science; it is not itself either a religion or a religious pursuit, search or quest.   Its most accomplished students need not be religious or even have any respect for the relation­ships that are the objects of their expertise. They are solely interested in the knowledge of what religion is and how it functions for the varied human populations across the globe.

The quest I am talking about, while it might have the same material content as Comparative Religion, is vastly different. I am proposing the religious pursuit of the universal religion that lies hidden and dormant beneath the various historically and culturally conditioned forms in which we actually find it functioning in our world. This proposal obviously assumes that there actually is such a reality, but it also recognizes that such a religious pursuit can only be carried out from inside the religious relationship, by those who know what it is. What is being sought is the accurate identification and description of the human event ― the embrace, the surrender ― that practitioners recognize as the mark of authentic religion.

This essay will be an attempt to confirm the claim that there is such a common core, and that clarifying what it is will enhance and purify all the various traditions. In fact, I hope to show that it is only the faithful conformity to the common core that legitimizes any given religion and serves as a standard by which to evaluate its authenticity.

Hence, this study will be circular in character, by which I mean it is committed beforehand to its conclusion: it presumes that a universal religion “exists,” what it seeks to do is sketch out its contours and understand the dynamics of the religious relationship, how it works in itself and therefore how and why it works everywhere in all the various disparate forms in which it has arisen among us.

*       *        *       *       *

Coming at this question as I do from a Roman Catholic background, I am quite aware that such a point of view contradicts the absolutist claims of the official Catholic hierarchy and dogma, which, I would quickly add, are merely the explicit expression of what is tacitly held by most Christian churches. Christians in general believe their religion is the definitive word and will of “God” which mysteriously confers legitimacy upon all other religions in the world. In the words of the Vatican Declaration Dominus Jesus, August 2000, “ . . . the sacred books of other reli­gions receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.” [I,8]

Ironically, what “universalist Christianity” might mean is unusually well expressed in the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of it. The following quotations, interspersed with my observa­tions, reproduce in its entirety a single paragraph of Section V, #19 of the same Vatican declaration cited above. The characteriza­tions that the Vatican finds so abhorrent ― not unpredictably ― are exactly the qualities we desire in an authentic universalist Christianity.

The declaration singles out for criticism:

. . .   conceptions [of the Church] which deliberately emphasize the kingdom and which describe themselves as ‘kingdom centred.’ They stress the image of a Church which is not concerned about herself, but which is totally con­cerned with bearing witness to and serving the kingdom. It is a ‘Church for others,’ just as Christ is the ‘man for others’ . . . [elipsis in the original]. Together with positive aspects, these conceptions often reveal negative aspects as well.

The document acknowledges “positive aspects” without mentioning what they are. But we have no problem imagining how refreshing it would be to have a Church which was not eternally preoccupied in proclaiming its own importance  . . . and so concerned with maintain­ing an image of holiness before the world that it covered-up the most heinous crimes of sexual abuse of children.   Wouldn’t we all rather it be a humble and penetential “Church for others,” aware and forthcoming about its own failings and interested only in pro­moting God’s image in humankind wherever it is found? The Church we dream of will praise the effective­ness of other traditions’ symbols and practices for the building of the kingdom, and encourag­e its people to remain committed to their ideals and their traditional practices. But no, instead we get pum­meled for having the satanic audacity to put others first:

First, they are silent about Christ: the kingdom of which they speak is ‘theocentrically’ based, since, according to them, Christ cannot be understood by those who lack Christian faith, whereas different peoples, cultures, and religions are capable of finding common ground in the one divine reality, by whatever name it is called.

The universal Christianity that I am speaking about is not at all “silent” about Christ. In fact it is based on the universalist insight that Jesus himself gleaned from the prophets and preached to his Jewish contemporaries. That insight was not about his own “divinity,” it was about the “Fatherhood” of “God,” which means precisely that Jesus himself was theocentric and not self-centered. He explicitly rejected any claim that he was “God.” It is the self-centeredness of the Roman Catholic Church that accounts for its inability to recognize Jesus’ message as a call to be “for others.” It was an insight that called for the rejection of any sectarian claims to exclusivity and uniqueness in favor of the “one divine reality by whatever name it is called” . . . exactly as Paul of Tarsus evoked it at the Areopagus in Athens. It was, moreover, that same Christ-inspired universalism that emboldened Paul to propose a universal membership in the commu­nity of the followers of Jesus which eliminated compliance with the conditions of joining the Jewish national sect. It was theocentric; it was not self-centered.

For the same reason, they put great stress on the mystery of creation, which is reflected in the diversity of cultures and beliefs, but they keep silent about the mystery of redemption. Furthermore, the kingdom, as they understand it, ends up either leaving very little room for the Church or undervaluing the Church in reaction to a presumed ‘ecclesiocentrism’ of the past and because they consider the Church herself only a sign, for that matter a sign not without ambiguity”.76 [the footnote references Redemptoris missio, an instruction of John Paul II]. These theses are contrary to Catholic faith because they deny the unicity of the relationship which Christ and the Church have with the kingdom of God.

Indeed, it is the “mystery of creation” that is uniquely responsible for generating religion. It establishes the existential dependency that is the ground for Jesus’ insight into the Fatherhood of God;   . . .   for the Greek poetic acknowledgement of the divinity in which we ALL live and move and have our being;   . . .  for the recognition of our common humanity demanding a compassion and moral responsibility that means justice for all, everywhere and without consideration for ethnic origin, language, color of skin, economic condition, or level of cultural development.   The “kingdom” ― every last bit of it ― is totally dependent on the “mystery of creation.”

And indeed, the traditional emphasis on the superiority of the Christian Religion is uniquely responsible for the crimes that permitted Christianity to be used as justification for the con­quest and exploitation of third world peoples, and for the virulent Christian anti-Semitism that provided the fuel for the Nazi Holocaust. Nor can we forget the horrors perpetrated by the Christians on the Arab world in the Crusades and the expropriation and expulsion of the Moors from Spain.   These were undebatably the products of “ecclesiocentrism” whose bitter fruits we are reaping today in the violent attempts of people to regain their dignity, achieve autonomy, create equality, and transcend the debilitating racism that poisons human social interaction. The horrors of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians can be seen as a dis­traught and grasping over-compen­sa­tion by frightened Jews and guilt-ridden Christians for the millennia of hatred and genocide born of Christian arrogance. If we set any store by Jesus’ terse wisdom that “by their fruits you will know them,” then by the actual historical fruits of Christian mission to the third world, and its criminally negligent stewardship of the defenseless people under its own roof ― women, children, enslaved Africans and their descendants, Latin Americans, Jews, Moslems, Indians, gypsies ― we know that what supports the outrageous claims for the uniqueness of Christianity must be uniquely inhuman.

My purpose is not to deny the religious legitimacy of Christianity, but I claim the contrary of the arrogant hubris of the Vatican. Far from conferring validity, whatever validity the various Christian sects ― including the Roman Catholic sect ― have, they get from their conformity to the essential characteristics of “religion,” the common legacy of humankind, a natural deriva­tive of the human organism itself.

Immanence and the “divinity” of Jesus

1,300 words

This is a reflection on the contemporary search among traditional Catholic theologians for language about Jesus’ “divinity” that is consistent with the implications of material evolution.

I put the word “divinity” in quotes because I believe that when “God” is understood as immanent it gives the word a new meaning with an imagery that is very different from what we are used to.  There is the old meaning of an all-powerful entity/person ― human-like but unlimited in reach and power, transcendent, spiritual and set apart from the rest of the material universe to which “he” is nevertheless present.  The new meaning based on immanence suggests the sustaining energy of universal existence, what some call a divine “Presence” that creatively suffuses everything that exists, a metaphysical cause that is materially indistinguishable from its finite effects.  Calling it LIFE projects an image that, to my mind, comes closest to the concept and evokes the dynamism responsible for the panoply of evolutionary effects that have filled the universe. I believe the key to a new way of expressing Jesus’ divinity is in a “new” way of expressing divinity itself ― as immanent. Once you take divine immanence seriously, things begin to fall into place.

[“Immanence” is the term traditionally used to describe “God’s” presence in the universe. Its usual expression has been to say that “God is everywhere.” We tend to think of that presence as if “God” were an entity like any other, separate but present to us like a tenant who rents a room in your house. But the deeper meaning of immanence as found in the work of Thomas Aquinas, is that “God” is present as the moment-to-moment sustaining source of the very existence of everything that exists. Aquinas’ theology of divine immanence has effectively been ignored in pastoral practice. For Thomas, the immanent “God” is present by “his” existential activation of all things here and now making them to be-here. “God” is being itself; Pure Act. All things exist by “borrowing” “God’s” very own existential dynamism and activating it as their own. It is not something that happened once in the past. It is a continuous operation that results in panentheism ― a condition where all things exist in God.]

Consider. In Thomistic terms, if “God” is the “act of existence” (the primary cause) that sustains, suffuses and is materially indistinguishable from all things as they are and have come to be (“things” = secondary causes which are both the agents and the products of evolution), then it’s a simple fact that “God” and the individual human being enjoy a “composite” relationship whose only discernible dissimilarity is that it is metaphysically structured, i.e., that it is only distinguishable conceptually as cause and effect. “God” and “creation” are not observably distinct either in composition or in activity. They are distinct only through our unique human ability to perceive and understand metaphysical cause and effect. (We unerringly perceive absolute metaphysical conditionality in ourselves, and infer an unconditioned metaphysical underpinning.)

The moral embrace of that metaphysical dependence, faith ― my conscious acquiescence to the co-presence of my source … my awareness that being-here is an exhaustive effect of “God’s” immanent primary causality (“exhaustive” = there is no other source) ― is reflected in my compassionate attitudes and behavior, which may be said to be more “godlike” the more completely each and every moment of my existence unfolds as a function of that relationship.

With such a way of looking at things ― a derivative of immanence ― not only is Jesus’ “divinity” intelligible, but so is all “divinity” among humankind, wherever faith is found, and however it was evoked in whatever community and at whatever time in the history of humankind. Gone is the problem of trying to account for the transmission of holiness/wholeness from Jesus to others, or from Christianity to other traditions, or back in time to include Judaism. We are all, Jesus no more or less than the rest of us human beings, all the immediate metaphysical effect of the suffusive presence of our immanent Primary Cause, and our “divinization” is all of the same type: moral appropriation and assimilation. It is by our moral surrender in faith causing a transformation in behavior and attitudes that we become more like “God.”

Metaphysical divinity is the same for all; we all have the same primary cause which is existentially activating us all as human beings (and only as human beings). If the immanent primary presence were “different,” we would be “different,” i.e., we would not be human. But the moral appropriation of that divinity in the surrender of faith and its diffusion through­out every aspect and every moment of our conscious communitarian lives, accounts for the different levels of the discernibility of divinity ― holiness/wholeness ― among us. Jesus, in our tradition, embodied the most complete fidelity to that “image of God” and the superlative quality of his trusting surrender is observable in his “obedience unto death,” even the dehumanizing death inflicted by the Roman thugs who ruled by torture and mutilation.

But please note: Jesus himself said that we would do even greater things than he did (Jn 14:12). How could he say that If he were indeed a “different kind of being” than we are? In the moral sphere everything is wide open to everybody. The depth, clarity and intensity of faith is as available to each of us as it was to Jesus, and the result of our fidelity to our reality as metaphysical effect is a closer likeness to the “divinity” that is our primary cause. The word for that is “divinization.” The Greeks called it theosis. I contend that that was the “divinity” that people experienced in Jesus. It was theosis divinization ― the human moral, attitudinal and behavioral expression of “divinity.”

 

Christians have never been shy about using the word “divinization.” Athanasius’ principal argument at the Council of Nicaea in 325 for acceptance of the term homoousios (which “defined” Jesus as the same kind of “God” as the Father) was that without it there was no way of guaranteeing divinization/theosis for us, and theosis was what it was all about. Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had his own reasons for promoting the homoousios, but the Greek bishops resonated with Athanasius’ rationale.

Fast forward to John of the Cross, a late mediaeval Spanish Carmelite mystic who wrote around 1580. For him, the language of divinization is the same, even though his metaphors are characteristic of his time. He imagined the “soul” to be the “bride” of “God.” His argument ― that people who love one another tend to become like one another ― was used to account for both the personality distortions that result from loving the wrong things, as well as the “transformation into God” of the soul who becomes his “bride.” Today, we might squirm at the imagery, but it was clearly his way of describing his experience of the surrender of faith. Faith divinizes by bringing light and mirror into sync with one another. Why should we think that Jesus was not as adept as any of us at the surrender of faith?

The entire Christian tradition, by falsely characterizing Jesus’ “divinity” as different from ours, also made Jesus’ humanity different from ours. If he was a “God-entity,” as we have falsely imagined him, faith would not have been demanded of him. How could he be a model for us? How could his message be relevant “for the nations?

Jesus was a human being. It was by embracing his humanity unreservedly ― by trusting “God” through death, even death on the cross of infamy ― surrendering without reserve to the immanent Presence that was his primary cause, that he “earned a name above every name,” and why “every knee bends” at the sound of that name . . . why even today, hearing what he said and did, people everywhere know what he was.

 

Relationship to “God” is a work of the imagination

This post is very long.  But it is composed of 5 sections, each of about 2,000 words which is convenient for one reading.  I opted to include them all here rather than in 5 separate posts, because it is one integral piece, and eventually the sections will have to be taken together.  As usual I invite your comments.

1.

The Imagery of “God”

1.1   Images

The sound of the title, I’m sure, is shocking to many believers.  I suspect their initial reaction is that it is “atheist.”  A moment’s reflection, however, should remind them what all the major theist traditions acknowledge: that “God” is unknowable.   Like it or not, regardless of the intensity of your faith, you have to imagine “God” and what that word means.

It might be less threatening if we realize that the imagination isn’t only functioning when we try to think of “God.”  It’s what we use for thinking virtually all the time.  The primacy of the imagination in our cognitive relationship to the world is not a new idea. Wittgenstein insisted that our ideas are really “pictures” of various states of affairs, from things, to people, to narratives, to complex interrelationships.

Moreover, for those of us who are convinced that the only way that anything can be-here in our universe is as matter, it is no surprise to discover that we work primarily in sense images.  Images reproduce concrete sense-based perceptions.  We are made of matter. Our organic brains evolved as a more efficient tool for helping us navigate in a world of matter where survival is dependent on using and defending ourselves against other forms of matter.

It’s because we generally work in images that most of us have a hard time with abstractions, like mathematics above the most elementary levels, or metaphysics.  We tend to put images in the place of abstractions. Until we can find an image we can “wrap our head around,” we don’t feel that we understand.  When we do, however, we say we “see” it and we “grasp” it as if the abstraction were a visible or palpable object . . . and indeed, in a real sense it is, because what we claim to recognize is the image we have substituted for the abstraction in question. There is a great deal of projection in what we claim to know.

1.2   The naïve image: “God,” the Craftsman

Now this is nowhere more true than in our attempts to “grasp” how it is that we can be-here, alive and ourselves. We imagined that we were “created” by a divine agent ― in the West it is called “God” ― and we generated an image of what we think “God” and the act of creation was like. This resulted in similar answers across the globe. People everywhere came to more or less the same conclusions about divine agency because we all “think” in more or less the same images . . . and that’s because our experience of being born into and struggling to stay alive in this material world is the same for all of us.

We wake up to find that we are-here, alive and growing from helpless infants to strong, intelligent reproductive adults in a community of people who are just like us needing to eat and stay alive in a world of matter. The universal experience that constitutes interaction with the world for material organisms provides the only analogy for imagining how the world and everything in it, including ourselves, could come to be here.

Our images are based on observation. The most fundamental of all observations is that something comes to be-here only and always after not being-here. Organisms that were not here come to be here born of other organisms. I myself am one of them. Our own children appear as if out of nothing. Hence it was natural to assume that the whole world and all the things in it came to be-here after not being here. It would not spontaneously occur to anyone that everything has always been here.

Our assumptions were expanded by the experience of our own work projects. The shelters we construct to protect ourselves come to be-here only because we put them here. The tools and weapons we use do not spontaneously appear. We make them. We are the agents of the changes that make things appear where before they were not, and our work is done for a purpose.

These simple connections generate the universal images about how things come to be here in our world. It would be virtually impossible for pre-scientific people, precisely because we think in images, to have conceived coming to be in any other terms. The inevitable conclusions: that things came to be here after not being here at all and that some purposeful agent had to have made that happen, are found all over the globe.

So, a picture was generated of some person, like a Craftsman, who constructed the things we see around us and made a world appear where before there was none. Given the immensity and complexity of this world, this Craftsman would have to be both intelligent and powerful to an extraordinary degree. The spectacular beauty and elegant inter-dependence of things suggested the builder was no mere laborer, but an artist and architect of transcendent capabilities. And the fact that the life that we have as part of this project is so precious to us ― our very selves ― this Craftsman is like a father to us and “he” must love us. We called “him” “God.”

“God” was a work of the human imagination. We connected the dots that we saw around us and “God’s” shape emerged. The only problem was that it was all pre-scientific guesswork and much had to be corrected once science entered the picture. Science’s image of the universe was actually quite different from what our first impressions suggested. We thought we saw dots where there were none, and dots that were invisible to the naked eye but which science could see, had been left out of the spontaneous process. Once science was able to amend the picture we had of the universe, we found that there was a new set of dots.  The spontaneous assumption about a divine Craftsman was no longer a credible explanation.

1.3   The new image: evolving matter

The first and probably most seminal correction was science’s discovery of the autonomous action of matter in the development of all the forms and features that populate the universe. Science was able to identify “creation” as a process in which the material energy released at the initial explosion that launched our visible cosmos, aggregated, integrated and complexified in incremental stages through random interactions during an almost unimaginable amount of time, producing everything known to exist. “Everything” is meant literally. Material energy, working on its own and without rational purpose, not only produced the primitive hydrogen atoms whose aggregation in huge masses under the compressing force of gravity generated fusion reactions that created stars, but continued thereafter to forge new combinations of particles within these stellar furnaces to produce all the atoms found in the elegant table of the elements which are the building blocks of life on earth. All of it was done by material energy, acting randomly and without any apparent rational purpose, plan or outside producer.

The intricate interconnections of things, once believed to be proof of the guiding hand of a creative mind, were now known to be the residue of developments that conformed to what went before. By proceeding in ever so minute increments, a highly complex finished product, like the human eye for example, was simply the last refining step in the long development of the light-sensitive capacity of the most primitive unicellular organisms, and the very basis of vegetative life on which all animal life depends. Plants derive their energy from sunlight which they utilize to drive their life and growth.

If there was no purposeful, powerful and managing agent involved in the production of the universe . . . if, in other words, we had imagined a “God” who was not really there . . . what’s the point of using the word at all? We had so identified “God” with “Craftsman” imagery based on the way we made things that when the truth came out we were left high and dry. Our imagery did not fit the new picture of the universe. Unfortunately we had used “God” to integrate our communities and our personalities, so eliminating “God” had the effect of creating havoc on all sides. Many see the travesties of the modern age as the result.

To compound the problem, the word “God” was so deeply identified with a false and misleading imagery that as a matter of practical fact, the word could not be upgraded in the popular imagination to refer to anything else. That was disastrous for religion in the West whose teachings, rituals and intimate life of spiritual transformation, for millennia, have been built around the relationship to a “God”-person. Adjusting to reality as revealed by science requires an overhaul of revolutionary proportions. And given the intimate dependence of personal and societal integration upon this inter-personal and purposeful, intervening image, any thoroughly adequate adjustment to reality would have to involve both a catastrophic breakdown of earlier imagery and an epic reconstruction of new ones with their associated affect. The entire project was so huge as to be inconceivable.

Why not just abandon the entire enterprise, admit that “religion” was a failed construct of our pre-scientific imaginations, and be done with the whole thing once and for all? Any attempt to keep it afloat would necessarily involve confusion and misunderstanding at best, and more than likely deception and exploitation of the uneducated by unscrupulous charlatans.

 

2.

Being-here

2.1   Conatus: the desire to be-here

Unfortunately, humankind is burdened with objective, data-based experiences that suggest a larger picture than science is able to explain and that will not go away. It seems that learning that the “sun does not rise or set, but that we go around it” is not the model that exhausts the misperceptions of the traditional worldview. For even understanding quite clearly that all things were elaborated by evolution and that there is no “Craftsman” who willed and who made us, questions that only religion seemed willing to answer remain, and refuse to disappear.

The first of these science-proof items is the intense addiction to being-here that is experienced by every human being. There is an unmistakable and indisputable spontaneous self-embrace in which each of us is acutely aware of being who we are, and that we are alive. The experience of having an uncontrollable urge to stay alive, accompanied by a concomitant fear of death ― in other words, that my being-here is transcendently important to me ― will not evaporate even though I know that I am nothing but a temporary concrescence of material elements that is born, grows, lives, reproduces and dies. Once I accept what science has discovered, it should be of absolutely no concern to me that this constellation of coherent elements that constitute my organism will go through exactly the same cycle as all other living things and that my “self” will disappear. And yet it is and will not go away. I am unable to assume an “objective” point of view on my living and dying. I am desperately in love with being-here and being myself, and the disillusionments of science will not dispel it.

Now I don’t bring this up as a proof or even a suggestion that my “self” is different from my organism, and that it will somehow escape the fate of the matter of my body, which many religions espouse. Other religions, like Buddhism, which recognize the anomaly of a self-love that is at odds with the realities of a universe of composing and decomposing matter, have sought ways to confront the perception of a transcendent “self” as a delusion. So this question is not new or foreign to the religious quest. Whether they opted to embrace it or to repudiate it, human beings have always acknowledged the phenomenon: we are in love with LIFE and there is no way to avoid it. We have to either embrace it or suppress and transcend it, but we cannot ignore it. It is the horizon of our existence. Our destinies as individuals and as communities are absolutely determined by how we react to this endless and insuperable desire for self-preserva­tion, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the very dynamism for survival that science has identified as the driving force behind evolution.

The endless and insurmountable desire for self-preservation has been called conatus. It is a traditional term, originally Latin, coined in ancient times to refer to the protective self-embrace observed in every living organism, plant and animal, including humankind. Each living individual, regardless of species, is a “self” of some type and is hard wired to selfishly seek to preserve and expand its own individual life. Extrapolating from our own experience, there is a possessive feeling that each self has about its own life that derives from this instinct.  We love ourselves helplessly.  It is not an option.  It reveals that being-here for living things is not just a dry, inert fact.  Being-here is a cherished proprietary dynamism that corresponds to an insuperable affective obsession on display in living things.  Being-here is clearly a unique and continuous object of ultimate and insuppressible desire which, by being shared in all its detailed characteristics by living things of all species without exception regardless of their level of cognitive ability, suggests there is one source common to all: matter’s energy itself. 

If both microbes and men manifest the same observable behavior with regard to the desire to be-here, it seems incontrovertible that being-here must, in some way, be at the very core of what they both are. Both are evolved combinations of the atoms and molecules that congealed and interconnected by the primal energy released when this universe was born. They are living matter. That’s all they have in common. The fact that they both share and display a transcendent desire for their particular configuration of material elements ― however disparate in other regards ― to remain endlessly, i.e., without any indication that there is an acceptable moment when that coherence should cease, seems to precisely describe what we mean by life. Life is the emergent ability on the part of material energy to behave in such a way as to display an unconquerable need to continue to be-here.

The fact that material energy was-here in similar formations prior to the emergence of primitive living organisms, but without any observable display of affect toward being-here, reveals that a new dimension was activated in the emergence of life: being-here became aware of itself as a supreme desideratum. The desire for food, for mates, to avoid predators, are all functions of survival.  Being-here, in other words, for living things is to die for.

There was nothing in the discoveries of the physical sciences that gave the slightest hint that there even might be a conatus. Why should being-here be any “better” than not being-here? Why should matter care whether it continues or not? As far as science is concerned they are just contraries. To be or not to be, for science, are of equal value. Like hot and cold, heavy or light, positively charged or negatively charged, moving or at rest, neither is more “important” than the other. Science can observe the phenomenon of the desire to be-here, and the aversion to not being-here, but it has no basis for evaluating them. The conatus is a sheer gratuitous primary datum: it is just there; it comes with life.

The salient fact for our discussion, however, is that for us being-here is not only important, it is of supreme and unequalled importance. It’s importance is so inescapably fundamental that it cannot be suppressed and gives every indication of being hard-wired into our very bodies. I not only desire being-here, I cannot not desire it: I cannot ignore, avoid or suppress desiring it. This fact was not predictable, nor perceptible much less explainable by physical science. Yet it is the most significant, essential, decisive, and destiny-shaping fact for me: the supreme value I place on being-here which accompanies an innate desire to survive. Physical science did not anticipate the conatus, because it did not anticipate LIFE.

2.2   matter’s energy to be-here

Since being-here is of such transcendent importance to us, we are forced to take up again the question of existence that religion had naïvely attempted to answer by imagining a super-human Craftsman. How can we approach this question now that we have the discoveries of science to prevent us from imagining things that are not there? For now we know that the Craftsman-god was a naïve and erroneous product of our imagination.

The first thing is that it would seem that whatever is responsible for my being-here is probably also responsible for this overwhelming desire that shapes my life and the destiny of the various communities in which all of us live. Clearly, whatever drives the autonomous evolution of material energy has got to be the prime suspect, for we can trace all the developments that shaped and empowered our organisms to that force.

But evolution is not a “thing” or a physical force like magnetism. It’s a word-picture created by human beings that tries to describe how matter’s intrinsic energy changes its own internal configurations through time. The substance and the energy involved belong exclusively to matter. There is no outside force called “evolution” acting on matter and making it change. It is matter itself, entirely on its own, utilizing the inherent energy that constitutes its reality, attempting to remain itself, that continually adjusts its internal interrelationships to allow for its existence in ever new environments. The keynote and final arbiter of evolution is survival. Ironically, the constant change that characterizes evolution is a function of the pursuit of stasis ― sameness. The changes that matter undergoes have no other purpose or “intentionality” than that which has constituted matter from the beginning: to be-here and to stay-here, i.e., to resist any change that would entail not being-here.

Evolution, then, is simply the external expression in time of the internal dynamism of matter. And because survival is the result and the only “purpose” of evolution, we can safely impute an existential intentionality to that dynamism.

Existential intentionality. I want to clarify exactly what I mean by using this term. The words “intentionality” and “purpose,” taken literally, imply something like conscious choice. I do not mean that. But I need to use those terms because I simultaneously want to avoid any suggestion that there is no biased dynamism inherent in matter, i.e., the claim that matter is disinterestedly inert, with no active preference whatsoever. I am trying to describe an energy, which as a matter of indisputable observable fact, is directed toward and results in survival. Matter does not exist in a dead state. It has an energy that inclines it to adjust itself internally so as to continue to be-here.
There is evidence that suggests that evolutionary adjustment is not entirely random. It never adjusts in the direction of not being here. Sometimes its adjustments fail to achieve their purpose. But matter never seeks oblivion which it would do as often as not, if it were not a dynamism with a bias toward being-here, for in that case, to be-here or to not be-here would be the same.
This is a key point in the rejection of mechanistic reductionism. Reductionism claims that there is no existential proclivity in matter, that matter is totally inert, that evolutionary change is, therefore, completely random, and that survival is a matter of sheer passive chance, no more likely than death. I claim, in contrast, that the very desire for endless survival that we as human beings experience internally ― the conatus ― is the exponentially intensified conscious extension in living organisms of the primitive inclination of matter to be-here. We all have that experience because we are all and only matter. We all know exactly what that means and we know there is no need to prove it’s there.
Matter has an existential dynamism that constitutes its potential for emergent forms like life and consciousness. Life, as observed therefore, is the expression of that existential energy intensified through the engagement of matter itself (in the form of the individual organism) in its own “adjustments in the pursuit of survival.” Consciousness represents a further development in the same direction. They are all functions of survival ― the more intense and efficient application of the imperative of the conatus: to be-here.
To the objection that by claiming a bias toward being-here that I have introduced teleology ― purpose ― into matter’s dynamism, I answer that a purpose orientated dynamism would mean acting for a reason, and there is no reason to want to be-here. There is no purpose to being-here. The need to be-here does not arise for any other reason; it is desired for itselfIn achieving existence, the quest ends.  There is nothing more that is wanted.  It is primordial bedrock, self-explanatory and self-grounded.

Matter is energy, and that energy is existential. It is exclusively, helplessly driven to be-here.  This ultimate foundational fact provides the sufficient and necessary ground for understanding the entire universe of things and their development, including humankind; for there is nothing in the universe but matter’s energy and the totality is the simple, unending, unalloyed, pursuit of being-here.  There is nothing ― no animal, no person, no “God” ― that is not part of that.

The insuppressible human question that gave rise to religion, and whose answer ancient, prescientific guesswork got terribly wrong, remains unanswered.  What is responsible for our being-here and being what we are? Science was able to show that there was no purposeful rational agent who did this. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. In learning that everything was the result of evolution, we not only discovered that there was no Craftsman, we simultaneously learned that it was matter itself, acting autonomously in its defining compulsive pursuit of being-here that was the engine that drove the development in the universe, producing all the varied life forms and human consciousness that we find on earth. In identifying living matter as the creative source from which all things emerged, have we stumbled upon the holy grail, humankind’s eternal quest: the face of “God”?

2.3   Is matter “God”?

Unimaginable. We recoil at the thought. For more millennia than are recorded in any of our chronicles, we have supposed that “God,” whatever else that word might mean, had to at least be a “person.” “God” could not conceivably be less intelligent, less loving, less purposeful, less intensely self-aware than we are. After all if “God” made us, “God” must be like us. This fit perfectly with the imagery we had generated about the Craftsman whom we conjectured created the universe of things. It never occurred to us that what was responsible for everything we see around us might not look or act like us at all. Furthermore, religious traditions going back before recorded time, in assuming that a trans­cendent “personality” lie behind the existence of the universe, had encouraged making contact with that person by offering sacrifice, by communicating our personal and community needs, by obeying behavioral codes, by giving gifts in acknowledgement of our gratitude for being-here, by pleading for help ― in short, by relating to our creator the way we would relate to any human person who was in a position to do something for us. So the word “God” embodies not only the erroneous cosmological imagery and associated ideas we have been examining in this study, but it is drenched in the affective psychological intensity that is the residue of the accumulation of eons of human emotion poured out in the gratitude, fear, love and pleading that has characterized how we related to that “God-person.”  If “God” is matter and is not a person, that whole imaginary construct comes down like a house of cards.

What does that mean for our “religious” lives? Does it mean religion is dead? The burden of this essay is to emphatically answer: No. These discoveries demand that we change the imagery that we had generated about what our creative source is like and relate to it as it really is observed, measured and experienced and not as we once imagined it to be. We are tied neither to images nor to words. The image of the Craftsman and the word “God” were hypothetical constructs that worked for our pre-scientific view of the world. But just because the word and image have to be abandoned doesn’t mean we can abandon the relationship, because the relationship is existential for us. It is what put us here and sustains us. We know it is real because we are real and we are not self-originating. It’s time to change our imagery, not deny that we exist and did not create ourselves.

The relationship ― our being-here as we are ― came first and remains fundamental.  It is the only fact.  Our attempt to understand it is not fact but conjecture, and comes second. Our conjectures ― our imaginings ― are not the standard of reality. Discovering that our source is not as we had imagined, does not give us the right to disregard the implications of what we are learning. We are, and always remain, the offspring of our source, whatever it is. We are what we have been made, and our continued survival depends upon our conformity to what we are, not to what we once thought we were no matter how ancient or robed in venerable tradition. We have been evolved by matter’s energy and our lives must coincide with its fundamental dynamics or we eviscerate ourselves.  This is not a matter of choice and we all know it, for quiet as it’s kept, we do what we need to survive regardless of the counsels of our tradition.

 

3.

the psychological transcendentals

3.1   Trust

How does this play itself out? The first, and as it ironically turns out, the overarching constitutive step in surviving is trust. There is nothing new here. No matter what the imagined world-view, the mechanism of engagement is trust and it’s no different in a universe of matter. We have little choice. Everything that we are, every ability we have, even our very being-here itself has arisen without any contribution from us. We awaken to find ourselves immersed and borne along in a vast project generated and propelled forward by the energy of matter alone. Our own human organisms are only one slim line of that development, sustained through millennia of time by a network of vital connections with the rest of the universe that we are only now becoming aware of. None of the features of our bodies and minds that we cherish as our very selves, were designed, fabricated, or placed into active service by us. It was all given. We are not self-originating in any way. We had no say in when we awoke, and we cannot prevent our components from being reused by other organisms when we die. Our active participation is limited to the most minimal intervention, which unfortunately includes the possibility of self-rejec­tion. We can opt out, but even there, only by advancing early to the death-step. We never really escape the life-cycle which is our destiny no matter what we do.

Trust is the air we breathe; it is the ocean we swim in. We are not even aware of it until we turn full attention to it. We have to trust all the time. We trust in the perfect functioning of our bodies interacting with earth’s supply systems of air, water and food. We trust that our lungs will always draw in oxygen and our blood will always carry it to all parts of our bodies for the combustion in our living cells. We trust our organs to correctly process the food and water we ingest and distribute it appropriately for the full functioning of all our members and abilities. We trust that our DNA will infallibly guide the ontogenesis that brings our developing bodies from infancy to full reproductive maturity. We trust that sperm and egg will unite and by some marvel in nine months inerrantly develop into a new fully equipped human organism by combining the DNA of both parents. (And by the way, those marvels are true of every animal and plant.) We trust our parents to feed and protect us until we can survive on our own. We trust larger society to support the efforts of families to prepare their children for surviving.

I have not even mentioned the almost indescribable numbers of support systems existing on the planet on which we depend: for food, water, air, shelter, material for our clothing, our machines of service, our infrastructure of roads and bridges, medical intervention, the arts and sciences. We are, in reality, the continuous product of a multitude of factors that are all outside of ourselves.

Trust is a pervasive indispensable component of human life. One philosopher describes trust as “existential . . . primordial and atmospheric (generalized, ambient, and diffuse).”[1] Those terms accumulate to an attitude present in all human activity that is so fundamental, universal and necessary as to amount to a psychological transcendental. We cannot function without trust at every level of our presence in the world. Any notion that our being-here is an independent phenomenon which we control as individuals is sheer delusion and trust is the psychological correlate.  We are dependent upon a multitude of concurrently existing realities which, because they provide their support activity so efficiently and without interruption, we hardly ever notice. This utter dependency is not imaginary, it is real. Becoming aware of exactly what it consists of, in depth and detail, is essential to our understanding of what we are. Reminding ourselves of it should be part of a daily meditation. We are a part of an immense whole. We find ourselves borne up in a web of sustaining material elements that range in kind from other human beings to the oxygen atoms in the atmosphere. The dependency is not superficial, as Courtright says, it is existential. And it is total. It bears upon our very existence and at every moment in time. We come to discover, much to our surprise, that as far as being-here is concerned we are in every respect the product of factors other than ourselves. We had nothing whatsoever to do with getting here, and our contribution to staying here consists mainly in the intelligent gathering and use of the support materials we need, which also have been provided to us by others.

Trust is nowhere more constitutively in play than in the ultimate question that plagues us: our destiny. Apparently in this respect we are alone among all living organisms. But just as we are only now coming to realize what put us here and supplies us with what we need to stay here, we have no idea what death may mean if indeed it is anything more than the cessation of life. But it seems that the unbroken continuity of factors that conspired to put us here and cooperate with our efforts to stay here, has launched us on a trajectory of wall-to-wall trusting that, just on the face of it, would seem almost impossible to stop.   The dynamism of life has demanded and confirmed our trust at every turn in the road.  Being-here and trusting are absolute correlates.  How can we stop when death looms?

My own opinion is that we can’t.  For if we do, the psychological impact is so devastating that it can result in the abandonment of the will to live.  We are our material organisms, and our organisms are a single, undivided “thing” in process through time. We cannot compartmentalize ourselves by denying the integrity of the continuum of our lives. We can’t have full trust at one moment while simultaneously knowing that trust will become meaningless at some moment in the future. For it is the existential power of the totality on which our dependence rests that is in play in this question. Having learned that we are not just ourselves but more realistically an extrusion of the universe of matter, to suddenly learn that our destiny is to have that identity terminate, fatally undermines its possibility. If the totality abandons me at one point, it cannot be trusted at any point.

3.2   co-dependent co-arising and the delusion of the “self”

This appears to be a “catch-22;” for, as a matter of galling fact, we all die. But under analysis, the idea that being-here as material energy actually ends is not a proven “fact.” In reality it is just another “picture” generated by our naïve conjectures about being-here. It is an imagined state of affairs ― an image constructed on a number of unsubstantiated assumptions.

  • It assumes that the “I” that experiences life and death is a stand-alone, independent “thing” separate and apart from other “things,” a “self” that comes and goes.
  • It assumes that matter’s being-here as this particular organism of mine is significantly different from the same matter’s being-here in whatever other form it may take when my organism no longer controls it; it assumes that because the difference is significant to me it is significant in itself.
  • It assumes that my organism’s dependence on the universe of matter of which it is an emergent form, is discrete, i.e., that it represents a transaction across a separation-boundary between two distinct independent entities, the universe and me, rather than “me” being  an undulation, a “ripple” in the smooth fabric of the totality.  In other words, the data are equally well accounted for if both I and the universe are one continuous reality, my organism being simply a branch or leaf that the cosmic tree extrudes as it grows through time, and not a separate reality in myself.  I am the offspring of living matter.
  • The naïve assumption that the appearance and disappearance of things is explained as their coming from nothing and going back into nothing is the most unsubstantiated of all. This is all the work of the imagination, and as with all our “pictures” it must be submitted to a rigorous analysis. It may be, as science has suggested, that matter’s energy has always been-here, is neither created nor destroyed, but merely changes form, and the human organism is one of those forms.
  • Probably the most common unproven assumption in the west is that my “self” is a “soul,” a real separate substance, different from the matter of my body both in form and destiny.   Questioning the substantial reality of the “self,” however, runs into resistance in the western mindset due to the millennia of Christian promotion of the Platonic theory of immortal spirit.  People’s emotional attachment to the idea of the “soul” can be chalked up to its role in justifying belief in immortality, and a final judgment in which the good will be rewarded and the evil punished. But as far as the observations of modern science are concerned, the “self,” by the very fact that it disappears when the supporting organism dissolves, appears to be what Aristotle called a metaphysical “accident,” which means a real feature of some “substance” (thing) that depends on that substance in order to be-here, and disappears when the substance disappears; it has no independent existence. The “self” in this conception is the conscious identity of the conatus, the instinct for self-preservation characteristic of all living things. It is the integrated result of the accumulation of the existential energy of the material components of the human organism. Our so-called “spiritual” characteristics are entirely body-dependent; they derive from the human body’s neurological configuration. And we know that, because when the brain is damaged, they are distorted or disappear. “Spiritual” is a misnomer if it means our human capacities are due to the presence of a separate substance called “spirit.” “Spirituality” is a property of living matter.

3.3   the sense of the sacred

Little by little you can see that we are building up a new imagery about our being-here, and it is all centered on matter’s living existential energy in a way that is totally compatible with science. Notice there is no use of the word “God.” Matter is an energy to be-here which in order to secure its continuous survival changes its internal configurations. This change in response to mod­i­fi­cations in the environment is called evolution and is what created all things. The source of our being-here is matter’s living energy; it made us in every intimate detail and it made and shaped the planetary environment from which our organisms were drawn and to whose current features we are conformed. We live in a condition of absolute inescapable trust in everything it has done, for it is our very selves.

It is hardly necessary to describe the intense affect that is generated in us over being-here. We are supremely happy at being alive and being able to stay alive. It is a necessary by-product of the conatus; we cannot help being grateful, for we cannot not want to be-here. This is a primary datum in our analysis, for I contend that it is this innate, hard-wired, intense love of being-here that is responsible for our sense of the sacred. The sense of the sacred is a subjective reaction to an absolutely objective state of affairs: we are-here as dependent entities and we love it.

What I mean by “sacred” is the value we assign to something that is supremely important for us ― something that is identified with our existence itself. The reaction is as fixed a feature of our human nature as can be found. It is absolutely universal, and may be considered a second psychological transcendental ― in the same category as trust. Whatever we identify as responsible for us being-here, being ourselves and staying-here, generates a feeling in us that bathes that thing in our love, gratitude and protection. I mean this in the broadest possible sense. For we hold many things to be sacred: our bodies, our spouses, our parents, our children, the social institutions that protect us like doctors, the courts, security personnel, the people that have been good to us or who are responsible for our continued survival, even if they happen to be selfish and unsavory.  Despite their variety what these things all have in common is their existential impor­tance for us.  This is all completely consistent with a hard-wired conatus and in fact the absence of such a reaction would call into question its very existence.

This analysis applies, a fortiori, to whatever people have identified as the origin, source, manager and guarantor of their being-here ― historically that means the “god” who was once imagined to be the Craftsman who created the universe. This explains the “religion” phenomenon and its substantial similarity all over the globe. While the look and shape of this cosmic Craftsman has differed wildly in different times and cultures, and the attempt to make effective contact with “him” took various and sometimes contradictory forms, the fundamental human dynamic was the same: to express gratitude to and secure the friendship of the one who made us to be-here and had our destiny in his hands.  It is a direct a derivative of the conatus.  Religion is a natural and virtually inescapable reaction, bound as a practical corollary to the sense of the sacred which is itself a corollary of the conatus and therefore psychologically transcendental.  We cannot live without it.

Matter’s energy, according to the view embraced in this essay, is now thought to be the source and sustaining matrix of being-here that was once imagined as “God.”  But we don’t call matter’s energy “God.”  Why not?  Because matter’s energy, while it plays the same creative role as was once assigned to “God,” as actually observed and experienced in our world, is not a rational person who acts for a purpose.  In fact, matter’s energy is no-thing and does nothing. It chooses nothing, it intends nothing, it wants nothing, it knows nothing. Its energy is entirely exhausted in being-here.  It in no way resembles what we once imagined “God” to be.  Matter’s energy is simply not “God,” not metaphorically, not symbolically, and not metaphysically.  It is what it is: the energy of being-here and it has no independent form of its own  . . .  it is always and only found in the forms it has extruded: the atoms and molecules, rocks and minerals, plants, fungi, insects and animals including humankind that populate our universe.  We are all the common possessors of LIFE.

3.4   oneness with all things . . . the ground of trust and the embrace of death

Regardless of this break with our historical religious terms and imagery, matter’s energy for those who accept the findings of science, is the source and sustaining matrix in which we live and move and have our being.  We have little choice but to be grateful for our provenance from the timeless and tireless struggles of matter’s energy to find ways to continue to be-here, for it produced us.  We fully understand the dynamic that ruled material development through the eons of cosmic time because we are its offspring and we feel within ourselves the same thirst for being-here.  We are matter’s energy.  Humankind is simply its extrusion in time and complexity: LIFE in human form. Conforming to the inner dynamic of matter’s energy is no big deal for us, for it is who we are and what we are innately driven to do: survive as human beings. We cannot not want exactly what matter’s energy wants: to be-here.

Our identification with the material universe ― the totality of things that are-here ― is not a rare, mystical experience, a romantic and poetic sentiment limited to spiritual adepts and refined literati.  It is raw universal scientific fact.  That most people are unaware of it is entirely due to our cultural inheritance.  Certain ancient illusions have been erected into unchallenged assumptions which have been accepted for millennia. These “eternal truths” that are not true at all, like the independent existence of the “self” based on Plato’s ancient metaphysical theory of the human soul, have become part of the fixed horizon of our lives and social interactions.  We continue to acknowledge them in ritual and ceremony even when we are not articulating them explicitly.  Many cling to these illusions despite the clarifications of science because of their consoling effect. People need to trust life, and the story of the immortal soul seems to fill that need because it denies death. But its alleged consolation has an underside: it is individualistic to the point of solipsism and stone selfish; it militates against any sense of connection with other people and presupposes a radical separation from the universe of things. It is totally incompatible with the findings of science and runs counter to the spirit of our traditional teachers.

The identification of the human organism with the matter and energy of the universe, on the other hand, is extremely effective in providing a solid basis for trust. For once we realize the independent “self” is an illusion generated as a byproduct of the conatus, we can disregard its demands for immediate and unconditional satisfaction. There is no toleration for the refined selfishness engendered by the belief in the “soul.” Knowing ourselves to be simply a packet of matter’s energy we appropriate to ourselves the creative evolutionary power and endless ability to survive which characterizes the totality. We can say, WE ARE THAT! echoing the Hindu insight into the identity of the human person with the source of the universe’s endless life. The realization is the same because underneath the different images, both focus on the primacy of the whole, the totality, and disestablish the illusory hegemony of the “self” created by our desires for pleasure and fears of poverty, pain and death. The isolated “self,” against the backdrop of our reality as part of the whole, is exposed as false and delusional, and the acquiescence to its imperious selfish demands potentially destructive.

The only practical argument for the independent reality of the “self” against this Buddhist-materialist vision is psychological ― it is the apparent insuppressible nature of the conatus.  Desires and aversions springing from the human organism’s need to survive and reproduce will not go away. Proposing a metaphysical vision that disregards their reality, opponents say, is counter-indicated and invites frustration. But the argument is specious and self-serving. What I am saying does not dismiss the conatus as unreal but it also does not erect it into a separate “self” with metaphysical prerogatives.

This conforms to everyday experience. For the demands of the conatus are regularly and quite normally suppressed or transcended by mature adults for the sake of their life with others. The urges arising from the conatus are not absolute; they are subordinate to the individual being part of a larger totality, which in this case is the human community. Subordination to society does not destroy the individual, it enhances it. To an even greater degree, I claim that subordination to the individual’s place in the universe of things opens a world of enlightenment that grounds a foundational trust that finally does away with the fears of death. For, without denying death (the disappearance of the illusory “self”) it reveals our identity with the endless creative power and survivability of the very energy that shaped us, put us here, constitutes and sustains us immersed in itself.  It identifies us with the very core and bedrock of being-here.  The materialist vision says that as matter’s energy we have always been-here, even from before the “big bang,” and we will always be-here  . . .  as ourselves, as material energy, not as some unimaginable “spirit.”  The reality and the project evolving through time is this cosmic process, not a separate individual destiny for an imaginary “self” that is “saved” alone apart from others.  It neither denies death nor the reality of the individual organism with its individual feelings and needs.  The only thing it denies is the independent separate “spiritual” reality of the “immortal soul” and its indepen­dent solipsist destiny.

 

4.

Transformation

4.1  Personal transformation

Once the new imagery about who we are, where we came from, where we belong, and where we are going has been identified and thoroughly evaluated for authenticity and objectivity, a process of transformation from the old imagery and values can begin. This is not a simple affair, and the upgrade is not  easy. Each element of the old imagery has to be assessed and judged for its relevance to the current project. Some will be rejected, some will be accepted and continued. Of those that are accepted, many will have to be modified or nuanced in order to fit into the new picture. This is also a work of the imagination. Just as any good story-teller has to craft his words and carefully select the sequence of events and images so that the intended effect on the reader will occur, so too the spiritual aspirant. This is not easy. As in all projects errors will occur, and errors will lead to delays and distortions in the lives of the practitioners.

The principal image to be deactivated is that of the Craftsman/spirit who designed the universe for a purpose. We know it is not true. No one designed the form that things would take ― they incrementally and necessarily assumed the forms that permitted them the best chance of survival. And there is no purpose to being-here; being-here is the only reason for being-here. And the implication of not being created by an “Intelligent Designer” for purposes chosen by “him,” is that there is no moral code issued from this Craftsman/spirit obliging us to obey certain rules of conduct. “Revelation” from another world, in this regard, never occurred; moral insights about individual integrity and just dealings with others are the products of intelligent human observation and judgment; they were recognized as contrary to vulgar practice and projected to have come from the Craftsman spirit, rather than our common possession of LIFE with all other things. No one will judge, or reward and punish our behavior, now or after death, except ourselves. Regardless of how deeply ingrained this imagery might be, it does not correspond to what we know about reality, and it can only distort the lives of those who use it to determine how they will live.  Our lives are in our hands.  It is we who decide what it means to be human, based on our intelligent assessment of what makes us truly happy as a community; and it is our desire to be-here as the human beings we are that shapes our attitudes, directs our behavior and motivates the discipline needed to make that vision a reality.

The key image to be cultivated is the individual’s fundamental reality as an organism made of the same living matter found in all things in our material universe.  We are all the extrusions of living matter ― LIFE.  The most direct way of doing that is meditation and continual mindfulness.  Meditation means a period of time exclusively dedicated to the change of imagery.  The purpose and explicit effort is thought-control and the exploration of the implications of the changeover from the image of the Craftsman/spirit to living matter in process.  Mindfulness means the effective extension of the efforts of meditation at all times throughout the day, even in activities that have no explicit reference to self-imagery.  None of the practices recommended are sacrosanct.  They are chosen for what works. So there is no reward for performing them except the personal reward of achieving a new way of looking at reality and the new positive attitudes that result.  The point is personal, emotional, attitudinal, behavioral transformation, not compliance with a code of practice.

Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh recommends mindfulness: the conscious effort to transform every activity into a moment of awareness of one’s unity with all things by looking for the specific connection that is embedded there, often unnoticed. He speaks of eating, for example, as perhaps the best illustration of how a daily routine can be converted into a mindfulness practice. The very essence of eating is the incorporation of other things made of matter into my body. It is a quintessentially material operation in which the homogeneity of all matter and the depen­dence of my organism for its survival on a vast array of other living and non-living things existing in my environment is on unmistakable display.

The ultimate effect is the reduction in the importance accorded to the “self” and its desires which are often satisfied unconsciously; mindfulness makes desires conscious and disposed to be controlled.  A new appreciation of the what the self is and can do is the result.  Identification with the totality also shifts desire; concern for others begins to take center stage because the self now think of itself as one with others ― people as well as other living things and the resources of the earth.

4.2  Social transformation

One of the principal effects of existential imagery is in the interaction among the individuals in society. Some see these effects as derived from individual morality, but other observers, acknowledging the primacy of the religious worldview in social structure, see it the other way around. They believe religion originated as the codification of social mores. In any case, rulers have always recognized the potential for social control embedded in the existential imagery of the religious world­view and have sought to link their governance to its theocratic influence. Individuals who have internalized preferred behavior and values need no external coercion. Religion and the state have always been in intimate alliance.

The change in existential imagery brought about by transcendent materialism necessarily impacts one’s life in society because it sees the individual as a part of the whole. Of course, the vision applies fundamentally to all things, but in practice, the place where interaction for survival and self-fulfillment occurs is in human community. It is society where the human individual meets the universe of matter and ekes out survival. The shift in priority achieved by this change in imagery immediately challenges the false assumption of one’s own individual reality and importance, undermining the clamor for attention and constant satisfaction demanded by the conatus.

The new imagery establishes that individual human organisms are all fundamentally the same.  It therefore grounds and prioritizes cooperative collaboration in all human interaction, and implicitly repudiates inequality in the access to adequate food, clothing, shelter and the possession of goods, services, security and leisure.  The slavery and other forms of coerced labor, along with significant disparities in access to the means of survival associated with the traditional class system, were all justified by the existential imagery of the Craftsman/spirit.  For it was the metaphysical dualism ― the division of reality into matter and spirit ― that has been used at least since the ascendancy of Greco-Roman civilization about 500 bce, to ground a specious belief in the superiority of some people over others. The superior people were identified with “spirit,” mind and morality, intelligence and integrity, and the inferior people with “matter,” flesh and feeling, sensuality and selfishness.  The latter were considered akin to the animals, capable only of bodily labor and needing its discipline in order to dissipate wanton urges and be kept under control.  The recognition that matter is transcendent ― i.e., life and consciousness are properties of matter’s existential energy ― terminates dualism’s divisive and distorted view of reality once and for all.

 

5.

Mysticism

5.1  The mystique of the personal Craftsman

One of the principal features of the traditional existential imagery is the personhood of the Craftsman/spirit imagined to have created the universe.  The new imagery, based on the worldview sketched by science, finds no evidence of the rational, purposeful, intentional actions that are the signs of the presence of a person as we understand the word.  Matter’s energy elaborates its marvels simply by its own incremental adjustments to being-here.  While this doesn’t support what we’re accustomed to, it suggests a mystique of its own which we will explore shortly.

The pre-scientific imagery of the Craftsman necessarily assumed the presence of personhood and an individual personality in this “God” who made us to be-here. And the spontaneous act of awe and gratitude that followed upon the realization of our vulnerability would necessarily include all of the feelings that humans have toward other persons who give them gifts of great value: a warm intention to give them gifts in return, a willingness to do what pleases them, the desire to extol them and enhance their reputation in the eyes of others, and the desire to “be with” or “get close to” them out of love but also out of a selfish hope that such gifts will keep on coming.

This last inclination ― to “get close to” the source of our being-here ― has given rise to a passionate western mysticism found in all the religions that owe their foundational concepts to the Hebrew Bible, what are called “religions of the Book.” It imagined that our being-here was the expression of a personal love on the part of the creator.  Because the Craftsman was believed to be a person who designed us and created us out of love and as a mirror-image of himself it spontaneously evolved into a pursuit of an interpersonal love-relationship.  This took two forms: parent-child, and husband-wife. The poetry that was created to express that belief was concretized in two images corresponding to each kind of relationship: obedience to a demanding father, and falling in love, betrothal and marriage. This double imagery tended to divide the “ordinary” Christians from the elite spiritual aspirants in pursuit of perfection, the former relating to “God” as his child, the latter as his bride or lover.

5.2  The nuptial image

The soul as the Bride of “God” had a long antecedent history.  At first, when tribal communities were consolidated by being identified with a divine person, relationship to the tribe’s god was sealed by contract.  In the Bible it was translated as “covenant” or “testament.”  The god was expected to advance the tribe in war and insure prosperity, and in return the tribe would “love, honor and obey” the god.  The similarity to a marriage contract was apparent from the start.  Love poetry of the most intimate erotic kind was used to describe this relationship, most likely it was common love poetry appropriated from the community and applied by the priests to the sacred contract. Thus a Hebrew tribal god, Yahweh, the warrior who was believed to have freed the Hebrews from Egypt and conquered Palestine for their use, was poetically imagined as the male lover in the Book known as “The Song of Songs” or “The Song of Solomon,” and Israel was his adoring and obedient bride.

Once the Hebrew Bible was “discovered” by the Greeks, who were awed by its poetic monotheism, they had it translated into Greek; it entered the Greek orbit and its specifically Hebrew significance became vulnerable to Greek modifications. Hebrew categories were adjusted or even changed in the process. Of these, the emphasis on the priority of the individual human person, considered by the Greeks to be grounded in an immortal spiritual “soul” that could exist separate from the body, almost inevitably turned the Song of Songs from poetry about Israel’s communal contract with Yahweh into a saga of the intimate relationship between Plato’s Crafts­­man­/spirit, and the individual human “soul.”  Thus the nuptial imagery of theist mysticism was born. It was embraced by all the religions of the Book and characterizes Christian mysticism as well as Islamic.

Intimately connected with the parallel mistake of imagining “God” as a benevolent and provident “father” who micro-manages our individual lives, the significance of the nuptial distortion is very revealing of our most intimate needs and deepest desires.  It’s a no-brainer: we want to be loved and cared for.  We do not easily abandon the childhood consolation of knowing that our parents are there, love us and are watching over us. Imagining “God” as father or personal lover allows us to continue our childhood fantasy into adulthood, as Freud insightfully pointed out.  In tandem with promises of life after death for our immortal “souls,” it allowed us to avoid confronting the harsh reality of our fragile and temporary existence as material organisms.

This is not just an individual hang-up, as Freud might have meant it.  It’s a massive collective fantasy about a “God”-person that has been conjured through millennia of time collected in the narratives of the Hebrew tradition.  There is an unbroken line from the first images in the Hebrew Bible to the most sophisticated philosophical abstractions of the high middle ages. It’s a fairy tale that simultaneously serves the psychic needs of individuals and com­munity alike.  These images are a common legacy ― the family stories ― that is the very glue that has held our western civilization together for thousands of years and the Christian version of that imagery is only the last iteration of a long process that had originated even before the Bible in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. It’s no wonder that it’s so hard to let go of, and when its imaginary nature is finally acknowledged, the resulting ungluing leaves residual effects in the form of persistent subconscious attitudes and a feeling of normlessness and a loss of self-esteem that fill the vacuum.

The recovery of the glue that will bind society together in the celebration of life and a common pursuit of mutual support, is totally dependent on finding a new imagery for the relationship we have to being-here.  Once we know what we are, we can decide how we are going to relate to LIFE: our source, matter’s energy, ourselves, other people on whom we rely for support and affirmation, the animals, plants, minerals, soil, air and water that supply us with fuel and building materials for our bodies.

5.3  A new imagery, a new mysticism

When the imagery about the “creator” changes from Plato’s Craftsman (who came to be identified as the Christian Logos) to matter’s living energy, the concept of “person” as we understand the word no longer applies and the nuptial imagery becomes incoherent. Relationship to “God,” for which Christian mystics from late antiquity to mediaeval times used betrothal and marriage imagery as a primary descriptor, was suddenly rendered meaningless.  There was no longer any possibility of a “marriage” relationship between “God” and the “soul,” because our creator showed no signs of being a “person.”

The anguish and personal devastation caused in the lives of Catholic monks, nuns and lay people who had shaped their spiritual lives around that imagery, was the result.  But it must be frankly recognized that we are only talking about an image, a work of the imagination.  It was not metaphysics, it was not “fact.”  It was a stretch even in the middle ages, because the applicable traditional metaphysics for union with “God” was participation in Being.

Participation in Being was an ancient Greek notion. It was what Paul had in mind when he quoted Epimenides’ phrase that “God” was the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.”[2] This profound unity, like that between wellspring and effluence, light source and radiation, is difficult to grasp without pictures.  And, except for some monastics, it was ignored.  It was easier, and better for business, for the hierarchy to sell “salvation” to the masses of Christians by appeasing a distant wrathful “God” that lived in another world.  With participation in Being, source and effect, while distinct, are simultaneously the same; it would have called into question the very idea of eternal punishment.

But if we employ the concrete imagery of matter’s energy provided by modern science, it is easy to picture ourselves constructed of the very same “stuff” that evolved us and evolved into us.  As the Hindus say: WE ARE THAT!  We are our own source.  There is no distance from the origin and source of life, for we are materially one and the same thing ― matter’s living energy.  But even though there is no separation, we remain at the same time always distinct, because matter’s energy ― LIFE which is neither created nor destroyed, goes on to enliven other forms after the decoherence of our organisms and the disappearance of our “selves.”

Our “selves” are peripheral to the process, they are spawned by it but have no control over it.  In fact the only thing that ever changes is the temporary form that matter assumes as it transitions from one to another in the course of time, and the only thing that ever stops being-here is the illusory “self.”  Matter’s energy recycles itself eternally but never loses its power to evolve and sustain ever new and unpredictable forms.  To identify with our components is to concede the unreality of the “self;” it is to fully realize our oneness with the universe and its creative power, for our components are the same everywhere and in all things, and contain the power of life.

So if the creator, matter’s energy, turns out to be the very thing that we are constructed of, then we are faced with the strange paradox that we are ourselves that which evolved and sustains us in existence.  I say “strange” only because we have been so accustomed to think of our “selves” as “other” than our creator for so long that finally having a picture of what we really are: the very matter that made us, feels unnatural.  How could we be “God”?

But this is not the complete novelty that it may seem. We have been anticipated in this paradox by a mediaeval mystic, condemned in his time by the Church, Johannes “Meister” Eckhart.  His insight into the full significance of participation in Being uniting him organically and genetically to “God” led him to say the following:

It was here [in unconditioned being] that I was myself, wanted myself and knew myself . . . and therefore I am my own first cause, . . . . To this end I was born, and by virtue of my birth being eternal, I shall never die. It is of the nature of this eternal birth that I have been eternally, that I am now, and shall be forever. . . . In my eternal birth, however, everything was begotten. I was my own first cause as well as the first cause of everything else. If I had willed it neither I nor the world would have come to be! If I had not been, there would have been no god.[3]

These extraordinary statements from a Dominican friar in the fourteenth century remain incomprehensible without understanding what being meant to those theologians. “Being” was “God.”  To exist was to participate in Being.  The Church condemned Eckhart as “pantheist.” Now, in our times, we can grasp what Eckhart was trying to say.  For, from what we have learned from science, there is no distance between us and matter’s living energy.  The relationship to an imaginary distant Craftsman-god “out there” who designed and made us out of love and invited us to draw near, now has to be turned inward to our very organisms. “Drawing near” has lost its meaning for there is no distance between us; the transformation called for by this imagery is subtractive. We need to eliminate those misperceptions, negative attitudes and selfish behavior that keep us from seeing and acting on our identity with our creator.  We are our creator.  There is no original sin; we have inherited an original goodness that has become clouded over by the collective mistrust and paranoia of our insecure and grasping cultures.  Our creator, matter’s living energy ― LIFE out of an irrepressible desire for being-here, has assumed our form.  Our human material organisms ― our bodies, ourselves ― are the closest, most accessible source of information about what this material energy is  . . .  for WE ARE THAT and we have a privileged place from which to observe what it is and what it wants.

Maybe we never asked our bodies what they want.  What is the flesh we were taught never to trust crying out for?  What is human happiness?  Are we really missing something, or have we just been misled by fantasies about being bodiless “spirits” from another world that made us contemptuous and selfish about our earth made of clay and the vanishing bodies it has spawned?  Have we failed to set our sights on the self-transformations necessary for embracing ourselves and our planet home with gratitude and contentment, and a disciplined service, preferring instead to chase the wind from bitterness over the limited and fragile nature of it all?  I think our culture failed us.  Until we love what we are, we cannot afford to be selfless.

The potential for a new moral awakening and a new mysticism does not lie far under the surface of the new imagery provided by science.  We are what we are.  And embracing ourselves as we are can be as difficult and challenging as embracing another person  . . .  as they are.  Is the nuptial imagery actually an apt metaphor for self-embrace?

5.4  Self-embrace and the goal of psychoanalysis.

The similarity between the effects of the imagery change for our “religious” relationship and the goal of psychotherapy is striking.  In fact, except for the religious insistence that our source, while materially identical with ourselves, simultaneously transcends us in time and space, the effects appear to be the same in both: self-acceptance, self-embrace, accompanied by a selfless service of others, our material universe, our matrix.  This similarity has been acknowledged for a long time.[4]

What exactly the parallel psychological dynamics are is beyond the scope of this essay. But what is salient for us is that in both cases the transformations have to do with human beings’ relationship to themselves.  They are not due to the interactions with a divine Spouse-“person” who, like a lover, reacts positively to signs of love and fidelity from the “bride,” and withdraws affection when they are not forthcoming.  The “stages” that represent the “ascent” of the “self in transformation” are entirely predictable and dependent upon one’s embrace of oneself as an element in the universe of matter, which in turn is dependent upon the renunciation and self-discipline expended in the effort.  We come to respect and love ourselves because we see the sacrifices we are willing to make to realize our unity with all and rid ourselves of selfishness and pride.

The specific focus on the transcendence of matter’s energy over the limited organisms that it extrudes is the key difference that sets the religious view apart from the therapeutic, for it claims the relationship is not just simply to oneself alone. In loving myself, I am loving my source and all the other things, living and non-living, that it has evolved into.  Grasping this difference returns us to the difficulties we encountered earlier in trying to find images that accurately represented this dependent co-inherence ― a picture that illustrates the scholastics’ notion of participation in Being and the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self,” the human identity with the universe.  We found then, and repeat with emphasis here, that it is the fact that all things are the extrusion of matter’s living energy seeking ways to continue to be-here in a changing environment, and remaining as the structural material of the organisms that it has evolved, that grounds our identity with all things.

It is an image that helps us understand that when Paul used the word “God” he meant that in which “we live and move and have our being.”

 

[1] Jeffrey M. Courtright, “Is Trust Like an ‘Atmosphere’? Understanding the Phenomenon of Existential Trust.” Philosophy in the Contemporary World 20:1 (Spring 2013).

[2] Acts 17. Epimenides lived in the 6th century bce.

[3] Meister Eckhart, “Blessed are the Poor,” tr, Blakney, Harper, 1941, p. 231

[4] Herbert Fingarette, The Self in Transformation, Harper Torchbooks, NY, 1963, see esp. chapter 7, “Mystic Selflessness” p. 294 ff.

JOY

3,200 words

Both Buddha and Jesus offer their followers a life of sustained joy ― Buddhists through constant ascetical practice, and Christians through faith in Jesus’ message and the witness of his life and death. Where does the joy come from? I contend that in both cases it comes simply from being alive ― being-here as you are. Neither adds anything to life as it is..

Joy is the natural state of all living things. This is also true of human beings. Look at the infant. Except when it’s hungry or lacking something it needs, it lives in a state of spontaneous and unmitigated joy ― unsuspicious, unthinking, unmotivated, unselfconscious, unyearning, un-nostalgic, imageless, aimless, care-less, joy. How is that possible? Because the infant wants what it has and has what it wants. What does it have besides being alive? Nothing. What more does it want? Nothing. Its joy comes exclusively from being here exactly as it is.

What about mother’s love? It’s taken for granted. Mom is no big surprise . . . She did not implant the joy, it was already there, she simply became part of it … just another strand in the seamless cloth of the joy of being alive. The infant lives in total joy because it is totally identified with its life; it fully embraces what it is. It has no idea it is a separate and helpless “self.” It loves its life. It has no regrets or nostalgia for the past, it has no hopes or fears for the future. It has no thoughts or images. It wants nothing else but being-here, and it has what it wants.[1]

The “absorption” or “immersion” that Buddhists often speak of, refers to the ultimate result claimed for meditation, arrived at only after years of continuous practice, but adumbrated much sooner, where the practitioner’s cognitive and affective self-appropriation begins to resemble the simple, all-inclusive self-embrace of the infant. The joy experienced does not come from somewhere else or someone or something outside, like “God” or some other “lover,” or from some accretion added in the course of life, like wealth or possessions or children or the recognition of the community, nor does it come from any secure hold on the continuation of life after death because even for those who believe in such a thing, it is a future hope, not a present possession. Joy comes from only one source: being alive as oneself.[2] It recapitulates the joy of the infant who has what she wants and wants what she has. Those that do not arrive at such a point of balanced stillness may not be suffering, but they do not experience joy.

Seen from this perspective, the difficulties and discoveries encountered in the process of living add obstacles to the infant’s simple self-appropriation and self-apprecia­tion. Those obstacles come in the form of deceptions that generate and distort our desires, deflecting them from wanting what we have and having what we want towards ersatz “outside” goals that do not satisfy human hunger. The Buddha claims that what we want is LIFE, and that we already have it. His program, then, is a negative, subtractive one: it is a “letting go” designed to eradicate the deceptions, empty desires and false goals ― all “other” than what we are ― that prevent us from resting in the LIFE that we have and are.

The “self”

One of the principal deceptions to which Buddha directs his corrective program is the “self.” He claims that what we call the “self” is a figment of our imagination, a fiction concocted to assign roles and responsibilities within society. We tend to think of the self as a real, separate, stand-alone entity. It is the feeling of certainty about the substantial reality of the self that lends credibility to the projection that we live on after death.

But for Buddha there is no such thing as an independent self. In fact, he says, everything that we identify as the constitutive elements of our self is the product of a myriad of causes that are not in any way our selves. My very body, for example, was not produced or designed by me, I did not determine my genetic components, my gender, intelligence, strength, size, appearance, much less the later basic psychological formations stamped on me by childhood experiences with these parents and these siblings. I did not choose the language I would speak, the cultural beliefs that I would embrace as undebatable truth, my religion, the amount and quality of education I would receive. Everywhere I look, as I meditate deeply on what has gone into making me to be me, I find that all those constitutive factors were not me. I “arose” from a multitude of “non-self” causes that conspired to produce what I call my “self.”

Modern science adds background to this panoply of “non-self” influences. The most important one is time. The evolutionary origins of living things means that the human organism was the slow and painstaking product of eons of development spearheaded by ancestors that we would hardly recognize as human, who were in turn the inheritors of even more ancient forebears who definitely were not. We are all descended from primitive progenitors who bequeathed these spectacular evolutionary achieve­ments to all of us. What are we but the ultimate leaves on a massive ancient tree of life that has been growing since the beginning of time.

The Buddha said that the “establishment” of mindfulness of the body ― by which he meant, the full and sustained realization of everything that went into making my body ― would lead to the awareness of “no-self.” “No-self” means that the belief that the self is a stand-alone “thing,” separate, independent, and distinct from other “things,” comes to be understood and felt deeply to be a fiction. The long range effect is the clear-eyed perception of my self as the product of virtually the totality of the evolving material universe which I have heretofore erroneously thought of as “not myself.” It is confirmed by the scientific identification of all existing things in our universe as being comprised of the very same material energy in each and every instance. Everything is made of the same clay. Nothing is only “itself.”

Buddha’s exercises are designed to reduce the insistent demands of the false “self” for aggrandizement and satisfaction of desires all of which become obstacles for wanting what I have and seeing that I already have what I want. For it is the very decision to comply with those false demands that creates and sustains the inflated sense of self. The self as a separate stand-alone entity is conjured into existence by chasing the wind, and chasing the wind keeps the inflated self visible like a hologram ― a surreal projected image of what is not really there. Its voracious and insatiable appetite is created and sustained by “feeding the tiger blood” ― attempting to satisfy the cravings of what is only the product of our imagination.  And I know they’re imaginary because when I stop feeding them they go away.

Institutional Christianity and Jesus’ message of joy

Traditional institutional Christianity as we have inherited it at least since the time of its Roman Imperial iteration, claims that Christian joy is the result of faith in the promises of an afterlife of bliss, the reward of a life lived in compliance with the commandments of “God” as identified and codified by “God’s” exclusive agent on earth, the Christian Church. It warns us that happiness is not possible in this valley of tears; it is not natural for us to be happy. Thinking otherwise is delusional and dangerous. Secure happiness only comes after death and is a gift of God, earned for us by the death of Christ paying for our sins. It says Original Sin passed on to us a human nature that is irremediably corrupt and distorted. It is responsible for the bodily cravings that incline us to disobey the commandments. These urges can be contained and controlled through the infusions of a quasi-substance called “grace,” from the accumulation of Christ’s earnings, that is delivered through the sacraments, which are rituals regularly performed in the Church precincts by an elite corps of males and attended by believing Christians. Participation in those rituals is a requirement, for they are the exclusive vehicle for the “grace” needed to control desires and avoid sin. Dying in sin means punishment for all eternity in excruciating torment. Hence belonging to the Church is not optional. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

That description stands in stark contrast with the message of Jesus, whom the Church likes to claim it follows. But I contend that for Jesus and those who follow his counsels, joy is not created by rewards from God or by the assurance of continuous existence after death. The consolations of faith as Jesus taught it have to do with the awareness of being loved by a compassionate, generous and forgiving “Father,” and the self-appreciation that that evokes, not from any sense that life will go on forever. Jesus’ message had great magnetism. Following Jesus meant learning, credibly and palpably, who you were by being presented with the living dynamism of God’s loving-kindness in Jesus’ words and comportment. He embodied that love, as the Buddha embodied compassion, and in each case the messenger became a central piece of the message ― the “religion” ― that emerged from their work. People were transformed in their presence, and the change in their attitudes and behavior made them happy ― “blessed” ― as described in the beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12). What the message announced was not a new product or a new contract or a way out of dying, but a new and definitive appreciation of yourself. “Forgiveness,” the leitmotiv of Jesus’ message, gave you back yourself.

Both these teachers, I contend, were focused on the same phenomenon: a joyful, loving self-embrace that implicitly included the whole universe. You came to love yourself for what you were: what we describe scientifically today as the extrusion of cosmic evolution. The Buddha pursued it systematically. He carefully analyzed, classified, and prioritized the psychological dynamics that worked in his own case and then presented it in detail to those who followed him. Meditation and mindfulness were the key because Buddha saw that by controlling the mental images that drifted unconsciously through our minds, we could shape and direct what we thought about ourselves and ultimately the actions we took to protect and advance ourselves. “As irrigators lead water to their fields, as archers aim their arrows, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their lives.” (Dhammapada, 10: 145).

Controlling the mind was the key to controlling the way we lived. Thinking the right thoughts meant realizing that the self is the sustained product of the whole evolving universe and that protecting and advancing your self meant protecting and advancing the totality. Thus was born the selfless compassion and universal love that characterizes the Buddhist vision.  Once you realize that your self is the offspring of whole universe, you stop living for yourself and your embrace expands to include everything and everybody. You begin to understand that your selfishness was the result of deception not malice, and that the selfishness of others must be understood the same way.

In Jesus’ case, his blinding insight into the warmth and forgiving generosity of Yahweh, his “father,” dominated his imagination. Jewish people who were intimately familiar with the same psalms and prophets that had inspired Jesus resonated with his message. They knew exactly what he was talking about because since the return from the exile, Yahweh’s forgiveness and compassion had displaced Judaism’s earlier focus on power and punishment in their contract with their God. Having failed to keep the commandments was now understood to be met with forgiveness, not punishment.

In Jesus’ scheme of things, as is clear in the narratives and letters of the New Testament, this transformation was believed to occur instantaneously. It was called metanoia, in Greek, a “change of mind” usually translated “conversion” or sometimes “repentance.” Jesus himself had such an experience at the start of his mission. It is produced by being overwhelmed by the sense of invulnerable self-worth implicit in the message of the fatherly love of “God.” Once, as the Christmas carol says, “the soul knew its worth,” a global change in attitude and behavior occurred automatically. The Christian convert experienced a self-acceptance and concurrent joy that was often described as “being born again.” The moral compliance, compassion and generosity toward others, and the enthusiasm to work for justice and peace that followed could hardly be called obedience.

The Buddha, clearly, while he did not rule it out, did not expect any such instantaneous transformation. His message amounted to the systematization of the process of learning to rethink who you were (and who others were), using moral and socially cooperative behavior as a tool for identifying correct imagery about yourself and re-training your mind to embrace it. The Dharma, the “natural law” provided the content for meditation, like an image to be copied, and the practice of constantly being aware of and controlling the images that drifted through your mind was the work of a lifetime. Whether you sat for long periods silently meditating about conforming to the Dharma, or understanding “no-self,” or undoing the judgmental “knots” in your mind about yourself and others tied by the false belief that you were an independent and separate “self” amassing and accumulating “stuff” for an illusory endless living, you were constantly occupied with re-training your mind to see itself as an integral part of a larger whole and identify yourself with others. “As archers aim their arrows, the wise aim their restless thoughts, hard to aim, hard to restrain.” (Dhamma­pada 3: 33)

At some point the practitioners’ behavior and attitude begin to conspicuously resemble the Dharma on which they meditate, generating the beginnings of a deep self-respect and self-appreciation ― a forgiveness of yourself and others. Then, meditative concentration becomes more sustained and intense over time until the practitioners become totally absorbed in the objects of their contemplation and mental striving, which, because of the focus on “no-self” tends toward “non-duality:” i.e., that there is no distinction between the self and the non-self and there develops a sense of immersion in the totality of being. It’s then that the joyful, self-oblivious self-embrace of infancy begins to re-emerge. The distinction between oneself, others and the rest of reality blurs, becomes irrelevant and tends to disappear.

The remarkable Meister Eckhart

Efforts of Christians to find a way to sustain the transformations of conversion, led to experiments in systematization that were not unlike the Buddhists’ and generated similar insights. The following passages come from a Christian mediaeval mystic and theologian, Johannes Eckhart, called “Meister.” They are from a sermon designated #52 and entitled “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit …” a reference to one of the beatitudes of Mt 5. It was written in the vernacular German in the fourteenth century, most likely in the decade after 1310.

Eckhart’s theology relied on Neo-Platonic philosophy to a degree that was not true of his scholastic contemporaries. Neo-Platonism held to the pre-existence of the “soul” before birth, which Eckhart understands to be an ocean of undifferentiated being where the “soul” is immersed, indistinguishably, with all things and “God.” Eckhart uses that theory as an explanatory backdrop for his mystical teaching about “blessedness” (which we should remember means “happiness”). But what is important to me is not the speculative metaphysical explanation, but the description of the lived experience. The similarity to the notions explored in this essay is easily discernible. (All quotation marks are from Eckhart himself). He is trying to explain how “poverty of spirit” equates to blessedness:

… so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

When I stood in my first cause, I had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing for I was an empty being and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted and so I stood empty of God and everything. But when I received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was.[3]

. . . so therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of “God” and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel, and the fly, and the soul are equal ― there where I was established, where I wanted what I was and was what I wanted. So I say, if a man is to become poor in his will he must want and desire as little as he wanted and desired when he did not exist. And in this way, a man is poor who wants nothing.

. . .   [Blessedness] does not consist in either knowing or loving; but there is something in the soul from which knowing and loving flow that does not know or love … Whoever knows this knows in what blessedness consists. That something has neither before nor after, and is not waiting for anything that is to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. … it is itself the very thing that rejoices in itself as God does in himself. … The authorities say that God is a being and a rational one., and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things.

. . . In the breaking-through, when I come to be free of my will and of God’s will and of God himself, then I am above all created things and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain now and eternally … in this breaking-through I discover that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and then I neither diminish nor increase … with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find. [4]

 

[1] I am tempted to include here my belief that the wellspring of this stillness, this complete contentment with just being-here, is that matter’s living energy is existence itself, the ultimate eternal reality, the stasis beyond all change, the final equilibrium. Matter’s living energy is being: there is no “nothing” that preceded it from which it came. Nothing preceded it; there is no such “thing” as “nothing.” Being is first, only, everywhere and always. This will be elaborated at another time.

[2] This is corroborated by the poverty which is enjoined on Christian and Buddhist aspirants alike. Likewise, one of the goals of all mystical traditions, declared explicitly by the Sufis, is to achieve a love of “God” that is totally detached from any desire for heaven or fear of hell.

[3] The comment of Bernard McGinn, the translator and editor, on this particular phrase is that it is an allusion to Ex 3:14, “I am what I am,” which modern exegetes agree was a way of emphasizing the unknowability of God.

[4] Colledge and McGinn tr. Meister Eckhart, Paulist Press, 1981, pp. 199-201