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.

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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

Letting go ― east and west

2500 words

Buddhists insist that everything in our impermanent universe is destined to fall apart, to crumble like dust, to run through our grasping hands like water. You may ask: if everything is so empty, what then does Buddhism tell us to achieve, to obtain ― what should we live for? The answer is emphatically, nothing.

The Buddhists identify three cravings or thirsts whose “conquest” leads to nirvana; but it’s important to note: this conquest is not an achievement, a getting something. It’s a “letting go.” The three cravings are a short list intended to cover the entirety of potential human desiderata ― absolutely everything someone might choose as an object of desire and possession. There is nothing a human being could want that does not fall into one of these categories, and the goal is the letting go of them all. This short paragraph from the Samyutta Nikaya may be said to be Buddhist doctrine in a nutshell.

“Mendicants, there are these three cravings. What three? Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings. The noble eightfold path should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings. What is the noble eightfold path? It’s when a mendicant develops right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go. This is the noble eightfold path that should be developed for the direct knowledge, complete understanding, finishing, and giving up of these three cravings.”[1]

The first category of craving, sense pleasures, is the easiest to understand because the recognition of the passing nature of pleasurable experiences is essential to growing up. All acknow­ledge that the ability to postpone gratification is necessary if we are to accomplish any­thing in life. The pursuit of endless pleasure is delusional and those that try it eventually abandon it or they do not survive.

The second, that we are locked into an unrealistic craving to continue existence is not so obvious. It only becomes apparent when we are confronted with an experience of death that goes beyond a mere intel­lectual recognition. When the true precariousness of life comes home to us through a near-death experience or the death of a young, strong companion, family member or partner, it can be immobilizing, revealing the delusional nature of our day to day pursuit of accumulation. It is in such moments that we realize that amassing the resources for a long and secure life was an unrealistic fantasy, at best a throw of the dice. It becomes clear that we had taken for granted that living would be virtually endless, because when it is cut short we are astonished and feel betrayed. It’s only when that bubble bursts that we realize that it was an empty craving, as delusional as the quest for endless pleasure.

If permanently having pleasure and avoiding pain is a vain pursuit, and the accumulation of resources in the form of money, tools, land, buildings, family, etc., cannot prevent the disappearance of life in death, some may decide the best you can do to end the torment of life’s universal frustrations is to disappear and have it all over with. It’s what Buddhists call the desire for extinction, or the craving to end existence. It’s the flip-side of the frustration of the first two cravings.

But it has been a metaphysical axiom on the Indian subcontinent since time immemorial that after death you were re-incarnated and returned to life. The Buddha took that belief for granted. Therefore extinction was impossible. You were condemned to be reborn and to chase after the wind all over again. Hence Buddhists see this craving as another illusion.

I do not believe in re-incarnation. But if we bracket the worldview and just look at the ascetic coun­selling that he proposed, it becomes clear that by saying that there is absolutely nothing whatsoever to strive for in life including extinction, we are prevented from turning our attention any­where outside of ourselves, either in the excitations of the body and mind, or in the hope for a future life, or even in the sweet peace of oblivion. All we have is our mutually interrela­ted selves here and now, as we are, alive, situated as a community of biological organisms in an impermanent and impersonal mater­ial world. We are cast back on our living selves as the only valid object of human embrace and human service. There is no way out. The ultimate message of the Buddha is precisely and simply this: Forget about it! There is nowhere to go! There is nothing to get! LIVE! Choose what you are, pursue the flow of life here and now; embrace yourself as provided by Nature and live uprightly and generously as part of your survival network. It is all you’ve got and all you need.

All Buddha’s recommended practices focus on a communal self-embrace in the present moment. The Dharma, which includes socially responsible moral living, is the first. The Dharma, what the Jews would call Torah in its widest sense meaning the “law of nature,” produces nothing except peace, harmony and prosperity among people. It adds nothing whatsoever to what we were born with. We “gain” nothing by it. It does not give us “eternal life” or make us more than human with our cycle of life and death. Then mendicancy, begging for food, which Buddha enjoined on his monks, empha­sizes the precarious nature of human life and the necessity of our communal network for survi­val. Begging is symbolic. It is not meant to be a permanent social structure. By begging one does not control what one eats, because the food made available is the product of the labor and generosity of the human community. One eats what one is given. And it is sufficient because it is not the eating but the being-here-now sustained by the community’s collaboration that is the true desideratum. Eat, but eat detached and aware. Eat as part of a community, not for individual pleasure. Then, there’s breathing. One concentrates for long periods of time on one’s breathing, both during meditation and throughout the day. Think of it. Just breathing. When you are just breathing you are going nowhere, you are accomplishing nothing, you are accumulating nothing, you are just being-here-now. It’s not a command; it’s another symbolic exercise ― a practice ― designed to bring buried truths to the surface. The Buddha pushes us to learn to enjoy breathing because once we sense the simple joy of letting go ― no longer clinging to the past in regret or nostalgia or imagining a future of doom or triumph ― we begin to experience life as a process of continuous present joy . . . if lived fully in the moment detached from ulterior motives. But that can only be done by letting go of everything else. There is nothing to be found outside ourselves living here and now. All human activities are to be subsumed under the dynamic of this universal detachment. Whatever you do, do it detached, which means do it just to be-here and do it, not because of what it’s going to “get” for you. There is nothing to get. Life is going nowhere.

Letting go in the West

Many will say, we have to work, we have responsibilities to other people, we have to plan for the future. We can’t go around begging for food and expecting that others will feed us. And spending time just breathing is time wasted in a preciously short life. Of course they are right. But the objection is off-the-mark because mendicancy and meditation are practices ― symbolic activity, exercises designed to bring certain human values to the forefront of consciousness. Begging was never intended to be a model for economic interchange. This misunderstanding is reminiscent of the “dilemma” created by the advice of Jesus as recorded in Luke, which is also the result of erroneously taking a symbol literally:

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ . . .

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!   . . .   Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you — you of little faith![2]

The “dilemma” created by these statements of Jesus came crashing down on Roman Catholicism in the high middle ages when Christians under the leadership of Francis of Assisi attempted to take Jesus’ poetry literally and construct a way of life out of it. But after a short time in the 13th century few continued with the mendicant practices embraced by Francis and his original followers. Francis himself, because of his insistence on living in radical poverty, was sidelined by his own order which had abandoned his way of life ― and implicitly Jesus’ teaching which inspired it ― as practically impossible.

We have to acknowledge what was on the table here, and why, both before and after Francis, Christians never attempted to take Jesus literally. The literal personal, micro-managed divine providence described by Jesus in these beautiful passages, in fact, does not exist, and everybody knows it. Even a closer reading of the examples Jesus uses of the ravens and the day-lilies reveals that the resources provided by “God” are nothing more than the natural order. The ravens don’t have to work because their DNA produces feathers. In contrast, human DNA does not produce coats, shoes and houses for us, and so we have to work. “God” as a loving father who personally watches over and provides for each of his children . . . except in the most remote sense of having provided the material cosmos with its energy and regularities . . . is a mega-metaphor, a huge symbol. The real “God” does none of the things that Jesus described and certainly doesn’t save us from natural and man-made disasters. It is poetry so massive and all-encompassing as to amount to what anthropologists call a myth. By myth they mean the poetic, symbolic ground that establishes the foundational premises for an entire culture. In the lands of the West that myth was The Fatherhood of “God.”

The West had no choice. If “God” was a rational, willing, humanoid father-person, as they insisted, there had to be wall-to-wall divine providence. No alternative was possible. The two concepts are steel-bound corollaries. The entire civilization was built on the model of a patriarchy ― micro-control by an all-powerful father-ruler ― grounded on the imagined humanoid paternal personality of a “God” who controlled everything that happened, no matter how it was contradicted by the evidence. The “atheism” of our times is an obvious attempt to find our way back to reality after having for millennia erroneously embraced the religious myths and poetry of our ancient, pre-scientific ancestors as literal, scientific, historical fact.

Trust

By deconstructing Jesus’ poetry in Luke, we can understand the role it played as an application of the fundamental myth of Western culture. Once we see that Jesus’ examples were drawn from the patriarchal cultural ground of both the Hebrew and the Greco-Roman worldviews, we can appreciate his use of them to illustrate and motivate an attitude toward life that is at the very heart of all religious enlightenment: trust in the process of life, and abandonment of all attempts to substitute something else for it. In his idiom, that had to mean trust in the providence of “God.” The real issue for us is not the metaphy­s­ical background, which in both Christianity and Buddhism are pre-scientific and seriously flawed, but rather the spiritual dynamic their teachers tried to evoke. Trust, expressed by “letting go” of attempts to find a way out, is the ultimate religious truth across the board. The pre-scientific world­views evaporate, but the ascetical dynamics do not. There is no other way to live authentically.

Trust was exactly what the Buddha was trying to say by insisting on “letting-go” of all pursuits and strivings of whatever kind ― a radical, absolute and unequivocal abandonment of seeking for an outside source of permanent life. All traditions fundamentally propose the same thing: instead of seeking to obtain or become something we are not — including nothingness — the answer to life is to cherish and embrace what we are and to trust the process that brought us here and bears us onward. We have to embrace our impermanence, our inescapable perishing condition. Instead of looking outside of ourselves we have to look inward. We already have everything we could want, and our trans­­formation consists not in the escape into a refined hedonism, or becoming something other than what we are, or finding a vehicle to ride in other than the process that is bearing us forward, or retreating in despair from the struggle to build a just and sustainable world, but in learning to cherish and want what we already are and have. Trust in the process that produced us ― which means embracing, joining the process. The rest is delusion.

It is living in the present moment; minimally that means to stop distrusting LIFE . . . to embrace the Ocean we are swimming in with its work and struggles, the river of material impermanence that is carrying us along with everything else in the universe. We are all made of the same clay.

The universal bedrock of all religious enlightenment, east and west is trust in the process in which we are immersed. From science we know that process is the biological evolution of material energy. Accept­ing the process means embracing ourselves ― becoming thoroughly absorbed in what we are ― the flowing current of evolving matter, in which we live and move and have our being.

[1] Bhikkhu Sujato, Sumyatta Nikaya, 45:170 Kindle Locations 14736-14737

[2] New RSV Luke chapter 12

THE MORE LOVING ONE
by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time

From Homage to Clio by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1960 W. H. Auden,

“. . . the most to be pitied” (III)

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are the most to be pitied.”

1 Corinthians 15:19

2,400 words

There are many indications in the Dhammapada, one of the earliest and most basic collections of the Buddha’s sayings, that he took for granted that human behavior would be judged after death.  But as a motivator, these traditional Hindu beliefs about re-incarnation kept the focus fixed on this world because the punishment for failing to live a moral life was to return to earth until you do.  The Buddha translated that to mean you would remain enslaved to the same insane insistence on chasing pleasure and amassing the resources needed for creating a secure permanent self ― goals that are simply impossible in a universe where everything composes and decomposes ― that caused your re-birth. It turns living into an endless cycle of insuperable frustration. No worse punishment could be conceived.

Buddha said delusional craving was the cause of all the human-generated suffering that individuals inflict on themselves and on others, with whom they compete in a zero-sum game of amassing the wind. It was to that ensuing suffering, dukkha, that Buddha addressed himself exclusively. Dukkha was that anguish, unique to human beings, that came from yearning uncontrollably for what is not available: permanent happiness. It was his only motivation: ending dukkha.

Buddha did not see the problem as the absence of the object of our insane quest as Paul did, but rather the quest itself. It’s not that what we yearn for is not at hand . . . impelling us to look for it or pray for it or create it which only intensifies the craving  . . . but the craving itself, which is insatiable. Once the thirst is seen as the true problem and we begin to direct our efforts at eliminating it, we make a consequent discovery that would not have occurred to us otherwise: we never really needed the thing we thought we could not live without. The cessation of craving which brings the end to human suffering, is the doorway to a realization ― a well-kept secret ― we already have everything we need to live in a state of continuous joy. That realization and its deliberate habituation through meditation into a steady state-of-mind, he called nirvana ― the other shore.

Notice: with enlightenment nothing physical or metaphysical changes. You are living in the same world, with the same experiences you’ve always had. The only difference is that you experience these things without selfish desire. Once craving for what does not satisfy ceases, clinging to life in order to continue amassing what does not satisfy also ceases. Hence you “go beyond life and death.” You can embrace death with equanimity, which is sometimes expressed as “going beyond being and non-being.” But enlightenment is accompanied by a new joy in living; it is not a yearning for death, a misconception we will deal with later.

Now the Buddha did not expect that this emotional transformation from living in a state of constant craving and dissatisfaction to a joyful embrace of reality as it really is (in its “suchness”) would take place easily or instantaneously. He offered a program for the long-term re-educa­tion of the conatus through the practice of meditation, mindful attention to the present moment, faithful dedication to morally (socially) right living, and the controlled withdrawal from the automatic pursuit of what we like, and avoidance of what we don’t like.

He did not define good behavior as obedience to a “God”-person, but rather as the intelligent concurrence with the common sense norms that guaranteed health, individual peace of mind and harmony in the human community. He called those norms the Dharma and they were ends in themselves. The word Dharma had the sense not of a code of laws issued by a ruling divinity but rather the “Law of Nature” or “the way things are.” Following the Dharma was like having a healthy life-style; it made you strong, stable and clear-headed. His entire focus was “with this life in view.” He related neither to a “God” who dwelt in another world nor to any suggestion that human beings would want to live there rather than here. It simply was not part of his perspective. His only goal was to end dukkha.

Just as the Buddha’s program was not a compliance with external norms, it was also not an intellectual exercise, a drawing of practical conclusions from theoretical assumptions and premises. The Buddha claimed he was simply putting into words the experiences he himself had gone through. It was the carefully articulated and meticulously detailed directions for changing the emotions. He assured his listeners that it worked. It necessarily achieved the transformation of the emotions, but it did not do so directly.

The agent of change was to end the craving that provided the emotional interface that shaped and colored reality as we perceived it. By eliminating the craving for objects of desire, suddenly those objects began to be perceived differently. What they were, changed, because the “fog” of desire through which they were perceived had disappeared. Specifically, the frustration and “unsatifactoriness” of all of life ― the suffering, the sorrow ― that accompany ceaseless cravings is transformed into the experience of continuous joy.

That is not the conclusion of a syllogism. No one who has not experienced it can prove that it is true. And that transformation from sorrow to joy cannot be experienced unless someone practices the program ― does the hard, slow and incremental work of “starving the tiger,” eliminating craving by denying its urgings which in turn require changing the mindset and the behavior that nourish it. All the proofs come from experience, and the results are counter-intuitive. It feels like we are denying ourselves what we really want, but in reality we are beginning to embrace things as they really are, without the strobe-light fantasies of our selfish desires laying a blinding dazzle, or repulsiveness, on reality that is really not there.

Buddhism and the Judaeo-Christian tradition

The transformation of the emotions and the cessation of desire are not religious objectives for those who have been brought up in the Judaeo-Christian traditions of Western Europe. We are focused more narrowly on change of behavior. This, of course, is due to the emphasis on obeying the commandments, codified in the Hebrew scriptures, which enjoin right behavior alone. Personal health, individual peace of mind and a harmonious, prosperous community were the results of compliance with the Creator’s will but were thought to be gifts personally bestowed by God as a reward for obedience.

When compared with the Judaeo-Christian vision, notice how the Buddhist process inverts, or at least subordinates the place of behavior in the scheme of things. “Right behavior” for the Buddha is the instrument, the tool, the “practice” that will eventually end craving. Right behavior while it is an end in itself is not the end of the process as it is for the followers of “the Book.” It is rather the path to the ending of suffering which only comes when craving ends.

Contrariwise, since the very object of the Judaeo-Christian believer is right behavior as the expression of submission to “God” in creaturely obedience, once that right behavior is achieved, the very goal of religious pursuit has been attained. The process ends. The conditions for moral living have been satisfied, there is no theoretical reason why anyone should go further. The only thing remaining is sustaining it.

But that is exactly where the problem is. If the craving has not ceased but is only postponed, which is what Paul’s argument in Corinthians implies, its constant suppression in forcing right behavior tends to create a heightened emotional tension. Two psycho-spiritual effects can result from this unremitting tension: (1) the practitioner falls, i.e., fails to sustain the right behavior and yields to the craving. This corresponds to Paul’s complaint in Romans that the good he willed he could not do , and the evil he did not want to do he did. Or (2) the practitioner does not fall but by not having eliminated the craving becomes “miserable.” Devotees generate a subconscious anger because of unsatisfied desire that turns life bitter. Self-direc­ted anger in modern parlance is called depression. Ancient Christian desert Fathers had accurately identified this one-two punch almost two millennia ago. They called it despondency.[1]

This state of unsatisfied desire experienced continuously over a long period of time creating depression and anger can intensify and broaden until it becomes all-consuming for the individual. The “sorrow” loses its specificity and grows to include all of experienced reality. Life itself, for the eternally frustrated, becomes a torment that one yearns to have end. The bitterness expressed in the mediaeval poem Carmina Burana immortalized by Carl Orff in his striking musical piece, reflects exactly this almost unbearable domination of the poet by his/her frustrated desires. This can create a craving for extinction.

Buddha was not unaware of this potential development. He was quite emphatic that his call for the elimination of selfish desire ― sometimes called “extinguishment” ― should not be confused with a craving for extinction, a form of nihilism. Buddha did not condemn all desire. Desire is good if we desire what is good and in the measure in which its satisfaction is good and possible. Following the Dharma guarantees that desire will be wholesome and balanced. He called it “the middle way” and it corresponded to the Greek ideal of the mean between two extremes. Buddhists generally are careful to modify the desire that is to be eliminated as “selfish,” which they describe as “bound up with passion and greed.” Texts in the Tripitaka of the Pali Canon use the word trishna meaning “thirst.” It is most often translated as “craving” and they identify three kinds: “there are these three cravings. Craving for sensual pleasures, craving to continue existence, and craving to end existence. These are the three cravings.” [2]

The first is self-explanatory. The second refers to the Buddhist doctrine of “no-self” which claims that all things, including one’s own body and resulting psychological identity, are in fact the products of the “dependent co-arising” of a multitude of causes all of which enter constitutively into the actual reality that we call the self. There is really “no self” apart from the existence and healthy functioning of its causes. When they disappear, the “self” disappears. It is we, then, from selfish desire who generate the fiction that we are not our multitude of causes ― that we are separate and independent of them and that we will not disappear when our causes cease to function. This craving and the passionate pursuit of permanent existence and the self-aggrandize­ment that it engenders is a major cause of the suffering we heap on ourselves and others.

The third, the desire for extinction, is also a craving. It is the eventual result of the despondency and despair that accompanies the eternal frustration of selfish desire. It’s what results from the failure to satisfy the first two cravings ― a failure that is inevitable ― and the failure to let them go. One commentator on the Dhammapada describes the craving for extinction as: “. . . the oppressive desire for self-oblivion or self-destruction prompted by the revulsion with life that comes as the fruits of selfishness turn rotten and bitter.”[3]

This thirst for extinction is the polar opposite of the desire for nirvana, the release from the cycle of birth and death. Nirvana is the release from trishna (“thirst,”) itself, from the torment and conditioning of selfish desire; its characteristic features are joy, a love of life and the highest of all purposes, the desire and capacity to give.[4]

It is difficult to ignore the implication of the Buddhist program: that the Pauline insistence on the resurrection (which molted historically in the West into the traditional emphasis on reward and punishment after death) represents exactly the obsessive craving for permanent existence and the self-aggrandize­ment of the human person that the Buddha identified as one of the major causes of human suffering. In fact it might be fair to say that Buddhism represents precisely the effort to identify that obsession as delusional and let it go. And the irony is, that when the cessation of desire is achieved and the obsessive pursuit of pleasure and permanent existence disappears, the desire for extinction that accompanies frustrated desire also disappears. Depression evaporates even as a possibility and the resulting spontaneous love of life produces an abiding joy and release of energy that has caused people to claim they had been “reborn.” All cravings can be let go, and the craving for extinction is revealed in that moment as something we had been clinging to because we did not want to let go of the selfish desires for permanent existence and happiness that generated it.

Paul’s pity expressed in the epigram from 1 Corinthians is an indication that he never contemplated the possibility that desire could be “extinguished” and that those who achieved it would no longer need to have such desires satisfied in the afterlife. For Paul, it appears, selfish desire was insuperable. Either you delay gratification until the afterlife, or you act out your desires here.

Whatever the actual case for resurrection turns out to be, two and a half millennia of Buddhist practice contradicts the argument that without it we are condemned to lives of gross immorality. Jesus himself never displayed any lack of confidence in his listeners’ ability to do what was right, and live with joy and generosity, once they understood that they were in the loving embrace of a forgiving “father.” I feel supported in my trust in LIFE when I hear of people following Jesus’ “way” with this life only in view. Their attitude shows an unconditional appreciation for LIFE and trust in its processes.

[1] Bunge, Gabriel, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus, St Vladimirs Seminary Pr, 2012 (1983)

[2] Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses, 38:10 (Kindle Locations 14736-14737)

[3] Stephen Ruppenthal, introductory remarks to chapter 24 of the Dhammapada, tr. Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, p. 232.

[4] Ibid.

“. . . the most to be pitied.” (II)

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we of all people are the most to be pitied.”       

1 Corinthians 15:19

That statement of Paul’s was uncharacteristic of a Jew. In Paul’s time, Jews did not believe in an after-life.  Besides, the remark had an arrogant and demanding tone that was more typical of Greek attitudes dominated by the belief that human beings were immaterial spirits unnaturally imprisoned in their bodies of matter.  The Greeks were focused on an “other world” of divine spirit where our “souls” supposedly originated and to which they returned at death after escaping from their dungeons of flesh. They were quite passionate about it. If a world­view did not relate to the existence of the immortal human spirit, it was not worth considering. We are not animals.

The mystery religions that flourished in the ancient Mediterranean world reflected this Greek obsession with spirit and the afterlife. And it was to the mystery religions that Paul turned for an interpretation of the Christ event. Paul taught that the Christian was ritually immersed in the death and resurrection of Christ the way the mystēs was immersed in the death and resurrection of Demeter and Orpheus, Isis and Mithra. For Paul, the resurrection was more than a sign of divine approval for Jesus’ authenticity as a messenger, it became the message itself, the mysterion (Latin: sacramentum), the ritual-vehicle that would transport us to the other world. In a thoroughly Hellenized culture where religious practice was constituted by the pursuit of life after death, one can understand the appeal of Paul’s proclamation. Christianity, because of this emphasis of Paul, stopped being a heterodox Jewish sect and became a Greco-Roman religious cult.

The paradox that lies under the surface of early Christianity is that Jesus himself was a Jew and expressed none of the focus on life after death that was central to Paul’s message. Jesus’ preaching as reported in the gospels, was most definitely “for this life only.” This is more than a mere matter of emphasis. Jesus did not offer life after death as the motivation for the humble, generous, just and loving behavior he encouraged. In the tradition of Job and the Jewish prophets he conspicuously avoided any motivation based on reward or punishment either in this life or after death. The motivation, like the behavior he called for, was love. He told his fellow Jews to imitate their loving Father who was just, compassionate, generous and forgiving. “Be like your heavenly Father who makes the sun shine equally on the just and the unjust.” . . .   His model prayer, the “Our Father” said “forgive us as we forgive others.”

Paul and Jesus

I believe what we are dealing with are two very different religious visions: (1) Jesus’ renewal of Judaism grounded in an emphatic re-characterization of Yahweh as “loving Father” and the rejection of earlier imagery that painted him as warrior king and punitive lawgiver, and (2) Paul’s focus on the Hellenistic pursuit of life-after-death, proven by the real resurrection of Jesus to be more than wishful thinking, confirming Greek hopes.

The arrogance of Paul’s statement is a first clue that his message was different from Jesus’. Paul sits in judgment on reality itself and finds it wanting. If living morally is the only way to be authentically human, and we are not able to live moral lives without radically altering the natural course of human life which ends in death, then, indeed, it is not possible to be human, because there is no way to avoid death. I believe it was Paul’s merger of the two sources of his formation that accounts for this bizarre metaphysical judgmentalism. The Greeks had decided that their theory about the immortal immaterial soul was scientific truth, and those that did not accept it had to believe that we were only animals. The Jews, for their part, were convinced that they were God’s chosen tribe destined to political supremacy over all the other tribes in the world. If Jesus was the messiah, for Paul it meant that God was bringing the whole world into submission to Jewish salvation history. Put these two delusions together as Paul did in his own head and you’ve got an ideology with an attitude. It laid the foundations for Christianity’s subsequent tendency to demand the submission of all other traditions to its own.

But consider how presumptuous this is. Paul claims to know exactly what God’s intentions are for humankind and therefore how “God” structured the world and directed human history. In Paul’s attitude there is nothing of Job’s blinding insight that, while he could not explain Yahweh’s behavior, he realized he knew so little that his only valid reaction had to be an awed silence.

Job’s was the proper reaction. If God is as utterly unknowable and his designs as unfathomable as theists have always claimed, then the door must be left open for possibilities that we cannot imagine. Who are we to decide that death, which, is the destiny of absolutely every single living thing on earth, is “unnatural” in the case of humankind . . . a claim our Platonist Christianity has sustained for two millennia despite the indisputable evidence that every single last human being that has ever lived has died and no “immortal soul” has ever been encountered.

Besides, by arrogantly deciding that if resurrection is not part of the picture “we are the most to be pitied,” Paul is implying that alternatives are not authentic and cannot be considered reliable guides to life. He ignores the fact that Jesus himself encouraged people to live moral lives without ever invoking resurrection following the entire Jewish tradition for a thousand years before him. Were Jesus’ listeners being misled? Were all those people to be pitied?

Don’t misunderstand. I am not trying to disprove the resurrection. That’s not my point. I would personally be overjoyed if we were all to come back to life as ourselves to be united once again with the people we love. I am not hoping there is no resurrection, I’m simply saying, against Paul, that even if there is no resurrection, nothing changes. Our sense of the sacred and our trust in LIFE remain the same. No one is to be pitied. Faith in the resurrection might make it easier for some to live a moral life, but that doesn’t invalidate other views. All are obliged by their humanity to be moral, even those who find resurrection incredible.

Resurrection is either real or it’s not. If Christian beliefs are true, my denying them won’t make them disappear, any more than believing them will create them.   Whatever the case may be, we have absolutely no control over what happens to us after death. All we know is that we die and we cannot bring ourselves back to life. That means that if we are to come back to life someone or something else that we cannot see or control has to do it. It is not in our hands. Everyone is equally powerless. Christians have no more control than anyone else. They, too, have to trust that “God” will bring them back to life after death.

TRUST IN LIFE

This finally brings us to the core of the issue: trust. Belief in the resurrection does not change reality, it changes my attitude toward reality. It offers no more guarantees than human life itself in whose processes we have to trust implicitly.

For consider: Our dependency on the forces of LIFE is so universal, so deep and so insuperable that no matter how willfully selfish and anti-social we decide we are going to be, we still have to trust in the biological processes that must continue to function efficiently if we are to carry out our nefarious plans. We have to trust that the multiple organic operations of our bodies, alimentation, respiration, elimination, circulation, the proper release of neurotransmitters guaranteeing perception, insight, thought, memory, many of which we do not fully understand, will work without error or interruption. And then there are the events that create our very identities and roles in society: conception, gestation that brought us from conception to birth fully equipped for life as independent biological organisms, the ontogeny that impeccably brought us to adulthood along with the generative sexuality that allows us to reproduce. None of us has personal authorship or control over any of these things. Everything about us and our life with others has been handed to us, developed over immeasurable eons of deep time by an evolutionary process that has adapted our organisms perfectly to our environment. We have implicit trust in all this. We have no choice. Trust in LIFE is the sea we swim in. It is the inescapable attitude, conscious or not, that characterizes the relationship that we have to being-here. Our organisms are programmed ― they are hard-wired ― to trust in LIFE.

Trust in death

Given that trust is the very condition that defines us, it should come as no great surprise that even as our lives wind down and we approach death, we are spontaneously inclined to continue to trust. The fear of death is a learned response; it should not be confused with the flight from danger which is a biological instinct, a reaction to a living perception that evaporates as soon as the threat has passed. Death is different. The organism has no notion of death because no one living has ever experienced it. Death is a mental construct, pure product of the imagination. Trust, I contend is instinctive. It is the simple seamless continuation of the way we live our lives from moment to moment. Given that life is a very long unbroken series of trusting moments no one is spontaneously inclined to suddenly decide that some next moment cannot be trusted. Something has to intervene to break that chain.

It is very difficult to be afraid of the moment of death without conceptual intervention and a considerable amount of projection. We imagine what death must be because we see what it has done to all the people that have passed through it. Using this gathered data, our minds create an abstract concept which, in fact, is at odds with our spontaneous trusting expectations. Our instinctive inclination is to embrace with joy each now moment as part of the process of living.

Now resurrection, life-after-death, is itself a projection of the imagination that is obviously generated to neutralize the death-concept. No one living has ever experienced resurrection, even those that claim to believe in it. But it is even more remote than death, for while we have evidence that people have died, no one living has ever seen anyone who has come back from the dead. All “data” in this regard come from the records of ancient people who themselves are dead, and never came back to life. That the belief in resurrection can overcome such a huge credibility gap tells you how powerful the urge is to trust LIFE.

Now my point in all this is to identify “human bedrock,” by which I mean the ground beneath which there is no ground. It is the sine qua non for living a human life. Resurrection is not bedrock, as Paul’s arrogant statement seems to claim, a psychological human need so deep that without it, it is impossible to live humanly. For resurrection as a psychological operator functions as magnet for a trust in LIFE. It restores the trust that our organisms are programmed for.

I contend that trust in LIFE is human psychological bedrock. And that means that without trust in LIFE we cannot lead human lives, we cannot be sane, we cannot be moral, we cannot love ourselves or others, we cannot build a human world. And the trust we have in LIFE, while it gives us absolutely no information whatsoever about what happens to us as conscious identifiable selves after death, has the potential to override the absence of evidence about life after death.

But in order for it to do that, trust in LIFE has to neutralize the exaggerated import­ance of the self which, to my mind, is at the root of Paul’s arrogance. Resurrection as we have imagined it correlates to the human individual self. Our trust in life has been detoured into an expectation that the individual “self” will live forever. The bitterness and disillusionment characteristic of modern times in the lands of the West, in my opinion, is directly due to having been sold a bill of goods about our selves that was sheer fantasy. Having taken Paul seriously, when it became clear to many that there was no resurrection, their love of life itself was destroyed by the conviction that “we are the most to be pitied.”

The “Self”

I believe that the transcendent importance that we have accorded ourselves as identifiable self-conscious individuals, (requiring resurrection if we are to trust LIFE) is a cultural phenomenon, not metaphysical. It is characteristic of Western Christianity and the cultures that it has shaped. It is the result of the artificial expansion and intensification of a psychological focus on oneself that was always open to being situated anywhere along a fairly wide spectrum of importance. In other words, it is our culture that has made the “individual” the super-important thing that we project it to be. Our culture under the tutelage of our dualistic religion has cultivated the appreciation of the individual person well out of proportion to what it might have received from other cultures. We are not unaware of this. For many it is a source of great pride and admiration. It has given rise to what we call western values which includes the dubious legacy of belief in our superiority and the right to impose our way of life on the rest of the world.

That importance is culturally inflated but not created out of nothing. Self-awareness and self-prioritization is a universal biological experience. All animal organisms display it. But, falsely defining the human person as a “divine” eternal “spirit” destined to live forever without the body precisely because the “self” is not the material biological organism it appears to be, is the cultural bellows that forced air artificially into the “self” expanding it in size and visibility. The individualism of the West is an exaggerated, overblown, cultural artifact grounded in the unfounded belief in the separable human spirit as a metaphysical “thing” of divine provenance, different from every other thing in the material universe. The cultural context of belief in the human “soul” as immaterial immortal spirit skews the perception of what the human individual is, well beyond the conclusions that would be drawn by experience if left alone. The evidence that we are material biological organisms is undeniable; but there is no evidence that there is an immaterial thing called a “soul” that continues to exist after the death of the body, none whatsoever.

Once the exaggerated importance accorded to the human person has been reduced to the proportions that the evidence will support, we are left with a biological organism that is able to perform extraordinary functions that go beyond what organic matter in other biological configurations is capable of, but at no point do they propel it out of the orbit of the organic and biological. Even the human mind, which we identify as the “self,” is a material phenomenon whose human functions can deteriorate beyond recognition well before they cease entirely at death.

Trust in LIFE, then, is trust in the material processes, micro and macro, physical, chemical, biological, from which human beings have been elaborated and in which they remain immersed and borne along. Trust is a direct corollary of the recognition that we ourselves are an emergent form of the matter-in-process that constitutes this entire cosmos of things. We trust the process because we are the emanations of the process. We are evolving LIFE in its most forward manifestation. It has produced us and elaborated in the most exquisite detail all the organic tools we would need to interact successfully with the environment. Both that and what we are we owe to the process. Death is an integral part of it.

The key is to not be distracted by the fears and apprehensions generated by the mind, for we have no idea what death brings. And like Job, our ignorance calls us to silence. Whatever death brings is what LIFE has devised as a necessary component of our being-here. We have to trust it. We know no more about it than our coming-to-be-here itself. If we have trusted LIFE implicitly up until now what could possibly cause us to stop trusting it into the future, except unrealistic expectations based on who we have been told to think we are. Our unnatural demand that we live forever as our “selves” is born of the delusion that we are not part of nature and that what applies to the rest of biological life constructed of organic matter does not apply to us. It’s time we disabused ourselves of that fantasy, which indeed makes us, of all of living things in this vast and awesome universe, the most to be pitied.

 

“… the most to be pitied”

 “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, of all people we are the most to be pitied.”        1 Corinthians 15:19

It is never good practice to quote anything out of context. That is especially true of the scrip­tures which are so often used for resolving questions they were never meant to address. In this case, however, the phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians succinctly sums up the argument in the paragraph that preceded it. Paul is in Ephesus and has gotten reports of immorality in the Christian community in Corinth. He is encouraging them to transcend the causes of immoral behavior ― the desire for personal gratification ― by keeping in mind that they will come back to life after death. The awareness of their own imperishable future happiness should dominate their lives.

Besides, it’s guaranteed. “How can you doubt that you will rise from the dead. For if you don’t rise, it would mean that Christ never rose.“ Paul is taking the resurrection for granted, and he is using it as an undebatable fact in order to drive home a point. Faith in one’s own resurrection is assured and enters intrinsically into the mindset of the practicing Christian. The result is detachment from the urges that impel immoral behavior. If there was ever any doubt about what he had in mind, the final statement on the issue made at the end of the chapter should dispel it: “For If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”

The implied mechanism triggered by our own resurrection is postponement. Selfish desire is not extirpated, or as the Buddhists would say “snuffed out,” but rather deflected and deferred, and we will be gratified in our new life after the resurrection when we will live again as ourselves, in these bodies and on this earth. Paul’s message, in this sense, is more “human” than the Buddha’s because he doesn’t demand a lifetime of asceticism necessary for quelling desire. But he also doesn’t leave any room for alternative paths.

Paul appears to be saying that the happiness guaranteed to Christians by Christ’s victory over death, is a necessary psychological precondition for living a moral life. This necessity was part of a larger worldview that insisted on the indispensability of Christianity for “salvation.” It explains why there is supposedly no alternative to Christianity. There is “no other name” by which we can be saved, because there is nothing short of eternal life that will persuade us to postpone selfishly pursuing the objects of our desire.

There are scriptural reasons for saying that this was Paul’s view. Paul had been a believing, committed Jew, a Pharisee of strict observance. The orthodox Jewish belief system did not encompass any promise of life-after-death but it did enjoin compliance with the moral law, the Torah, as encoded in the Jewish scriptures. This is relevant because in a letter to the Romans dated around the same time as the epistle to the Corinthians, Paul states quite explicitly that it was impossible to comply with the Torah. This impossibility was so indisputable for Paul that he felt justified in concluding that the commandments were issued for the specific purpose of convincing people they were incapable of even being minimally human (i.e., moral) without the help of God in the form of a miraculous force that Christians later called “grace.”

Now this is extraordinary. If that accurately reflects Paul’s thinking, it would mean that he was accusing all the Jews in the world of living in open hypocrisy, because the law they claimed to follow was not given to be obeyed, but to be disobeyed . . . they had to break it and if they were good Jews they were breaking it . . . it was God’s will that they should realize their moral impotence. By disobeying the commandments they would be fulfilling the will of God . . . a gross contradiction and an insuperable moral dilemma. Also the literalist interpretation would imply that Yahweh was not truthful about his “will” that the commandments be obeyed, despite having repeated his demands emphatically and imposed severe punishments, including exile, for non-com­pli­ance.

It is hard for me to believe that Paul was ready to say all that about the same “God” that he was now preaching as the trustworthy loving “Father” who had thrown open the doors of Judaism to the gentiles. If “God” lied about the commandments, who is to say he is not lying about this promise of resurrection?

For these reasons there are many who understand Paul’s explanation in Romans in a very different way. They say it was offered in the spirit of the Genesis parable about the disobedience of Adam. Paul was putting all the pieces of the Christ event together in story form. Similar to a mediaeval morality play, ideas are assigned to personalities whose actions in the drama illustrate the connections among ideas. So in this case, we can all relate to the difficulty of living a moral life. It’s as if we were born with DNA inherited from our disobedient ancestors. That’s why we are prone to be selfish and untrusting of LIFE. “God” knows that, and it’s as if he expected us to fail and didn’t hold it against us. But in order to break the power of Adam’s DNA, God sent Christ who died in an act of perfect obedience. When we are born again in baptism we replace Adam’s DNA with Christ’s. It’s as if we had gained a new ancestor. We inherit Christ’s power to obey; we become fearless. We are able and eager to obey the law that eluded us earlier. We can’t lose. It’s as if “God” injected us with a new human nature.

Please notice the as if’s peppered throughout that paragraph. I contend that’s what Paul meant by his narrative about “Adam’s Sin” and the “obedience of Christ.” It was a parable ― a morality play ― and the characters were Adam and Christ. When Augustine came along almost 400 years later, his Greco-Roman scientific mindset misread the Jewish story-book style that Paul was using to explain things. Augustine took Paul’s statements literally. Besides, his own concept of “God” as an autocratic Roman Lawgiver who was quite capable of trickery and deception in his manipulation of his subjects was altogether consistent with Paul’s narrative.

Paul’s real beliefs stand in stark contrast to Augustine’s ontological interpretation and it is that section of the first letter to the Corinthians that confirms it. Paul saw our own return from the grave as psychologically motivational; there was no hint of an infusion of divine power giving morally impotent creatures an ability that they did not already possess. Human moral behavior was dependent on trust in LIFE, and for Paul the fact that Christ came back from the grave and proved that all human flesh will similarly return to life provided the grounds for a trust that could change our lives from immoral to moral. It allowed us to postpone our desire for gratification.

But notice, trust is the key operator here. It is not the resurrection as a Cosmos-changing event, nor the “grace of God” as a magic potion that miraculously transforms sinners into saints. It is trust. It is knowing that we will transcend death that gives us trust in life. And it’s trust in life that takes away the fear of death and the need for instant and selfish gratification. The resurrection stands as a symbol that death does not define life. Life, and the urges it has implanted in us for more life, can be trusted. Looked at in this way, the Christ event is a human phenomenon and its transformative power is similarly human and non-miraculous. Knowing that we will transcend death motivates us psychologically because it doesn’t demand the negation of our desire for life. It simply gives us a reason to postpone the gratifications that represent life for us. That’s how “salvation” functions. Christ’s sacrifice gave us back the incentive to live a moral life because he himself rose. It gives us back our autonomy. There never was any intention on Paul’s part to define humankind as morally impotent. Paul, like any theologian, was trying to have the facts of faith make sense.

Buddha

But just because Christian motivation based on the resurrection makes sense doesn’t mean that no other way can, which is what Paul’s opening statement seems to imply. The Buddha, for one, does not seem to think an afterlife provides any significant motivation for human behavior. He finds sufficient motivation in the simple desire to be happy living justly and compassionately in human community while we are alive. Like the Jews of the OT, he saw living the moral law ― the Dharma, which guaranteed social harmony ― as the greatest happiness that one can experience as a human being on this earth. He enjoined living morally as the essence of present joy and happiness, not as a condition for some future reward in another life. The Dharma, like the Torah, created a human family characterized by loving-kindness. Buddha was very explicitly calling for moral compliance with this life only in view. And paradoxically for Paul, Buddha thought that knowing you were going to die and disappear was actually beneficial because it exposed short term, gross selfish gratifications ― immoral behavior ― as meaningless and unsatisfying pursuits that did not last, did not produce a just and compassionate community and could not transcend the impermanence that embitters human life.

In this imaginary dialog between Buddha and Paul, it seems we have two dichotomously different beliefs about selfish desire which imply two different views of the human capacity to construct a just society. The Buddha says you can get rid of them by controlling your thinking; Paul says you can’t get rid of them. You can only postpone them . . . which requires that they be satisfied after death. Hence the resurrection is necessary because of the insatiability of human desire. That means to accept Christ without believing in the resurrection, is to miss the heart of the matter. The point was to give us back our power to live like intelligent, autonomous human beings in a community of loving kindness. But that can only happen if we believe we are going to live forever with all desires satisfied.

So it seems there are good reasons for saying that Paul believed that incorporation into the risen Christ is absolutely necessary for all. He was convinced there was no other way we can live a moral life and create a community of loving kindness. Given this scenario about human nature, there is no alternative to being Christian.

No Other Name?

But there is a problem with Paul’s insistence on postponement. If Christian resurrection is absolutely necessary, that leaves the rest of the world absolutely without hopeAlso, even for Christians, if happiness is possible only after death, there is no incentive to construct communities of loving-kindness during life.  Such communities will only occur as an accidental by-product of the trust inspired by resurrection.  They are not what we really want, anyway.  What we want are the postponed gratifications promised after death.

But also, look what happens if suddenly it becomes clear that Jesus’ resurrection was a faith-based projection ― that there was no literal physical resurrection — that it was symbolic.   In that case, according to Paul, we are all lost.  There is no possibility for any human being to live a moral life, for without the resurrection there is no motivation sufficient for postponement.  Look also at what it had to have meant for the centuries of Jews who lived and died before Christ.  They had no resurrection to believe in. They had to have failed to achieve the minimum humanity enjoined by the Torah and demanded by Yahweh.  Many claim that this is precisely what Paul was saying in Romans. Humankind could not conquer selfish desire any other way.  The resurrection was necessary because of Original Sin.

Another point that emerges from this analysis is that even though the necessity that Paul projected was not ontological, as Augustine thought, but psychological, nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that Augustine got the essential dynamic right. He caught the drift of Paul’s thinking, if not its literal meaning. For Paul was indeed talking about the necessity of sin, and therefore the necessity of the resurrection. Sin was necessary because of the distrust of life embedded in Adam’s disobedience which all of humankind inherited, and the resurrection was necessary in order to restore that trust.

These observations form the basis of a counter argument to Paul’s. My contention is (1) that belief in one’s own resurrection, while it may be effective in neutralizing dependency on selfish gratifications, is not the only motivation that can do that; and (2) the same noetic effect ― the realization that LIFE can be trusted ― can be achieved through an appreciation of one’s possession of the common and universal material that is responsible for the existential presence of our cosmos and everything in it. Detachment as the ground of morality depends on trust in LIFE, which is what resurrection symbolizes. (3) There is also the indisputable evidence of moral behavior being practiced all over the world, in every culture and religion, many like Buddhism that eschew any talk of resurrection. Paul’s claim that the Torah could not be obeyed was a projection that derived perhaps, from his own failings. His assertion that purpose of the Torah was to reveal moral impotence is a pure self-serving concoction with no basis in reality or scripture. (4) The negative historical effects of the culture-wide belief in the unique and unparalleled necessity of Christianity just to live a moral human life provide evidence of the destructive nature of this belief. In the hands of the Roman Empire which made Christianity its State religion, it provided the justification for the conquest and religious subjugation of other cultures, who had to be, by definition, inhuman, satanic and who would only benefit from enslavement to Christian masters. This “religious imperialism” was in full force a thousand years later during the enslavement of Africa and the Americas carried out by the Spaniards and Portuguese, who were Catholics, and continued on for another five hundred years by “Reformed” Protestant Christians in the form of an expanding Western military and economic domination of the third world justified as “mission.”

Finally, when Paul says that “if we have believed in Christ only with this life in view …” he is implicitly saying that Jesus’ message and the example of his life without his resurrection from the dead is worthless. Jesus preaching is of no value, and those of us who have heard his words and embrace him as a wise moral/spiritual teacher “are the most to be pitied.” It is here that Paul’s clear theological priorities emerge into full view. Paul’s idea of Jesus is dominated by what Paul sees as Jesus’ place in salvation history. Jesus is not just a human individual, to Paul, he is “the Christ” ― a concept of salvific significance in the overall Jewish relationship to Yahweh. Jesus’ message and manner of life was of virtually no interest to Paul; and he does not acknowledge the fact that Jesus himself never mentions the salvific impact of his own coming resurrection as creating the emotional detachment necessary for living a moral life.

We have to frankly admit that Jesus’ message of justice, forgiveness, compassion and loving kindness was launched entirely on the standard traditional motivations that characterized Judaism at that time. It’s also true that in all his preaching as recorded in the gospels, Jesus never once mentions Original Sin as being the very reason for his presence on earth and the purpose of his mission, which is what Paul claimed . . .  nor that Original Sin made us incapable of being moral, nor that the commandments were issued only to reveal our inability to obey them. If the very things that Paul is claiming are the core of the Christ event, were not even mentioned by Jesus, it would appear that Christians have an anomaly of mammoth proportions to resolve. That the two primary sources of the Christian vision of things ― Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus ― should display such a profound inconsistency with one another, suggests an elaboration of such originality on the part of Paul as to amount to a new and separate religion entirely. Jesus’ motivation for obeying the Torah was the simple imitation of our loving, generous, forgiving father. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to Paul’s obsession with (his) addiction to gross gratifications and the motivational impact that coming back to life after death would have on the addict.

So I would say, along with the people to whom Jesus message was originally directed, “what we have heard, what our eyes have seen and we have looked on and our hands have touched” has opened our eyes to what we really are ― what we now realize we have known all along ― that we are the offspring of that “in which we live and move and have our being.” It is precisely with this life in view that we have come to embrace the message of Jesus also called the Christ.