A Commentary on the Psalms … 2,3,4,5.

  • This is the third installment of “A Commentary on the Psalms” begun on October 2.
  • Future installments may or may not appear as a new post and be placed on this opening screen. But all will be added directly to a “page” called “Materialism and Mindfulness: A Commentary on the Psalms.” which I have included in the “pages” listed on the sidebar to the right under the pictures of the books. As they are added to the “page,” the new commentaries will be appended to the end of the document, in contrast to the way essays added to the post screen always end up being on top of older posts, reversing the order. All the installments will eventually appear on the “page” and in the proper sequence.
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  • Background notes for all commentaries are based on material from the Jerome Biblical Commentary.

4,200 words

PSALM 2

Background. A royal psalm for the accession of a new king. It is focused on affirming the legitimacy of the king by establishing his choice by Yahweh. Canaanite tributaries are warned not to use the occasion to revolt. After the exile when Israel had no subordinates it would have been taken to refer to a future fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise of ascendancy to David’s successors. Yahweh, after all, is the universal God of creation and disposes of all “the nations” as he sees fit. The universal dominion of Yahweh’s king is rooted in the promises to David, hence it was assimilated into the Messianic expectations. Israel’s kings are Yahweh’s anointed, his adop­ted sons following a Mesopotamian model, therefore to oppose the king is to oppose Yahweh and face his destructive wrath.

Roland Murphy says “in one of the variant readings to Acts 13:33, Psalm 2 is called the first psalm.”[1] This suggests that for some pre-Christian Hebrew manuscripts, placing the royal psalm of Yahweh’s promises to David at the beginning of the book established the theme of the entire collection.   Early Christians would naturally see this as another Messianic prophecy, and one that would bring all of the psalms in its train. It helps us understand why Jewish Christians, whose belief that Jesus was the messiah was confirmed by a chain of messianic prophesies that traditionally served for Jewish reflection and anticipation, would have emphatically applied this psalm both to Christ and to the (royal) persons designated to rule in his name.

Augustine saw Christ as the king and the “bonds” and “cords” of control as the Christian religion imposed on all the lands and peoples of the Roman Empire: “the Name and rule of Christ is to pervade posterity and possess all nations.”[2]

Famously set to triumphant music by Handel in 1742 as part of the Messiah oratorio, this psalm has entered western culture as an affirmation of the Christian belief in the universal dominion of Christ and by implication the Christian religion. Christian nations like England, where Handel was living when he composed the music in the 18th century, were even then eagerly conquering, colonizing and exploiting people all over the globe in the name of Christian mission.

Reflection. The fixed features of this ancient psalm have all changed for us. We know that it is not Yahweh but LIFE that creates and enlivens this universe of matter. If Christians insist on thinking of Christ as the psalmist’s king, we know it can no longer be taken as a prophetic literalism the way it has been traditionally understood. Jesus is not the “only-begotten son” of LIFE itself requiring that all people take him as model and teacher or submit to the Church that claims to represent him. We have to adjust the dynamics: Jesus is “son” like the rest of us. We are all the offspring of LIFE. Jesus unreservedly embraced LIFE as his “father” and when we do the same we join with him as agents of LIFE along with any other human being who makes that choice. We are free to accept Jesus as model and teacher, but the LIFE he reveals is the same LIFE that enlivens all of us, regardless of religious tradition. Jesus is LIFE the way we all are: he displays LIFE’s contours in his moral choices, affective attitudes and social commitments. Like all of us Jesus was enlivened by matter’s living intelligent human energy … the difference, perhaps, was his flawless fidelity to LIFE’s selfless profligate generosity, but it’s a matter of degree, not kind. Jesus can be a model for us because he is made of exactly the same clay as we are.

We reject the theocratic implications of Augustine’s reading. We are completely opposed to the belief that a preeminent empire or religious institution represents LIFE and has been given hegemony over the human race. We do not believe LIFE chooses rulers or religions to act in its name, any more than it intervenes with the processes of plate tectonics to prevent earthquakes. LIFE acts by enlivening the people who confer legitimacy on the systems of governance and religious practices that they have chosen, just as LIFE sustains the natural order in every respect without interference or interruption. There are no miracles … not even psychological ones.

It cannot be emphasized enough: the tribalism that is intrinsically embedded in the ancient Hebrew view of the world … a tribalism upgraded by Augustinian Catholicism into Roman theocratic imperialism … is the most stubborn of the pathological legacies inherited by us from our tradition. It seems almost impossible to extirpate, especially after it has been applied to such devastating effect in an exploitive global colonialism whose dynamics continue to produce enormous wealth for its historical perpetrators. The West is invested in the belief in its own superiority and the Christian religion was an essential factor in the creation of that fantasy. It is our demon par excellence, and if the psalms are to become an instrument of LIFE, that demon must be exorcized.

The very fact that Jesus and his message could have been taken hostage for so long and at such depths of moral inversion by the Roman theocracy and its successors, should be standing proof that Christianity … and more emphatically its primitive Roman Catholic iteration … could not possibly be the special choice of LIFE. Moreover, if at some future moment, leveraged by the economic and political power of the imperialist west, Christianity should ever come to be the world’s dominant religion, it will be further proof that there is no divine providence.

Augustine’s naïve version of divine providence had to conclude that “the way things are” has been foreseen and willed by “God.” It is the most pernicious (and transparent) of deceits, and stands cheek by jowl with humanoid theism at the foundational underpinnings of injustice in human society. The institutionalized acceptance of injustice, evidenced in the perennial existence of the master-slave relationship in Christian society inherited from Rome, is a persistent outrage against LIFE’s synteresis; it constitutes a raw open wound that threatens to go septic at any moment and destroy the entire organism. To tolerate injustice is to contradict human intelligence — to disconnect yourself from LIFE. You cannot do that without precipitating your own death.

The social “bonds” and “cords” that we acknowledge and impose upon ourselves are the norms of justice that create a brotherly harmony and creative equality among all the peoples of the earth. But universalism does not mean a robotic homogeneity. The norms of justice and love apply to sustaining cultures and traditions as well as the eradication of economic and political inequality. The human surrender to the dictates of conscience creates a family of peoples who are empowered to come to a collaborative consensus on the issues of economic production and distribution that work for the survival of all. Our “Israel” is the global community; and the “rebel nations” are those people and groups, blinded by their erroneous self-definition as superior to others, who currently refuse to submit to the demands of LIFE, deny our global family identity and would consign us to the eternal nightmare of internecine warfare. Their interest in others is limited to pillaging their possessions and exploiting their labor. This is not merely repugnant to our sensibilities, no one committed to LIFE will tolerate it.

[Psalm 2]

1 Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying,

3 “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”

4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.

5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,

6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”

7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.

8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

9 You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.

11 Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling

12 kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him.

 

Why do people pursue the interests of their tribe alone? Why do they set themselves against LIFE and the human family? Why are they ever planning ways to dominate, exploit and enslave others?

 

They refuse to obey the demands of LIFE.

 

But LIFE will not be thwarted.

By rejecting LIFE they isolate themselves. Mutual hatred ultimately spells death.

 

But as for you, LIFE wants to make you its champion. And it will transform you into the offspring of LIFE itself.

 

You will bring people together; the tribal blindness will disappear,

 

the age-old walls of separation will crumble into dust at your touch.

 

Be warned, therefore, you who take your stand against LIFE and the human family.

This is not a trifling matter … LIFE will not allow it. Obey LIFE!

Serve LIFE or you will shrivel and die.

 

Embrace LIFE and you will flourish.

 

PSALM 3

Background. This begins a series of five “laments.” This one was attributed to David. It appears to have been originally designed as a prayer uttered by the king, which later became “democratized” for use by any client of the priests in a similar situation. The theme is trust. Yahweh’s help can be relied on; it sustains the king’s dignity and self-confidence. He can afford to sleep, i.e., he can relax his vigilance, because he knows Yahweh will protect him even in battle surrounded by tens of thousands of enemies. Yahweh responds to the king’s call by actively engaging in combat, not only on his behalf but, because he is the king, for the sake of his people.

Reflection. The issue for us is also combat. But from our perspective in history the combat we face is for the transformation of humankind into a global family energized and committed to LIFE. This is true both for the individuals who use this prayer, as well as the community of LIFE’s global offspring to which the individuals belong and whose wellbeing they serve.

Those on the path to personal transformation are beset by “foes,” the great multitude of selfish urges, negative thoughts, cultural beliefs and cynical acquaintances that undermine our determination to become empowered, thoroughly compassionate, generous, just and loving human beings. We must contend with the fury of our emotional demons which, in defense of a false “self,” focus not only on our delusions of grandeur as well as defects, failures and impotence, but also on what appears to be the indifference of LIFE itself. You can’t trust LIFE to help you, they say, it just doesn’t care.

But we are in touch with our own LIFE at the interior depths where LIFE and our own life mesh and are one and the same thing, and we feel the undeniable presence of our own potential — the insuperable moral power that derives from that co-existence. It’s a voice we hear quite clearly. It is real. We are not alone in this combat. We are energized by LIFE itself and we know other people are as well. It changes our state of mind completely. We can stop worrying. LIFE is present; it is in command and can be trusted. We will win this struggle.

But the coherence of the global community of justice is also under assault from a multitude of “enemies:” nay­sayers and predators dedicated to exploiting every opportunity for their own advantage and to advance the narrow interests of their tribe with its claims to preeminence. LIFE’s power in the hands of its champion, the “king,” the servant of LIFE, redounds to the welfare of LIFE’s global community.

 

[Psalm 3]

1 O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me;

2 many are saying to me, “There is no help for you in God.”

3 But you, O LORD, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.

4 I cry aloud to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy hill.

5 I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me.

6 I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around

7 Rise up, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.

8 Deliverance belongs to the LORD; may your blessing be on your people!

 

 

 

Restatement

O my LIFE, my head is filled with negative thoughts. They tell me personal transformation for the service of others is a meaningless pursuit. LIFE doesn’t care.

But I don’t believe that! You are my source, LIFE, the ground of my identity, my dignity and my strength.

I called out to my LIFE, and it answered from the place deep within me where it lives. I heard it clearly. LIFE itself is there. I can stop worrying. I am in good hands. I am safe.

The ten thousand voices that tell me I’m just wasting my time are delusion.

 

Help me, LIFE, feel the strength in your arm. Drive those fears away once and for all.

I had a victory today, but I know it was really you, LIFE, that won it; may the strength we wield together serve your people.

 

 

PSALM 4

Background. An individual lament and a psalm of trust, similar to the previous psalm without the royal allusions. The context here seems to have been a forensic situation of some kind and the petitioner unjustly accused, perhaps of idolatry. “God of my right” means God knows of the rightness of his claims, and has seen him through similar accusations before (“gave him room”). His accusers are liars and are dragging his reputation through the dirt. But Yahweh protects those who keep his covenant therefore he knows that he will be vindicated.

The rest of the psalm seems to address others who may be in similar circumstances, are worried and may be tempted to turn to idols for help. But they should wait it out; don’t turn to idols, trust in Yahweh and offer sacrifices to him alone. They lack confidence; they want to see some sign of Yahweh’s support. The psalmist offers himself as a sign. He enjoys a peace of mind that’s like the feeling you have after a good harvest when your granaries are full and your wine barrels are overflowing. He can take off his armor and sleep peacefully for he knows Yahweh will keep him safe.

Reflection. From our perspective our “enemies” are essentially of our own making, either from our individual demons or from other human beings who disrespect and exploit the community. In either case calling on LIFE means calling on the energy that lays coiled at the confluence of LIFE and human life both for myself and for others. It is a sacred energy driven by justice and full of natural confidence in oneself and trust in the just instincts of others. This is the energy that the “enemies” would undermine. Their defeat, at either the individual or community level, coincides with a release of energy — a clarity of mind and a sense of confidence — that had been so suppressed earlier that its emergence almost seems like the work of some outside source. The resulting elation is something to sing about.

It is LIFE itself that is the source of this sacred power, our own LIFE, not the pseudo energizers like drugs, alcohol and other gross distractions, or the more refined substitutes that seem to enhance the ego and provide a limited and short-term peace of mind: adulation, exoneration, consolation, justification, explanation … yes even meditation. We can use virtually anything to take the place of activating our own potential for more LIFE. And the reason is that the true activation of LIFE, every time it occurs, reduces the hegemony of the false ego, replacing it little by little with another “self” identified with the totality, with LIFE; it is the false self-protec­tive and self-worshipping ego that thinks it is the authentic definer and authorized protector of the organism’s destiny and place among men. The power of LIFE reshapes the conatus into a new “self.”

[Psalm 4]

1 Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

2 How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?

3 But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.

4 When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.

6 There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!”

7 You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.

8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.

 

My LIFE, you know WE are falsely accused, we’ve been through this before. Help me again.

Respect yourself even if others don’t.   (“lies.” substitutes for the energy of LIFE.)

 

Our reality comes from LIFE. We belong to LIFE. Therefore we can trust LIFE to provide the energy we need to protect ourselves.

If negative thoughts persist, wait them out patiently.   They are delusions and will pass.

Trust LIFE. Don’t look for substitutes.

 

We want LIFE to perform a miracle. But it doesn’t work that way. LIFE is our LIFE. The miracle is our activation of our potential.

Once that sinks in, I feel a confidence and peace of mind like no other.

I feel safe because I know I can trust my LIFE.

 

PSALM 5

Background. Another lament and call for help. This time it seems to be the cry of someone who ministers in the Temple and whom others are trying to get rid of. He is asking Yahweh for help against his enemies so he can gain access to the Temple and worship Yahweh in awe. But it may also be a symbolic reference; true worship at the temple brings to mind the struggles of Samson. Yahweh’s help can be trusted by those who are in the thick of lifelong combat.

Reflection. If Roland Murphy’s background assessment of this psalm is accurate, the literal meaning limits its direct usefulness for us. Taking it metaphorically means we confine our understanding to generic terms — terms that are characterististic of all the psalms of lament and trust. Those whose lives are a constant struggle with the enemies of LIFE, whoever they are and whatever the battle they are waging, will find respite in realizing that they will win because the LIFE that is active in the struggle is theirs, and cannot be destroyed. The point is to make it one’s own.

This psalm quietly introduces an argument that is expressed more loudly in other psalms: that Yahweh needs and wants worship and praise. The hint that the psalmist wants access to the temple (in fact have his career restored) so that he can praise Yahweh, is apparently supposed to convince Yahweh that it’s in his (Yahweh’s), best interest to help him out. Other psalms that pray for healing sickness boldly remind Yahweh that if he lets the psalmist die, there will be one less human out there to praise him “because the dead do not offer sacrifice.”

Applying our customary understanding that LIFE is a shared possession between the source energy and the energized living organism suggests that this argument is meaningless. No such dynamic can exist because LIFE is not outside and other than us. We are not dealing with “an other person” who does things for us. What LIFE does is activate our own creative potential: the power to produce more LIFE.

But what generates the spontaneous instinct to be enraptured in awe and struck dumbfounded with gratitude is not miracles but precisely the existential confluence of LIFE with my life. I am alive with LIFE’s own living energy. I can palpably feel a divine potential bubble up instant by instant as my intelligent life emerges and is sustained uninterruptedly through the “nows” of flowing time by an energy source that resides within me, is me, but at the same time is also everything else. I know very clearly that I am not the source of the life I am living, because I cannot prevent it from disappearing nor give it back to myself once it is gone. Somehow, then, this LIFE that is me, is also not me, preceded me, is beyond me, shaped and sustains me, and will continue to energize other things and other people long after I’m dead and gone. The awe, praise and gratitude are not directed to an outside source of miracles, but rather to the interior source of the only miracle there is: that I am alive with LIFE and carry LIFE’s creative power around with me like the hammer of Thor.

[Psalm 5]

1 Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.

2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.

3 O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.

5 The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.

6 You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.

7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house,

I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.

8 Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies; make your way straight before me.

9 For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.

10 Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.

11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.

12 For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover them with favor as with a shield.

 

 

 

 

 

The psalmist presents his case to LIFE at the time of prayer — the morning — and waits quietly.

 

Somehow “wickedness” equates to boastfulness as well as lying and murder. These are all actions that disregard LIFE and are destructive of the human family.

 

 

The psalmist is overwhelmed with LIFE’s steadfast love, sustaining us as human beings. He is drawn to LIFE’s place of residence, in the deep interior of the human organism and its community, to sit awestruck in LIFE’s presence on display in humankind.

But in order to get there, he needs to overcome his enemies who are trying to stop him. They are the demons of the false self who lie and seduce and keep him from his intended purpose.

LIFE itself will unmask them as lies, delusions. They reject LIFE.

 

 

But those who embrace LIFE are embraced by LIFE and are safe under its protection.   Realizing LIFE is securely ours, we know we will be OK.

We can rest and bask in the presence and secure possession of LIFE.

 

[1] Brown et al eds., The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall, NJ, 1968, p. 526a (OT)

[2] St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Kindle Location 280). Kindle Edition.

 

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A commentary on the Psalms (continued)

3, 900 words

This is a continuation of the introductory reflections of October 2 which should be read first. This addendum concludes with a commentary on Psalm 1.

 

11.

Relationship to “God.” The dilemma for us here in the West is that our tradition has imagined “God” as a humanoid person. We are all formed in this tradition and our relationship to the Sacred seems cast in concrete. It is not easy to tinker with. Those who will not abide it often end up feeling they have to drop the Sacred altogether, so welded is it to our psyche.

Our prayer life, beginning in ancient times with the psalms, reflects this fact. It is quintessentially dialogic. It extends to an imaginary Providential “God” the childhood relationship we had to our parents. It is a wonderful scenario, really, that we should always have a loving parent watching over us, to whom we can turn when we are helpless, and whom we can trust, when things are going bad, that all has been foreseen and is being permitted out of benevolence for us. So even bad things become good because they are all willed by a vigilant “God.”

The only problem is, none of it is true.

We have to face the facts of our experience. There are no miracles. Providence, except in the most bare-bones Aristotelian sense of God providing the Natural Order, is a fantasy. There is no separate entity called “God.” Thomas Aquinas thought of “God” as the Pure Act of being that energized all existing things. Less philosophically, the author of John’s first letter used the world LIFE for the source of all things.

This choice agrees with experience: there is a palpable LIFE of which we are not the originators, which constitutes our own identity and is the basis of our activity in the world, which also enlivens every living thing and we suspect is latently present in all material energy at whatever level of evolutionary emergence. This LIFE has generated in all things an irrepressible desire and corresponding fury to survive. It drives evolution. From this undeniable perception there arises in human beings, individually and collectively, a sense of the Sacred. This pheno­menon has appeared in every age and in every place, and shows no signs of disappearing.

Starting with these bedrock data we have to develop an explanation that concurs with the facts, not only the physical but all the facts … including our irrepressible thirst for LIFE, our spontaneous rejection of injustice and our innate sense of the Sacred. If we examine religious traditions across the globe we discover that, while all acknowledge the desire for endless life, a sense of the sacred and the primacy of conscience, some are better at harmonizing with the bare physical facts than others. Those like Buddhism / Hinduism that imagine LIFE as stemming from a non-humanoid force, an energy that pervades and suffuses all things, are better at explaining why things are what they are and why occurrences happen as they actually do. On the other hand, those that project a rational humanoid personality as the Source and matrix of this vast universe, like the “religions of the Book,” have great difficulty explaining reality as it is experienced, observed and measured, without imputing a callous indifference or even sadistic malevolence to this supposedly divine “person.”

However, attributing some inchoate non-specific benevolence to this Source, in the sense of an overabundance of LIFE expanding only in one direction: toward more LIFE, seems to me quite appropriate in explaining the facts. It also concurs with our experience of other material life forms.  But is that enough to justify the imagery of a loving Father or Mother, or calling it “Love,” etc.? In the absence of any way of specifying what is “behind” this force (if indeed there is anything behind it), I think appropriate metaphors concatenated into poetry can form the basis of a legitimate attempt to relate to that force. But this relationship is unique. What do I mean?

We are quite capable of having relationships with non-human entities, generally animals fairly near to us in evolutionary development who share many of our cognitive abilities though we have traditionally denied that they are persons. We recognize them as conscious entities, and they do the same with regard to us. I am not suggesting that relationship to our Source is to be equated to relationship to animals, I am simply pointing out that we are not confined to relating to human beings, and we have no moral expectations from the animals even while we truly know they have individual “personalities.” We recognize their gregariousness with us, and we love them, and they us.

Now, the relationship to our Source, I contend, is real and literal, but it is not necessarily personal in a human sense. By thinking LIFE is literally a rational person like us, you cannot avoid attributing a willfulness to the physical events, like the Haitian earthquake, or the Nazi Holocaust, that contradict any claims for a benevolent divine providence. I believe this is one clear source of the religious disconnect that is characteristic of our times.

I think it is a legitimate practice to imagine LIFE poetically, as a person, so long as we don’t attribute a literal significance to it. It helps sustain attitudes of gratitude, awe and desire for union — more LIFE. It’s similar to the way people use the word demons to refer to their anti-social urges and paranoid feelings. In ancient times people actually believed evil spirits were the cause of such things. We can see why. Demon is a metaphor that aptly describes the subconscious and unintended nature of our negativity: it feels like it’s coming from some outside malevolent source. But of course, we know better.

Calling LIFE a person is analogous. But when trying to determine what is literally real, the facts take precedence over the metaphor. If we use the metaphor we have to be clear: we really do not know what LIFE is. Even Aquinas insisted: we know only that “God” is, we don’t know what “he” is. LIFE is not a person as we understand the word. It does not act like a person: it is not an independent entity as far as we can see; it is only visible as the life of living things; it does not project an identity: it is the source of the identity of everything that exists; it is not perceptibly conscious except in its emergent forms; it does not respond to communication except through the human persons it enlivens; it does not interfere with nature on our behalf nor does it help us when we call on it … except through the personal human agents which it constitutes. But, in itself, it is not either identifiable or definable. If it is a person, there is no way for us to know it for its behavior doesn’t correspond to any of our criteria for personhood. Our prayers are dialogic, but if we’re honest we have to acknowledge they are all one way, for “God” never answers, except in the non-specific general benevolence of abundant LIFE.

If “God” were a person like us, we would have to hold him accountable for having the power and refusing to help people in need, just as we would hold any other person accountable under similar circumstances. And if he were ever put on trial for permitting the Holocaust, just to mention the most egregious of his failures to act on our behalf, the barrier to believing in his “benevolence” would be declared insuperable, and he would be condemned.

Is this blasphemy? It’s blasphemy only for those who are like the pagans of old who accused Christians of blasphemy because they called Zeus a demon’s phantasm. They cling to imagery instead of clinging to LIFE … in which we live and move and have our being.

I don’t know what LIFE is in itself; I only know what I see it doing. And really, what it is in itself is none of my business. Ultimately it has no effect on the undeniable facts of my relationship to it: that I am not self-originating and that I am metaphysically dependent on my Source and matrix, LIFE, which I can see, proximately, is an energy that is directed exclusively toward more LIFE. I know it is at least that. Is it more than that? If it is, it cannot be anything that would contradict that. And whatever that “other thing” might be (if indeed there is some “other” thing), I really don’t need to know it.

*

But that still doesn’t resolve the issue. Material LIFE, the source of my own identity, my sense of the Sacred and the object of my undying gratitude, is still elusive. How do I relate to it?

I believe that using poetic metaphor is not only legitimate but, it seems to me, inevitable. Human consciousness as it has evolved on this planet is a survival tool that was shaped and sharpened in the struggle to identify food, foes and mates so that the human community — the vehicle of survival — could continue. Our forebears had to differentiate between the species and the individuals within those species that would help them survive and those that would not. Given the conditions under which intelligence was formed, it is extremely difficult to consider a relationship to our existential Source — or indeed, to our own negative feelings — without imagining these things in a way that reflects the evolved categories of human thought. We are familiar with it in literature as a device called “personification.”

But our relationship to matter’s living energy, the very building blocks that constitute my “self,” is not just an opaque and impenetrable mystery, leaving us with no alternative but our poetic personifications. There is a way to understand this relationship precisely as a relationship. And I contend, it is this unique relationship that provides the basis for our new way of praying the psalms. Let me explain.

We do not easily recognize the reality of compenetrated structures, i.e., structures that are the locus of two levels of reality simultaneously, as in the case we are dealing with here: material energy and its evolved forms — the components and the composite. So we tend to talk about either the components or the composite (because they are things), but not the co-existent unity. The problem is, that when we do that, we omit the very valence — the interactive connection — that gives both the components and the composite their specificity. For the composite is what it is because of the specific components that comprise it, and vice versa: the nature of the components cannot be ascertained and appreciated without including what specific thing they are capable of becoming.

We might be inclined to say that the composite is a co-valent reality, for its very composition is the integration of a multitude of components. But the co-existence dimension — the relationship between them — is muted if not entirely unnoticed because our brains are organized to see things, not relationships.

In the case we are dealing with here, LIFE is not a thing, an entity, even though we find it hard to think of it as anything else. The word LIFE, like the word “God,” is the placeholder for a relationship. And what I am saying is that it is the relationship that is the reality that makes me as a composite to be real. It is the composite that reveals the presence and character of the components. I am nothing without the matrix in which I live and move and have my being. And the matrix remains unknown until what it does becomes visible. Those are raw physical / metaphysical facts. These two elements, my components (matter’s energy) and the composite (me), are one and the same “thing” … together, and only together do they become a “thing.” I am physically / metaphysically myself only because of the active and “willing” presence of my Source and Sustainer — material LIFE — the living dynamism of material energy that now exists in my form. And the components — matter’s energy — appear to be meaningless mechanical particles until they display their potential in the emergent forms produced by their evolving self-elaboration, in this case “me.” That’s when I discover that matter’s energy is LIFE, as John meant it.

I am, simultaneously, both myself and my source.

What the psalms do is to make my feelings and my voluntary moral, political activity align with my physical / metaphysical reality by focusing on the relationship that makes me be-here and therefore determines the dynamism — the drive for more LIFE — that defines me. The psalms are an instrument of personal integration for they insist that I turn my attention to the generous living presence and creative moral pressures coming from the material components — LIFE — that make me what I am.

The “false self” created by the untethered runaway conatus is focused exclusively on itself as if it were an independent stand-alone entity — as if it had no components, no source, no dependency — as if LIFE were its own creation. The conatus is physically / metaphysically blind. The self, it thinks, is only itself, alone in the world, able to define itself as it chooses. It is not aware of its own co-existent inner structure, living a material LIFE that is not its own, that preceded the existence of its organism, and was passed on to it in its entirety by a chain of others going back before the emergence of humankind.

The organism, now, identified as the “self,” owns and autonomously deploys LIFE as if it were exclusively its own … as if the organism were self-originating. This misperception is the source of the falseness, and the existential insecurity experienced by the blind conatus. Knowing quite well how vulnerable and powerless it is, it thinks it is totally alone, and that terrifies it. It feels alienated from its own life and it is that fear of isolation and sense of emptiness that propels the paranoia and the craving to accumulate — things, power, fame, relationships — that lie at the root of the miseries we heap on one another. Convinced we are empty inside, we reach outside ourselves to fill the vacuum.

Security can only come from the re-education of the conatus, so that it knows clearly that its organism is composed of pre-existing elements that belong to a living totality that has always been here and cannot ever be destroyed. The conatus needs to be taught that this is what self-preservation really means: identifying itself with material LIFE, the energy of that totality resident in every organism and that will live on after our “self” disappears. The conatus needs to learn it is not alone.

That is the work of the psalms. Like the practice of mindfulness, they are a program of re-edu­ca­­tion for the conatus. They bring the co-existent presence of the components of the living organism into sharp focus not only by evoking an imagery that reminds us of the dependency that we routinely ignore, but also by aiming desire in the right direction — the direction of the moral implications of that co-exis­tence — more LIFE. To be the offspring of LIFE means I am innately structured to generate LIFE. The lifelong reproductive urges of my material organism are a sign and undeniable proof of that. By morality we mean behavior that is orientated toward more LIFE. The psalms are the poetic instruments of desire for more LIFE … they implore, beg, cajole, ask, and demand; they are action oriented … they desperately want something to happen to preserve and enhance LIFE — they are the whip and tether of the “re-educated” conatus. Even at their most contemplative they are restless, yearning, calling for a deeper and more intimate union with their Source and Sustainer, with matter’s energy, LIFE, that John said was the wellspring of all things.

 

 

HYMN TO MATTER

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

This hymn comes from an essay called “The Spiritual Power of Matter,” the third part of a collection of essays published posthumously as Hymn of the Universe in 1961.  It was written in 1919 after Teilhard’s service as a stretcher bearer in the French army during WWI.

‘Blessed be you, harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock: you who yield only to violence, you who force us to work if we would eat. ‘Blessed be you, perilous matter, violent sea, untamable passion: you who unless we fetter you will devour us.

‘Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth.

‘Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.

‘Blessed be you, impenetrable matter: you who, interposed between our minds and the world of essences, cause us to languish with the desire to pierce through the seamless veil of phenomena.

‘Blessed be you, mortal matter: you who one day will undergo the process of dissolution within us and will thereby take us forcibly into the very heart of that which exists.

‘Without you, without your onslaughts, without your uprootings of us, we should remain all our lives inert, stagnant, puerile, ignorant both of ourselves and of God. You who batter us and then dress our wounds, you who resist us and yield to us, you who wreck and build, you who shackle and liberate, the sap of our souls, the hand of God, the flesh of Christ: it is you, matter, that I bless.

‘I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim: not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you, debased, disfigured — a mass of brute forces and base appetites — but as you reveal yourself to me today, in your totality and your true nature.

‘You I acclaim as the inexhaustible potentiality for existence and transformation wherein the predestined substance germinates and grows.

‘I acclaim you as the universal power which brings together and unites, through which the multitudinous monads are bound together and in which they all converge on the way of the spirit.

‘I acclaim you as the melodious fountain of water whence spring the souls of men and as the limpid crystal whereof is fashioned the new Jerusalem.

‘I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.

‘Sometimes, thinking they are responding to your irresistible appeal, men will hurl themselves for love of you into the exterior abyss of selfish pleasure-seeking: they are deceived by a reflection or by an echo.

‘This I now understand.

‘If we are ever to reach you, matter, we must, having first established contact with the totality of all that lives and moves here below, come little by little to feel that the individual shapes of all we have laid hold on are melting away in our hands, until finally we are at grips with the single essence of all subsistencies and all unions.

‘If we are ever to possess you, having taken you rapturously in our arms, we must then go on to sublimate you through sorrow.

‘Your realm comprises those serene heights where saints think to avoid you — but where your flesh is so transparent and so agile as to be no longer distinguishable from spirit.

‘Raise me up then, matter, to those heights, through struggle and separation and death; raise me up until, at long last, purified, it becomes possible for me to embrace the universe.’

Jersey, October 8, 1919


THE PSALMS

 PSALM 1

Background: This psalm is not a prayer. It is called a “wisdom” psalm because it follows the patterns of the wisdom literature and offers advice and encouragement. It seems to have been appended to the corpus of the psalms after their collection on the return from Babylon, and perhaps as late as the Septuagint (third century BCE), as an introductory counsel and exhortation. Its later addition may have been a factor in the alternate numbering between the Septuagint and Hebrew Manuscripts.

It utilizes the usual parallelisms that characterize all Hebrew poetry. It focuses centrally on the law, the Torah, and establishes the paradigm that functions throughout the wisdom literature: the Torah translates into wisdom, and it is wisdom that will guarantee a long life, heath, security and happiness.

Clearly it was selected as introductory because of the simple stark choice that it offers. It sets the tone for all the psalms. Make a decision, it says. There are only two choices, life or death. Choose LIFE.

Reflection. Happiness is choosing LIFE, following the instructions of our conscience, the law embedded in our flesh that guides us.

But be careful. It’s not a dry quid pro quo business decision. Don’t be fooled. There is no reward for good behavior. When you choose LIFE, you get more than you bargained for. You will soon see that you have chosen your LIFE. It will become your delight, your fascination, your obsession. You will fall in love with it. You will think about it day and night … you will forget about other things.

It is your LIFE, and with it you and your people will grow and flourish. It becomes more LIFE.

It seems like a choice, but is it, really? What’s the alternative? Who would choose death? Who wants to be blown away with the wind and live isolated from people? That’s what’s at stake, nothing less.

What’s behind it all is the very Source of your own LIFE. That means it is your own LIFE — your real self with others — that hangs in the balance. It is yourself and your people you are choosing when you choose LIFE.

[Psalm 1] From the New RSV

1 Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers;

2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.

3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Notes

“Happy.” For the psalmist there is no afterlife, so as always, he is thinking of earthly happiness. Living by the “law,” the Torah, (similar to the Tao, the “way” of the universe), doesn’t earn happiness as a reward, rather it is happiness itself, because it is the way of justice and love.

“Prosperity” is the achievement of social harmony, justice, peace, mutual assistance — the source of all human security and joy, physical and psychological.

“the wicked” end up being destroyed, isolated, rejected by the community not because “God” punishes them, but because LIFE’s happiness — a human community of justice and love — is to be found following the instructions of the Torah. The wicked “scoff” at this to their peril.

 

 

Materialism and Mindfulness

Preliminary notes to a commentary on the psalms

13,000 words

This is the beginning of an open-ended work in progress. The first installment is long, but divided into sections of less than 2,000 words each. It will be followed at unspecified intervals by others on the same theme. The general intention is to examine the moment to moment working out of the relationship to the Sacred implicit in the premises of transcendent materialism.

In this case it will take the form of a commentary on the psalms, not because there is something superior about these ancient prayer-poems of the Judaeo-Christian tradition but simply because they were the ones in which most of us were formed. We are bound to them by age-old practice and their poetic content is not only grafted into our subconscious but has found its way into the culture as truisms no one disputes. They have formed the fundamental attitudes toward the Sacred for us and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

The psalms, however, evoke an obsolete view of the world. They assume a humanoid definition of God” and the erroneous relationship that definition implies. They also bear the scars of an earlier updating made by men like Augustine of Hippo whose Roman Imperial Christian Platonism functions like a voice-over, distracting us from what the psalmist was actually saying and preventing our own attempts at appropriation. That’s the reason for this exercise. If our vision of reality has expanded beyond those confines, our relationship to the Sacred must change accordingly. Hence the psalms, which, as traditionally understood could actually hold us captive to a mindset we no longer want to live with, become the strategic heights that must be conquered in a struggle for liberation.

Ironically, what’s at stake is the continuity of our tradition. For, recognizing the serious disconnect between the psalms and our view of the world, we tend to aban­don them altogether, consigning the entire genre to the museum of obsolete artefacts. As I hope to show, this would be great loss, for the psalms also throb with pre-Christian, pre-Platonic longings that concur remarkably with our materialist view of reality.

We will also find that the materialism of the psalms synchronizes with a religious universalism that so far has eluded us. Eliminating the spiritist presuppositions of the Platonic paradigm interwoven so authoritatively by Christians over the centuries opens the psalms to use by non-western traditions. I think especially of the forms of Buddhism that are currently flourishing in the West. Adjusted for the discoveries of science, the psalms unexpectedly function to confirm the relevance of paths that are not our own.

*       *       *

For me, personally, this is not an academic exercise — the dry exchange of one set of words and categories for another. It is my attempt to wrestle with Jacob’s angel, all night long if need be, until he surrenders. I want to first pray the same psalms that sustained my commitments when I was young, but as I now understand them and believe they must be prayed if they are to open the sacred dimensions of our material universe and planetary family.  

Traditions hold a certain sacredness for us not for being old but because we share a deep humanity with the people that forged them. These ancient prayers have borne the weight of millennia of people seeking LIFE. We cherish the psalms despite the atavism that we are obligated to challenge.

Finding words that accurately communicate the way one prays, however, is not a straightforward project. Prayer is often wordless, and trying to verbalize what is a silent stance, commitment, surrender, or regret, can easily mislead. But my responsibilities in this regard go only so far. You, the reader, will be misled only if you fail to check what I offer against your own experience. This is not a lesson. I am not a teacher. I am simply sharing my experience. The authority you have to follow is yourself.

This re-emphasizes the point that that these reflections are not now, nor have ever been, my private project. It is a collective endeavor. We are bound to one another at levels that go far deeper than the paper memberships invented by officialist orthodoxy. As our understanding of the world has grown, our expanded experience of the Sacred adds to our collective growth and evolution. It continues the process, already well underway, of making the whole world a human family grappled together by the steel hoops of justice and love. I hope you will make your experience part of this enterprise.


1.

I am quite conscious of the fact that using the word “materialism” anywhere in a presentation on religion, and especially in the title, is likely to turn away the very people  I am trying to reach with my message. But I am willing to run that risk because I am confident that my point of view will ultimately prevail. Materialism is the truth, and the truth is more than important; it is the very quint­es­sence of the sacred. My position is very simple: everything is made of matter; there is nothing that is not made of matter; matter is all there is. “God,” the wellspring responsible for the existence of all things and the innate source of our sense of the sacred is a material force that enlivens matter as matter. This “God” is equally near to all, and is that in which we live and move and have our being.

Matter is sacred. Any religion claiming to be true has to embrace the reality of our material universe. The fact that there are phenomena that transcend the obsolete reductionist definition of matter imposed on it by Platonic-Cartesian dualist prejudice does not affect the thesis in the least: all those phenomena without losing anything of their transcendent character, are the products of matter, nothing else. Matter is simply capable of more than we were led to believe.

The reason for the traditional recoil against matter is also very simple. Historically, here in the West, religious people have come to equate the sacred with what is called “spirit.” Of course that word means different things to different people. But what they all have in common is the belief that there is another world, another level of reality where our lives and destinies as human beings really belong. By prioritizing this other place, ironically as physically distinct from this material world, belief in spirit questions the full reality of our universe. Fundamentally, it is an escape. It imagines an alternative universe that is not controlled by the mechanical causes and effects that rule the material world where we eke out our daily survival often with great difficulty.

Material forces and their outcomes are determined — that means they are locked in place. With matter there is no room for variation. If the myriad of links that connect your ignition key to the running of your car’s engine are properly in place, when you turn the key your car has to start. There is nothing magical or supernatural about it. No “God” can prevent the car from starting and correlatively, if they are not in place, no amount of prayer and fasting will ever induce it to start.

Many people have recourse to religion precisely because they do not like that. They feel they need to have another avenue to travel on, one that is not determined by material reality which is the cause of so much suffering. Life is hard, but I am not speaking of social problems — the miseries that we heap on one another — I am simply speaking of the fact that material reality is impervious to our desires. It eludes our control. We have to bend ourselves to its demands; matter does not accommodate us. We are not particularly happy with this world the way it is.

For many, religious belief in spirit offers a way out. It is focused on miracles — past, present and future. Miracles are physical events that bypass the laws of nature. And this bypass is possible because spirit is believed to be a force that is independent of and more powerful than matter.

They imagine spirit as “something” that is not bound by the laws of nature, and in fact, they think it can dominate and control matter, compelling it to conform to what spirit imposes on it. Spirit in this sense represents material power and that includes the ability to neutralize matter’s destructive potential. The irony here should not be overlooked: spirit is imagined to work physically on matter; it is thought of as a material force and therefore, by implication, something of a material “substance.” It’s a further indication of its origins in fantasy.

The ultimate source of this force is an invisible person called “God” who is conceived as pure spirit who, inexplicably, created matter and has infinite power over it. The entire significance of “God” for many people is that “he” is not constrained by matter as we are and can make matter do whatever “he” wants. So they feel that if only they can establish a connection with this all powerful material force, they can compel it, or cajole it, or manipulate it or in some other way harness it to do what they really want: submit matter to our will and whim — perform miracles.

The ability to perform miracles — to coerce matter — they call “power.” And this “God” is therefore all-powerful. “Power” means the ability to negate matter’s effects — implicitly by the application of a violent force. The fact that there is no evidence that this actually ever happens in response to any human communication does not seem to deflect spirit’s true believers from their convictions.

The greatest miracle of all, of course, would be to neutralize matter’s tendency to shift shape. Fragmented as it is, units of matter come together and then drift apart assuming one temporary form after another, always changing. This impermanence impacts us adversely because in our case our bodies are one of these temporary forms, and when their components dissolve and re-combine in another form we die. Hence our enthusiasm for the story we tell ourselves that under the veneer of the body we are actually spirits — immortal “souls” — that after the body disintegrates live on forever. Also “God” the pure spirit of infinite power is believed capable of reversing the disintegration of our bodies and bringing them back to life again after we die to live on as bodies in another world where supposedly only spirits reside.

So we cling to our belief in spirit. Notice that all the reasons have to do with dissatisfaction with our material world and ourselves as material organisms living immersed in and dependent upon matter for our own survival. We believe in spirit because we want to control and in some cases avoid or obliterate matter’s natural behavior. We are material organisms, despite our claim that we are something else, and our fixation on spirit is explained as a fantasy that provides an imaginary cure for the negative consequences of matter, principally its impermanence that means death for us. We are not interested in spirit in itself, it is actually quite foreign to our experience; it is conjured as a material weapon in our struggle to survive in a material world. Our interest all along has been in harnessing matter, and the elimination of death.

Notice that in the history of religion in the West, so-called “spiritual” realities were described as if they were material, i.e., as if spirit were a substance. Spirit was conceived as if it were simply a different kind of matter, a “thing” or “force” that was equally as determined in its func­tioning and results as matter, differing only in the plane or dimension of reality from which its operations originated. So, for example, “grace,” a spiritual force, was conceived by Christian theologians as if it were some kind of infusion like a magic potion or an energy which made miraculous things happen: it changed people’s minds, or more grossly, it was thought to actually rearrange the sequence of events, natural or man-made, like thunderstorms or baseball games, to effectuate certain outcomes “willed by God” usually because some people had asked for it and had been able to meet the requirements for securing “God’s” favor.

2.

All this stands in stark contrast with reality. And the religion that I propose embraces the material reality of our universe and ourselves as part of it, enthusiastically and without reservation. There is no other world … there are no miracles … and a “God” of power who coerces matter does not exist. That is not a belief or a theory, it is a fact.

The world, exactly as it is, is sacred. The material world is not an illusion that will disappear with death or an imagined Armageddon. It is not a curtain behind which real reality lies hidden. What you see out there is what is really there.

The spirituality I advance is derivative of this understanding and moves between two foci: (1) the individual material organism … and (2) the material environment in which this individual emerges including matter’s energy, the ground and matrix of all things. The sacred is engaged in this context and no other. There is no other world and no other existence, and therefore the sacred bears no reference to anything else.

This differs radically from the former spiritist-dualist conception of the sacred which imagined the human individual to be an immortal soul destined to live eternally without the body. In that discredited worldview the relationship also moved between two foci: (1) the individual soul whose eternal destiny was determined by its ethical behavior while in the body … and (2) an imagined world of spirits where it was believed the soul would spend eternity in relationship with its unknown destined community. In this view, one’s earthly community was irrelevant to one’s eternal destiny. No matter how deeply loved, unless these others as individuals lived in such a way as to earn membership in the community of reward after death, there was no way to expect that relationship to them here would continue later. Each “soul” was on its own. A saintly mother, effectively, had to learn to disown a sinful son or daughter because her primary relationship was to “God” and whatever future community would end up sharing eternity with her. This view of things fostered an individualism born of distrust of others. It tended to undermine local family and clan connections and encourage dependency on the overall moral authority.

God is the energy of matter

It has been traditional in the West, with some notable exceptions, to claim that “God,” which Paul identified as that “in which we live and move and have our being,” could not possibly be material based on the prejudicial denigration of matter’s characteristics. Aquinas’ argument that “God” is simple (a feature derived from the assumption that “God” is spirit) and could not enter into composition with anything other than himself without losing his simplicity, like all arguments for the existence of spirit, assumes what it claims to prove. The underlying problem is the universal assumption of the existence of spirit as a substance existing in a parallel world and yet fully operative in the world of matter, a phenomenon that is not explained.

This evokes another objection: how can a “God” that is pure spirit and diametrically opposed to matter, even have created matter? Specifically how can a mind that is supposedly not matter even have imagined such a thing — its complete antithesis? Where would it go for the paradigm? Even Gregory of Nyssa recognized the anomaly here and acknowledged that he had no answer for it.

Some theologians, like Meister Eckhart, argued that spirit is uncomposed and that “God,” as infinite pure spirit, in order to create a finite imitation of infinity conceived of the present moment in the flow of time as the finite counterpart of the “eternal now,” and created matter as a foundational solid that would sustain time’s sequential fragmentation.  Eckhart was a Thomist pan-entheist and his theories, expressed in spiritist dualist terms, dovetail in practice with the spirituality inherent in transcendent materialism.  I have no problem with Eckhart’s mysticism, what I disagree with are the physical /metaphysical assumptions that he uses to explain them. That his spiritist participation in God’s act of ESSE parallels our materialist co-possession of God’s material energy underscores the similarity of the experience. The experience is the same, how you explain it is what is different.

All arguments assume the existence and characteristics of a substance called spirit — something for which modern science can find no evidence whatsoever. To the contrary, when science proceeds on the premise that there is nothing but matter driven by its own internal energies, it is able to explain all the forms and features of our universe including the near infinite number of living things on earth.

Even human consciousness, traditionally adduced as proof of the independent existence of spirit, is now seen to be a product of the material configuration of the human organism. The activities of mind are clearly known to be completely dependent upon the human body for their existence and character. If the relevant components of the human body are damaged or destroyed, the corresponding mental operations cease or are altered beyond recognition. Diseases like Alzheimer’s that are known to physically damage the brain entail the extreme loss of cognitive function. The dementia that often accompanies old age in which the human individual no longer recognizes close friends and family, and possibly even his or her own identity, is clearly body-dependent. Mind, in other words, is a product of matter, not the other way around as we traditionally believed.

But matter has its own internal energy, and when that is included in the analysis, it becomes clear that the dynamism of matter has been responsible for the evolutionary elaboration of new forms of material organisms and even new levels of function. Complex molecules at a particular moment in geologic history began to display the characteristics of life — identity, self-preservation, nutrition, reproduction — where no such phenomena had previously existed. Later the emergence of human consciousness followed the same pattern, appearing where no self-reflec­tive perception had existed before. The ability to constantly transcend itself — go beyond its current forms and unveil capacities no one would have ever guessed were there — is the creative power of the energy innate in matter. Matter’s energy is transcendent. It goes beyond the platforms from which it launches new forms. It creates as if out of nothing. Hence I speak of transcendent materialism — matter with a creative dynamism. Evolutionary emergence actually happened. New things appeared as if “out of nothing.” These are facts, not beliefs or theories.

So we are slowly becoming aware that the universe is entirely different from what we supposed it was. And that means, of course, that the “God” responsible for it all, while maintaining the same essential relationship of loving-source, ground, model and creator as ever in our tradition, turns out to be entirely different from what we were led to believe.

“God,” whatever else that may mean, is the living energy of matter. And, since the energy of matter is first of all an energy to-be-here, “God” in our material universe also retains the traditional definition as esse in se subsistens — the act of existing itself. The fact that “God” is the existential energy that characterizes every particle and sub-particle of matter, is particularly consistent with and highly explanatory of how all things share, by participation, in the very existence that is proper to “God” alone. Once it is understood that what we share with “God” is not some concept — like the abstract “act of existence,” or “life” considered as a separate vital force injected into matter — but our very material substances, participation in being opens up for everyone a broad rich landscape that was heretofore the private meditation garden of a few philosophers and theologically trained religious.

A “God” who is the existential energy of matter redefines the concept of “power.” Power for this “God” is the ability, and we might even say, the proclivity to produce LIFE and more LIFE. Power is potentia — potential — not potes­tas, or imperium, the imposition of control. The goal, then, of human relationship to the Sacred will be to align one’s own potential with “God’s,” to become “powerful” in the transmission and enhancement of LIFE. And the “spirituality” of those pursuing that relationship — the bodily transformations that accomplish that alignment — will be directed to the conscious embrace of our potential as “God’s” potential … achieved incrementally in each succeeding present moment until the two become identical and the human organism is the perfect expression of matter’s sacred energy.

What was abstract becomes concrete and our unity with “God” is revealed as more intimate and organic than ever imagined. “God” is not a distant Spirit who voluntarily chooses to “draw near” to some human soul mysteriously elected for mystical experience. “God” is by nature near to all of us, as Paul insisted, because in “him” our bodies live and move and have their very being. “He” is the living matter of which we are constructed. Suddenly the esoteric texts of Johannes Eckhart and John of the Cross cease being the opaque expressions of ascetical virtuosi speaking from ethereal regions beyond this world. It now becomes clear that they were speaking of ordinary reality as we now know it, a reality the science of their times did not recognize but that they discerned through the faithful reading of their own inner experience. They experienced what they did because that’s the nature of this one real world. They were able to break through the obfuscations created by ancient Platonic dualist expressions by allowing the intimate touch of reality to inform their understanding and not the other way around. They were uniquely sensitive men who trusted what they felt rather than what they were told. They palpably experienced how intimately they and “God” were one. Unfortunately they had no other way to communicate it except through the convoluted dualist categories of mediaeval theology, which we have to decipher in the new terms provided by the science of our times.

The science of our times has quietly, over the course of 500 years, led us to see that organic LIFE is the core of reality, and we know LIFE because our bodies are alive with the same organic LIFE. The Platonic detour that took us in circles is no longer in force. We are not constrained by those categories. We see clearly what we are. And we know that what we are is what “God,” our living substrate, has to be: the material energy to be-hereesse.

What Eckhart had to go to the mountaintop to find, we can see every day on our way to work and back: we are alive with “God’s” LIFE because we are material organisms — bodies; we are made of “God’s” material energy. All it takes to be in touch with it, is noticing.

3.

Being-here is time related. Existence erupts in a seamless sequence of instantaneously vanishing “nows” that come out of nowhere and slip almost immediately into a past that is no longer here. If it’s important to notice anything, we must notice what is-here now. The past is not here anymore. The future is not here yet. Hence if we want to relate to the existential energy — the esse — we call “God,” we have to do it in the present moment. For a conscious organism, being present to the present moment means noticing.

Noticing is everything, but we spend most of our time distracted. We very often don’t attend to what passes through our minds. That means the feelings that our thoughts and images give rise to are generally beyond our oversight and control. It’s as if someone or something else is injecting them and causing the actions they inevitably suggest. Our minds are racing through the images of a changing stream of consciousness whose headwaters are so far back in memory that were they to be identified it would be difficult to trace the connections between the two. Distraction at a minimum robs us of efficiency and focus. But that wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also mean so much suffering for ourselves and others. Because when we’re distracted the conatus takes over — our organic auto-pilot whose job is self-preser­vation — and begins scanning the horizon for any and all possible threats to the “self” which, in order for the conatus to do its job, must see itself as poor, vulnerable, defenseless and afraid. It spies enemies actual and potential everywhere. The default mode it runs in is paranoia. It would seem a conatus that perceived itself any other way could hardly qualify for the role. But, more rarely, some people do believe themselves to be superior and invulnerable. And when that happens, unfortunately, things are often even worse. It drives the ruthless pursuit of ego-enhancement at the expense of everything and everyone else.

The role of the family and neighborhood in the childhood formation of an individual’s ideas, attitudes and values provides much of the content that feeds the conatus’ voracious appetite. Invariably enemies are identified, criteria for judgment about others’ intentions are established, defensive or retaliatory rejoinders are suggested and often the very reactions of the offended victim, if perceived as inadequate, are subjected to humiliating condemnation by the survival community. The example of parents and older siblings in their response to life-situations are absorbed and internalized. What one is to cherish and how one is to respond to virtually every eventuality in life is pre-programmed by the local culture and becomes as intimately and unconsciously part of the individual’s mindset as language and preference in food, music and    mates. How one is to proceed in the accumulation of wealth and the choice of one’s work in life are also part of cultural formation, sometimes exercising a lifelong influence that can be both blinding and enslaving. Religion and the feelings of guilt or approval it generates for certain behavior are also in this category. By the time the individual moral consciousness is awake enough to even question behavior and motivation and imagine alternatives, habits of thought, attitude and action have already been ingrained and exercise a determinative control over the “self” protected by the conatus. One discovers a fully fleshed out “self” has been formed in the absence of any authentic input by conscious intention.

So our organic instincts, in the absence of an active self-awareness, can take our minds hostage churning out images derived from various authorities that militate against the trust that sustains harmony among us. Unless challenged these feelings will convict others (and even ourselves) of having betrayed and humiliated the “self” that the conatus feels obligated to protect. Self-aggrandizement, defensiveness and retaliation are its stock-in-trade, often aided and abetted by the culture.

Some people are able to check these negative feelings quite naturally. Perhaps having been fortunate enough to have secure and positive parents and family, they catch themselves thinking thoughts that are selfish, unreal, mean or paranoid, and refuse to give them purchase. Some grow up with such a sense of their own attractiveness, talent and rational competence that they cannot imagine anyone having a negative thought about them. Definitely lucky people. Others grow into self-confidence as they mature, establishing successful relationships with family, friends and work and faithfully carrying responsibilities for others. Dark brooding feelings also occur to them, but they are able to dismiss them and over time, like the first group, cease to find them even minimally credible.

Still others are not so lucky. The ordinary circumstances of their lives have not provided a resistance to the negativity that poisons peace of mind and undermines healthy and satisfying relationships. Those who, for whatever reason, have to struggle to stay afloat in a sea of negativity, must find artificial devices to help them avoid sliding into reactions and addictions that offer a temporary respite for the pain that their uncontrolled feelings generate. Of course I am speaking in extremes. The reality for most people is somewhere in between.

But there’s enough negativity generated by the culture or by the distracted defensiveness of a runaway conatus that almost everyone would benefit from some mechanism, or exercise, or practice that will help them identify and control the flow of imagery through their minds and the intense feelings they spawn. The blind-sided conatus that comes embedded in our material organisms can be harnessed to energize a different self, aware of its secure identity as matter’s sacred energy, liberated from cultural preferences and prejudices that undermine healthy relationships and determined to become compassionate and generous toward all things. But it requires noticing.

4.

Buddhist spiritual practitioners have addressed this distractedness and have identified it as one of the principal sources of the unsatisfactoriness that seems to dominate human life even when the more painful forms of anguish and suffering — which unfortunately also abound — are not present. Their response to the problem is what they call “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is the fruit of meditative practices that promote attention to the present moment: noticing. Since so much random daydreaming has to do with what happened in the past or what may or may not happen in the future, focus on the present moment is bound to find itself in short order face to face with a runaway mind dwelling obsessively anywhere but the present. Becoming aware of the default negativity of the conatus is the beginning of wisdom. Incrementally re-establishing conscious awareness and control of the conatus-driven mind is the path to personal transformation.

Even when negative thoughts are so intense that the conscious mind cannot stop them, the practitioners of mindfulness claim that the very act of observing them consciously and identifying them as both uncontrolled and unintended, immediately creates a distance that saps them of intensity. Over time, without the nourishment of ownership actual or assumed, mindfulness can weaken them to the point of elimination.

The conatus is a biological instinct that mines the existential energy of all the matter of the body and places it at the service of the living composite — the self. The conatus is not itself conscious but functions for an organism whose identity includes the imagining mind. In the absence of conscious self-awareness and control, the conatus generates the appearance of a self by producing feelings connected with mental imagery generated by fear and self-protection. It’s the job of the conatus to aggrandize the organism and to identify threats to its growth and success. When that instinct is allowed to function on its own without conscious control, consciousness at some point will awake to find its conatus-driven mind awash with a series of thoughts, feelings and reactions already in place which have projected a posture toward the outside world. The now-attentive consciousness evaluates what it sees going on, and finds itself pre-defined. It sees itself as others see it, based on the evidence of attitude and behavior. The difficulty it encounters changing things due to the strength of the habits formed further confirms the assessment. The uncontrolled ruminations of a distracted conatus have constructed a false self-comprised almost entirely of self-defensive negativity and self-aggrandizing illusion possibly reinforced by cultural beliefs some of which may bear the weight of sacred tradition. Getting control of this situation is not easy, especially because it is not immediately apparent that getting control is even possible.

5.

But the “self” formed by unconscious habits is not the last word. The very ability to observe one’s own behavior as if from the outside, and then assert that one’s intentions are different from what the established “self” is feeling and doing, indicates that there is a source of identity that transcends the sub-conscious mind habituated to negative thinking. That source of present-moment identity can be called the “true self,” or the transcendent self for it transcends its own habituation. The choices it makes represent the posture of the fully aware conscious organism, no longer distracted, but mindful of itself and its surroundings and increasingly attentive to the present moment as the fruit of its meditative practice.

This is the point when we come face to face with the mystery of our existence as human beings. For the ability to stand back and look at oneself feeling and acting seems to draw on a source of conscious identity that transcends the organism’s unconscious mental operations. If such a source of identity did not exist the work of the unconscious conatus would be entirely opaque: the mind would not be able to see past it; the only thing perceptible would be what the runaway conatus was presenting for consumption. Where does this other identity come from?

Some claim that there is an Absolute Self that exists underneath or alongside the relative self of our routine mindlessness. Each human individual, they say, is potentially energized by either self and chooses which of those selves they will activate to let dominate their attitudes and behavior — in effect that there are two selves that we have recourse to as we choose. I can understand how observation of distracted human behavior and the awareness of human potential might lead someone to say that. But I believe on metaphysical grounds that the human organism is only one thing and it is driven by only one conatus. And it is one and the same mind that either notices or doesn’t notice.

The ability of the mind to double back on itself and look at itself doing what it does as a mind is a feature of our reality that we have traditionally ascribed to “spirit.” But I say there is no separate spirit. What we are looking at is the ability of matter as configured in the neurological components of the human organism to focus or not focus on the content of its consciousness, to be mindful or to be forgetful, to attend to the present moment or let itself drift distractedly into imagery from the past or projected into the future or provided whole cloth by the local culture. The energy is the same whether distracted or attentive. The conatus is the same whether it is mindlessly pursuing self-aggrandizement, accusing others of hostility and betrayal, dwelling on prejudicial tribe-generated judgments or intentionally being activated by a mindful consciousness to generate conscientious alternatives to rancor and conflict.

The conatus is perfectly capable of being “tethered” and made to see that self-preser­va­tion is located in heeding the dictates of conscience and intentionally focusing its energies on the development of a self that becomes thoroughly compassionate and generous. There is nothing mutually exclusive here. I’m talking about engaging the enormous self-directed energies of the conatus sese conservandi — the body’s drive to survive — in the transformation of the self. We are each only one thing, ourselves, and the material energy that drives us is ours to direct and apply. The issue is to regain control of it, slowly and incrementally over a long time if necessary, and point it where we will. It’s not a question of eliminating it; it can’t be done anyway and the attempt would leave us dehumanized. That was the mistake of the Platonic delusion. It thought the self-directed urges of the body were depraved and needed to be obliterated. That was wrong. The solution is to teach the body’s conatus what “self-preserva­tion” really means.

6.

Synteresis (sometimes spelled synderesis) was a word the Greeks used to refer to the immediate and spontaneous natural grasp of right and wrong. They thought of it as an innate habit, the moral counterpart of the principle of contradiction. It’s not at first a conscientious judgment about moral action; it is prior to conscience. It is the inborn knowledge of the first moral principles. You don’t have to develop this habit. It comes with the human organism. The human individual cannot not know that there is right and wrong. The sense of justice is built into the organism because it comes with intelligence.

Synteresis was considered a sub-routine of the mental grasp of identity, hence injustice is its first wake-up call. Injustice offends the principle of contradiction — the principle of identity — that each is only oneself, has a right to be oneself, is owned only by oneself, and therefore owns what one needs to survive and remain oneself. The Greeks attributed it to the Platonic belief that the “soul” was spiritual and made in the image of a spiritual “God” who was defined as subsistent Goodness: one of the three principal derivatives of Being (unity, truth and goodness). “Goodness” as the moral corollary of unity and truth — the right desire to remain oneself — correlates to “justice.” It is first apprehended in the jarring unease felt at its violation, hence injustice is its most basic perceptible form.

Inevitably, due to its Platonic origins, synteresis was classified under the general category of “the domination of the flesh by the spirit,” since sensuality was believed to be an exclusively bodily feature inclined toward evil, and synteresis its spiritual antithesis rooted in the intellect (mind or spirit). In our material universe, however, we know that the phenomenon of the immediate sense of right and wrong, which virtually no one disputes as a phenomenon, is not to be attributed to a “soul,” an ethereal substance whose reality belongs to another world, but rather to the human organism made of matter always consciously in touch with material identity — the innate realization that each thing is only and always itself. Synteresis, like intelligence itself of which it is an expression, is a function of matter and is for the human observer a primary datum in the search for the nature and character of the material substrate — matter’s energy — from which all things are constructed. Synteresis, in other words, our embedded inclination to recoil at injustice, is a derivative of matter’s existential energy every bit as much as the conatus. It’s a primary source for our knowledge of what matter’s energy is.

It seems that there must be some intrinsic connection between conatus and synteresis. They are both the direct, non-mediated expressions of the same thing: the foundational substrate of our universe of matter. In practical, psychological terms it means that the revulsion at injustice and the drive for self-preservation must essentially be the same thing.

This seems paradoxical, because the inclination to moral rectitude characteristic of synteresis has generally been interpreted as a selfless dynamic, while the characterization of the conatus has generally been that it is mindlessly focused on selfish goals. But this is where our analysis of the role of mindfulness in the confirmation of the conatus’ malleability — its radical openness to be directed to what exactly constitutes “self-preservation” — dovetails with what we know of physical / metaphysical reality. It is a clear example of the unity of identity of the human organism. We are only one thing. We are not two selves, a relative self and Absolute Self vying for attention and control, nor are we a soul and a body, each contending for domination of the individual in a zero-sum war that will mean the extermination of the loser. We are always and only one same identical conscious material organism capable at all times of consciously and intentionally directing or not directing the spontaneous energies that come from our material infrastructure. The only thing that would render us incapable of such action would be a serious impairment of the material organism stemming from physical or hormonal damage or when something mind-altering like drugs or alcohol interferes with the body’s normal operation. Moral capability depends on the integrity of the physical organism.

This is also an important datum in our understanding of our source, matter’s energy. Physically and metaphysically speaking, we are what our source is. That means we are not different from “God,” the LIFE of matter. We are one and the same living “stuff.” The synteresis — the fundamental moral inclination that we are born with — every bit as much as the conatus itself, is the primary expression of the energy of LIFE. And the intuitive sense that the conatus’ drive for self-preser­va­tion is to be identified with the synteresis’ abhorrence at injustice now is seen to have a physical / metaphysical foundation. Matter is “God”-stuff … and the “stuff” that we are talking about is us, for we are made of it.   We are all and only matter. We and “God” are comprised of the same genetic material. That’s how we were “created:” we are “God’s” own existential material energy evolved.

All of the dualities that have kept us fragmented and self-imploding are now seen to be illusions. We no longer imagine that “God” is different from us or that we have to somehow travel some great distance to find “him,” or overcome some great obstacle to make contact. We do not have to buy our way into “God’s” favor in order to escape from the consequences of a body we drag around like prisoners in chains. We are not eternally at war with ourselves trying to have an imaginary soul deal a death blow to a body whose very vitality is a sign of moral depravity. And when we fail in our efforts to control the conatus we can start again because the “God” we have insulted and betrayed is not other than ourselves.

There is no need to climb some moral mountain or spend a lifetime in exploring the tunnels and caverns of our subconscious. Our task proceeds mundanely on a daily basis — on our way to work and back, as it were — to remember who and what we are. The practice of mindfulness is to return to the present moment as “God” stuff and insure that “the words of our mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, are acceptable in the sight of ‘God,’ our synteresis-illuminated conscience.”

We do not hesitate to identify ourselves with “God” because the “God “ of the “pantheism” that traditionally frightened us was defined by the discredited idea of a “God” with an anthropomorphic definition of “power.” We know we are not omnipotent, but we also know now that “God” is not omnipotent in that old discarded sense either. We have a different idea of what “power” means. “God’s” “power” is not manifest as control of matter but as its very LIFE. “Power” was our category, a display of coercive force, it did not define “God’s” power which is exhausted in the potential for generating LIFE.

“God’s” power is the potential to propagate LIFE, absolutely nothing else. The ability to destroy, stifle and control is what we humans mean by power. It is, in “God’s” terms, impossible. “God” cannot do that, for “God” is always and only creative LIFE. There are no miracles because “God” cannot suspend the laws of nature. “God” is nature. To suspend its laws would mean nullifying himself. The principle of identity rules. “God” cannot be anything but “God.” There is only one miracle: the invincible potential for LIFE that emerges at each present moment — each “now” — of matter’s existence in whatever forms it has, up to the moment, evolved..

And so we identify ourselves with “God” and unapologetically pursue allowing “God’s” LIFE to take over and completely supplant the false power-hungry “self” that our unbridled and undirected mindless conatus has been allowed to conjure into existence, like a blind sculptor. The result of its unconscious efforts, no matter how grotesque, in the case of human beings is not set in stone. Habits grooved into living flesh are open to change. They can be transformed through the power of mindfulness: welding synteresis to the conatus.

7.

Prayer. The pre-existing energy of the matter of our organisms — present since the moment of the “big bang” — congeals into the conatus-synteresis that is the foundation of our individual identity. It compels us to find “God” at the intimate center-point, the shared ground at the “intersection of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, … .” which “like a two edged sword, living and active, discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It is the “place” where the existential energy of our source becomes our very own, bound over in service to our identity. The conatus-synteresis is the organism’s drive to survive as human — its thirst for life and its revulsion at injustice.

If we intend to relate to this “God,” therefore, this is the “place” we will find him, with a face and features indistinguishable from our own. And that, for us, erstwhile spiritists learning to pray all over again in a material universe, is the consummate challenge. For our tradition has not taught us to think of “God” as our matrix and therefore of ourselves and “God” as a compenetrated entity. To the contrary it has imagined “God” to be distant and inaccessible, “out there,” “other” than we are, separate and distinct, an individual person, Pure Spirit, who acts ad extram outside himself on matter and who requires a moral response to his revealed commands as the condition for contact. The fact that a theologian as officially acceptable as Thomas Aquinas insisted in the thirteenth century that “God” does not work ad extram but rather accomplishes everything — from creation to redemption — internally, as a participation in the trinitarian processions themselves, has not put a dent in the anthropomorphic imagery universally held by the Christian tradition. Thomas’ immanentist theology, even if understood, was never applied. The ancient humanoid imagery stemming from the Hebrew Scriptures remains perennially unchallenged by the pastoral exhortations and catechetical education of the Christian clergy.

It’s only when we do away with the erroneous duality of matter and spirit that we can finally demolish the separation-illusion we have erected between us and our creator which was based on the alienating effect of our human bodies. “God” was thought to be pure spirit and that’s what drove the irretrievable wedge between us. Only now, knowing that we are the very “stuff” that our creator is made of can we fully embrace and be morally enlivened by the divine immanence that theologians spoke of but the ecclesiastical authorities never found conducive to their program of social control. The hierarchy needed “God” to be distant; how else could they justify their ministrations, guaranteed to bring a metaphysically distant “God” near, always with the hope that he will perform miracles for paying clients.

But “God” is already nearer to us than we are to ourselves. The LIFE that we share with “God” is only one LIFE, “God’s” LIFE — matter’s energy. That is the miracle — the energy of LIFE — the only miracle. There are no others.

If we are to re-imagine “God” as “God” really is, then, we have look at what “God” is actually doing: activating our existence in the present moment, enlivening the matter of our bodies, specifically that energy within us that reaches out for more existence and is outraged at injustice. If we are to touch “God,” our attention has to focus on the present moment when we know that our material existence is newly arising in time as pure fresh water from a mountain spring as yet uncompromised by the pollutants that enter downstream. It is the “still point of the turning world,” and our true self newly armed with the conatussynteresis emerges with it at every instant. This is a constantly renewed potential that is born of the non-contradiction — the truth — to which we are welded in steel by our diaphanous minds. That intelligence as yet uncontaminated is not selfish in the least, is fully liberated — we might even say “all-powerful” — and in no way beholden to the “knee-jerk” false self that it sits quietly observing. That doesn’t mean that it is immediately capable of seeing details clearly, much less taking charge of the organism, which unfortunately may be held captive by the illusions of a mindless conatus now hardened by years of habit into a caricature of itself. The true self displays its authenticity, first, in its inability to not see things for what they really are. This is the terrible “judge of the living and the dead” that we dread: our implacable conscience. It knows what we do and why we do it. It fears no shame. But it has no power to coerce; it invites us to surrender to its unlimited potential rooted in the infinite ground of esse — matter’s existential energy itself emer­ging afresh in every moment.

It reminds us wordlessly what frauds we have been and are still capable of being, but whose unsullied re-emergence with conscious intelligent existence at each moment invites us to identify with this true self, the true residence of the organismic energy of the conatus-synteresis, forget the fraudulence of the past false distracted selfish self, and embark now as if it were the beginning of time in the limitless embrace of its Source arising to the surface. This is the “creator” and “savior” on whose existence we ride “as if on eagles wings.” The Source and outflowing current of this living spring are indistinguishable. It is ourselves. This is the “God” to whom we pray.

8.

The psalms were a compilation of imprecations made available by Hebrew priests to their various paying clients, as well as the collected songs of praise and pleading that were used for official state functions after the return of the Jews from exile. They are many and varied, but they have one thing in common: they are directed to “God.” They are dialogic. As you would expect from the era in which they were redacted, around 600 bce, they assume “God” to be a separate individual humanoid “person” out there, all powerful in a coercive sense, who did once and even now still can perform miracles like those associated with the Exodus, and make good things happen for “his” people.

Hebrew legend has it that they were slaves in Egypt and that the god Yahweh identified himself with their plight and helped free them from bondage. It is not surprising, then, that this earliest recorded religious adventure in our tradition took the form of a business contract. The captive Hebrew People bound themselves to do what “God” wanted and in return he bound himself to do what they wanted. Of course that involved miracles that put matter at the service of their needs: locusts devoured crops of their Egyptian captors, the Nile turned to blood, and even the Red Sea parted to aid their escape from slavery.

The psalms assume the contractual relationship between Yahweh and the Jewish people that is known as “the Covenant.” The contract provides the context in which the psalms generate their characteristic content. It accounts for some of the boldness — sometimes quite demanding — that otherwise would seem impertinent coming from a poor suppliant directed to the all-powerful master of the universe.

We used to imagine that “God” was literally as the psalms depicted “him.” But we have since learned that “God” is not like the person in the psalms or the other writings of these ancient near eastern people struggling to salvage a modicum of sovereignty in a region contested by the great rival empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. To begin with, the series of miraculous occurrences said to have accompanied the exodus from Egypt never happened, or were natural events given a hieratic interpretation by people emboldened in their efforts at liberation because they believed that Yahweh’s power was being applied on their behalf. Recalling the exodus and the contract that emerged from it forms the core of the argument of the psalms just as it formed the centerpiece of Jewish self-identity. The Jews were a people because they had a powerful “God” to whom they were related and who once suspended the laws of nature to secure their freedom and could do so again.

That means that the miraculous, as far as the psalms are concerned, has an important foundational dimension: it created the identity of the Jewish community. In our times we can only take that as metaphor. The community we relate to is the whole human race surviving by the fertility of the earth’s environment. This triad of the power of “God,” communal identity and freedom is the leitmotif of the psalms and remains their central dynamic even after the literal physical / metaphysical context has been brought up to date. It’s the source of the psalms’ transhistorical significance both for the individuals and the global community that emerges from using them.

Christians from the earliest days were aware of this feature of Jewish identity, and they boldly arrogated it to themselves. They identified themselves as the new chosen people. Jesus was the new Moses … his death and resurrection were the new Exodus, the definitive liberation, the passage through the Red Sea of death to the promised land of risen life. And Jesus was the “David” predicted by the psalms, the king who would rule from one end of the earth to the other, the “first-born son” of God himself whose reign would have no end. None of this was in the mind of the psalmists who created these songs. “David” was the reigning king at the time. The hyperbolic projections of his longevity, political reach and domination of others were very straightforward: Yahweh’s people should expect no less. After all, it was the wonder-worker of the Exodus who guaranteed it.

All this reference to Jesus, it hardly needs to be said, was imposed later by believing Christians who were determined to find symbolic clues and hints of “God’s” universal purpose — designed for the entire human race — in the events recounted in the Jewish Scriptures which formed the basis of their daily prayer. The earliest Christians, after all, were all Jews. Where else would such expectations come from?

What is most salient to our perspective is that the early Christians believed they were upgrading Judaism from a local, sectarian, tribal belief, to the final universal design intended by God. The early Christians were Jewish universalists. But almost within their lifetime, Christianity itself, in order to protect its boundaries became a sect every bit as closed and exclusive as the Jews that they thought they were transcending. In this respect, Christians claimed the “contract” — the Covenant — was transferred to them. There was a “new contract,” a New Covenant, and it was with Christians. It is not at all surprising that, by using those categories and terminology, Christianity became as tribal and exclusive as anything they thought they were escaping.

How do we, in our time, despite the sectarian dynamics in operation both for the Jews and later for the Christians, deal with this? I contend “The contract” provides an especially apt analog for the relationship between the human organism, the human community in which the organism effectuates its survival, and the living material energy of which it is made, and which is the source of all its powers. While the Jewish Covenant imagines a God-person with a residence beyond this world, and the Christian appropriation of that Covenant crassly identified the Roman Empire as the new “tribe” to which all must belong, the claim that “God” is activating his considerable coercive power for the Jews (or the Roman Catholics) can only be a metaphor. Literally speaking there is no such “God” or power and there never was, neither for the Jews nor for the Catholics.

But what is relevant is the dynamic of the relationship. Yahweh, in the psalms is bound to the Jews. There is no question about his commitments, even were his preference to change. He is bound by contract. Yahweh belongs to the Jews, and the Jews belong to Yahweh, like it or not. They are “two in one flesh,” like a married couple however dysfunctional the relationship, and indeed the prophets use the marriage metaphor more than once to describe the bond between Yahweh and the Jews and to draw conclusions about the behavior that it implies.

In our terms, “God” is the living dynamism resident in matter. “God,” as Eckhart would say, is the ground in which I exist. “God” belongs to us and we to “God” in the most intimate manner possible for we are one and the same stuff. My “self,” however, that coalesces under the driving insistence of the conatus to survive in each present moment in time, is quite capable of erroneously imagining itself to be a solid stand-alone independent entity — groundless — existing in its own right. “God,” even understood as the energy of matter, is not spontaneously perceived as part of this picture. Therefore a significant correction is needed if the human organism is to imagine itself accurately.

An independently existing entity is what Aristotle called a “substance,” a term that Spinoza claimed could only be attributed to “God,” and since everything else existed in “God,” everything else was, for Spinoza, necessarily a “modality” of the one divine “substance.” Spinoza’s philosophy was an idealist version of pan-entheism, taken directly from the mediaeval focus on the central place of ESSE — “being” in the conceptualization of reality. For pan-entheists of any persuasion, you cannot conceptualize the subordinate entity without including its Source-ma­trix, “in which it lives and moves and has its being.” In the obsolete spiritist-dualist Platonic metaphysics that earlier constituted the “perennial philosophy” of the west, the Substantial Source that “modalized” the human individual was the concept of ESSE, always an abstraction even when imagined as a concrete force as in Aristotle’s “act.” But our science has more accurately revealed to us the concrete characteristics of our universe: ESSE is matter’s energy and everything that exists is constructed of it. It is easy to imagine because it is concrete.

In our terms “divine power” means the unlimited and irrepressible potential for LIFE and justice that is on display in the conatus-synteresis embedded in human organisms. LIFE’s power — i.e., “God’s” power — expresses itself in the identification of our own identity, the driven conatus, with the embrace of justice, synteresis, the moral corollary of the principle of non-contradic­tion. That identification is the source of unlimited human potential — it is the divine guarantee of personal and social identity and liberation and it necessarily involves the displacement of the imaginary independent “self” with another “self” fully aware of its roots in the ground of “God’s” LIFE. In that moment — always a present moment, of course — the organism is freed from captivity to the false self, the erroneous self that thinks it has its own existence, as if it were its own source. But the human organism is not self-originating. It is in the achievement of that liberating realization that both the true self and true human community are born.

*     *     *    *

All the factual elements that form the content of the psalms have changed for us. We are not Jews. We do not believe that “God” is an all-powerful entity who had a tribal contract with Jews and then later with Christians. We are convinced that there are no miracles and never were. We have come to understand that “God” is not a humanoid person “out there” with whom we can communicate but rather a living dynamism “in here,” in our flesh — the innate force of LIFE enlivening the material substrate of this evolving universe and our very bodies. “God” is LIFE, absolutely universal and “belongs” to everyone. What we experience as our own living identity, the conatus, the drive to survive characteristic of every living organism, is an existential energy that belongs primarily to the material substrate of our organisms and only secondarily gathered into an ephemeral human “self” by the conatus from the coalescence of trillions upon trillions of living cells that comprise our bodies, a “self” that we use as a tool to thread our way through our life with others on this earth. It is an organismic identity, and when the organism disintegrates, that identity, that “self” formed by the conatus, disappears.

Our relationship to this “God” is exhaustively mediated through our relationship to ourselves, our family and local community, and a global society increasingly interdependent for the survival of each and all. This “God” can only be contacted in one place: where the rubber meets the road — at the present moment where LIFE reveals its presence in the aggregations and configurations of evolved matter. LIFE exists nowhere else. “God” is only the living dynamism of matter — the force of LIFE — emerging into existence in each present moment.

As self-conscious organisms who are ourselves the primary examples of such configurations we have special access to that revelation. We perceive it from within. We have an inside view on our own existence, which is always simultaneously a social phenomenon, emerging in the ever present moment. It is not just a matter of knowledge, we experience it palpably, wordlessly, directly and intimately. It is there that we touch the wellspring of our power — where “God’s” LIFE becomes our potential for life and justice. And it is to that shared power — that divine potential that is us — that the psalms direct us to cry out for help against our enemies.

Our enemies are our own mindlessness that allows selfishness to cripple our potential: to become addicted to gross gratifications, to propagate injustice by our greed, to foment the prejudices and exclusions of our atavistic tribalism, to spread the errors of false self-worshipping religion, to let ourselves be intimidated by the blinded selfishness of others. We have recourse to only one source of power — the invincible divine potential that surges into existence at every new moment as ourselves (and as other humans). We pray to that “God” for there is nothing else to appeal to. There is no other “God,” and for human beings there is no other power that is relevant to our reality. Authentic power is the human potential of a synteresis’ charged conatus. Coercive power is now recognized as inauthentic, a chimera, an illusion. For it is impotent to achieve the real goal of the conatus, the preservation and enhancement of the true self guided by synteresis.

In order to accomplish the purpose of prayer — which is the conscious attempt to align ourselves with the meaning of our existence in a universe of material LIFE — the “will” of “God” is made manifest as our moral conscience informing an energized conatus through the spontaneous promptings of our innate synteresis. Just as the “God” we call upon to rouse himself in our defense is our synteresis-directed conatus, the “God” we obey is our conscience.

9.

Work and survival. The conatus drives identity because the organism is driven to survive. This is not suppressible and we are lucky that it’s not. It’s what makes us human. We have to struggle — work — to stay alive, and we identify ourselves by how and how well we do it. It’s both our joy and our fulfillment as well as our constant preoccupation. It’s what we do under the sun. It is the essence of the human condition as it is of every material organism in the universe. It is the source of all community and conflict among us.

Surviving in our material universe has never been easy, and despite the security that the technological conquest of human survival should, in theory, provide for all, in practice for the majority of people across the globe, life is as hard as it has ever been. This is, obviously, a problem of our own making. The psalms, which in their original sense directed themselves to a “God” who is committed by contract to be our surrogate identity, are unrelenting in their insistence that he fulfill his promise. The incongruity here — demanding that “God” help us with a task that we now realize is clearly our own responsibility and well within our capacities as a global community — identifies the paradigm of adjustment as we approach making the psalms relevant for our time. It is the principal recurring inconsistency we encounter, and if left to thoughtless inattention, it is the issue most likely to derail our efforts. It is here that we have to apply our newfound awareness of the confluent identity of the divine potential with ours: that our potential and “God’s” are one and the same thing. What makes us human is that we carry divine power around with us like the hammer of Thor.

We have defined “God” as the force of LIFE driving the survival orientated activities of every living thing on earth. Calling upon “God” to help us with “our daily bread” can mean nothing other than galvanizing the productive and cooperative energies in the human community, personal, local and worldwide, to create and distribute the necessary resources so that we all may live. This may sound paradigmatic for our project, and it is. We could spell out the academic details in terms of economic and political systems, but really, aside from that academic exercise, what more is there to say?

*         *         *

If we are just talking about understanding, there is nothing more to say. Nothing. But that’s the difference between understanding (even poetic understanding) and prayer. It’s only after you have finished understanding the facts, that the struggle of prayer begins; for prayer is directed to the activation of divine potential. In this light it becomes clear why the presumptions and expectations awakened by the ancient Jewish Covenant — the contract, the fulcrum of the psalms’ leverage with Yahweh — provide an extremely apt metaphor for the modern confrontation with the human condition. Perhaps no other metaphor would work as well.

Prayer is engagement in the present moment — the real situation; it is the prelude to action. In the case we’re examining it’s the mindful confrontation with the dismal failure of the human community to devise a system of production and distribution that takes care of all the human beings in the world. Starvation, famine, generalized regional scarcity and national underdevelopment, political upheavals and genocidal wars generating massive displacement, homelessness, un- and under-employ­ment, racial and ethnic inequality, lack of educational and medical services … the list is long. To understand the scope of the reality is one thing, to conscientiously become engaged in reversing the failure is quite another. But in analyzing how exactly prayer — the psalms — fit into this picture, a number of things have to be clarified.

The first is to constantly remind ourselves that there are no miracles, and the cries of the psalmist for signs and wonders must be uncompromisingly nudged away from any such expectation. That means, furthermore, that the shameless engagement of the Church in the pursuit of miracles, even miracles of social justice, must be adamantly resisted if not openly denounced. The real “power” that is being called upon is our own potential for conscientious and effective response, my own first and that of other human beings. However, and here is the hub around which the whole effort turns: it still remains a divine potential albeit expressed only by human beings.

So this is the second fixed point: the psalmist is still in the position of suppliant. The one praying is needy. There is no temptation to an angry arrogance at “those who do not respond,” or haughty condemnation of those who begin but then fall by the wayside, including oneself. The wellspring that resides embedded in our organism suffusing LIFE’s moral power from present moment to present moment is still “God” and we are still in the condition of beggars — begging now for the moral strength that through mindlessness we allowed to go slack; nothing has changed there. Prayer reminds us that just as in calling on “God” we are really calling on ourselves, so also in calling on our own potential we are still really calling on “God,” the resident and transcendently creative source of that potential, material LIFE. Our very humanity is a marriage contract.

Prayer then immediately elevates my compassion for the people who are suffering … and for us whose consciences are prodding us to respond (in spite of failures) … into a commitment to effective engagement in a way that no amount of intellectualizing or exhortation can match. There is nothing inherent in just understanding that guarantees engagement. Prayer takes understanding to a different level — the level of effective action. You cannot ask Yahweh to “wake up” and apply “divine power” to remedy the situation without knowing what you are really asking for. You are asking yourself to “wake up.” By praying, now that we know that divine power only works seamlessly with secondary human causes, you are calling upon yourself to arise and take action … confident that your surrender to the divine potential which is indistinguishable from your own, will bear you up as if on eagles wings … will hide you protected from the negativity that prowls like a roaring lion seeking to destroy you and your efforts … and the efforts of your collaborators.

 10.

Death and the totality of matter’s energy. Many of the psalms appear to have been prayers provided to the sick or prayed in their name to call on divine power to heal them and keep them from dying. We are all familiar with the phenomenon: we reach for outside help when we feel helpless. It is absolutely universal. It was no more indulged in 600 bce than it is today.

So here’s our dilemma: How do we embrace our material universe with the natural cycle of birth and death that defines all life as we know it and still use the psalms … or indeed, still claim to pray when we know that the “God” we pray to is the very dynamism that has evolved things the way they are? The violently coercive “God” “out there” beyond us that the psalms appeal to for help does not exist.

Despite the triumphant claims of many of these psalms that Yahweh has in the past and once again can and will save the pleader from death, all have died. The only immortality that LIFE has been able to devise so far is focused on the preservation of species accomplished by the reproductive action of the individuals … who all die. Indeed, factually speaking, even if those who prayed these psalms were themselves cured at the time, it was only temporary.   Anyone using them even in the old way would have to be fully aware that they were only asking for a postponement, for death was inevitable. In a literal sense, even for traditional believers, none of those prayers were really answered.

But there is no making light of this situation. Many who have come to grips with death appear to have come out on the other end hardened and stoic. Death is inevitable, they say, whining for immortality is an indication that you have not left the fantasy castles of childhood.   All things change. Our family members die. Friends come and go. Youth and health are evanescent. Enjoy the days as they pass. You will live on in the memory of others.

Frankly in my own experience, I have entered into such stoic mindsets only when I was feeling robust and invulnerable. Strong, healthy relatively prosperous, in the warmth of my family, I was simply not in the mood for dwelling on what was not here yet and would occur only in the distant future. Desperate feelings were to be ridiculed. I think I imagined myself facing death in the same psychological state as I was in at the moment. But that’s not always what happens.

My sense now about that kind of attitude is that it was a stoic intellectualizing — a thinking about death that left the body out of the calculation. It was not an existential encounter, a somatic realization that generates an anguish or immobilization that is beyond rational explanation or voluntary control. The same person who today can “cast a cold eye on death” and pass it high on his horse, tomorrow, for whatever reason and however quiet it’s kept, finds himself unhorsed, broken, perplexed, terrified and whimpering — his once stony heart “melted like wax within his breast.”

As that last phrase indicates, the psalms are aware of the body and are not afraid or ashamed of its frailties. “God,” says the psalmist, “knows that we are dust. The wind comes and we wither and are blown away like chaff. We are gone and there is no sign that we were even there.” This is a sentiment that is clearly pre-Christian. It puts the psalms squarely in the human camp. The Christian Platonist is the one who can cast a cold eye on death because he sees this life as a veil that one is to pass by with indifference. The only reality is the after-life in the spirit world. By insisting that we live forever as our selves, Christianity has robbed us of the anguish and pathos of true loss. It has made us distant, hard, unfeeling, haughty, judgmental, unable to tremble except out of fear of hell and our own individual damnation. The wailing of the psalms at death and suffering was always an embarassment to Christians who prayed them; they secretly held those feelings in contempt. True Christians knew this world was an illusion.

The Jewish psalmists, in contrast, stand totally disarmed before death; they had no afterlife to deflect its blow. They yielded to what they felt, and we who use the psalms recognize that we are in fully human hands. They knew: death is abhorrent, nauseating. It ends our connections with the ones we love. Ordinarily when it is far enough away we can live without thinking about it. But when it approaches, when it comes close and we feel its cold breath on our necks, a terror arises that is like nothing else. Even the most battle hardened military frame of mind has some chink in its armor where the stiletto will enter. The sheer amount of PTSD generated by our endless wars should be proof enough for that. Many carry around the wound, open and suppurating, without ever having cried out in anguish and despair, until they find themselves lashing out at family, friends or strangers with a violence they did not know they were capable of. These matters cannot be dismissed. The psalmists knew.

The psalms face death with all the anguish and despair that the conatus can generate when its commitment to its assigned task of protecting the “self” has been shredded beyond repair by an invincible impotence that no amount of will power or intellectualizing can counter. Given the psalmists’ belief in the coercive power of Yahweh, the “God” of armies, “out there” in the heavens, he begs and pleads that “God” exercise his power to save him from death.

In our idiom, we know that “God” is LIFE, and that the power that “God” and I wield together is not a coercive control of matter but rather the potential for more LIFE. However, in my case the potential, as far as I can see, is limited to the lifetime of my organism and what it can accomplish with hard work and mindfulness. There are no immortal souls that live without bodies. Whatever “souls” there are, are the dynamism of living bodies and when there is no life in the body, there is no soul. My sense of who “God” is may have changed, but the fact of my death and the uncontrolled feeling of terror as my body sees it draw near has not.

“God” is LIFE, the source and matrix of matter’s existential energy. That means that the “God” that resides at the foundational center of my “self” providing the dynamism of my life, also resides at the center of the existence and life of everything else in the universe. “God,” therefore, is at the very heart of the totality of being. But I am part of that totality as an emergent product of LIFE and also as intimately identified with the matrix-producer of LIFE. My cries for life and endless life are made in the context of being carried along in the river of LIFE in both an active and passive sense. What more effective thing can I ask for than to be kept an integral part of this flowing enterprise evolving into new forms constantly capable of doing more astonishing things. To continue existing as matter’s energy can hardly be considered an “arm twisting” request since this is exactly what has been going on for 14 billion years and is responsible for the emergence of this organism whose conatus has knotted into a “self” I call “me.” Perhaps “superfluous” would be a better word for this prayer because there seems little worry that the sub-atomic components of the material-energy of my body, which the first law of thermodynamics says are neither created nor destroyed, won’t also be here for the next fourteen billion years, and really … why not … forever.

The only thing that probably won’t be here, it seems, is the “self” which appears to be a virtual reality concocted by the conatus to carry out its commands to protect and enhance the organism. However, it is precisely this “self” that I call “me” whose disappearance generates a dread and terror that I cannot control. Accurately identifying this “self” as virtual — i.e., a product of the imagination, a “symbol” of the material organism — I can begin to separate it in my mind from the actual material energy of my organism, and simultaneously accept the fact that it will not share the destiny of the material totality of the universe to which my body belongs.

In other words, by learning, incrementally if necessary, to identify my organism with the universal totality of matter’s energy, I come to realize that the fear of death is not a real existential fear. There is nothing substantial going out of existence at my death. The only thing that disappears is my “self.” My virtual reality and the valences that it has established with other “modalities” of the One Great Substance will vanish, leaving always the core components of my organism intact. My body, in other words, which the conatus was committed to protect, is always safe.

Let me acknowledge at this point that this is a mental exercise that bypasses the feelings  which have become habituated to think of the solitary self as real in the substantial sense. That is where the terror resides. The unconscious “self” thinks of itself as isolated from the totality of being.  Of course it’s going to feel terrified.

The unconscious self is the conatus’ avatar for the organism generated without conscious control. But the conscious self that becomes active in meditative mindfulness is an entirely new creation born of the constant injection of synteresis into the frenzied ruminations of the conatus. Through mindfulness, the conatus becomes habituated to seeing its quest for secure life satisfied by the identification of the organism with the totality of matter’s energy and its evolving project instead of the pyrrhic victories of the isolated ego.

Slowly and incrementally, the conatus sees its existence, now and into the future, made safe by its inclusion in Spinoza’s One Great Substance, and endless Evolving Project of which it is an integral part. This corresponds to the “true” or transcendent self that we saw in section 5. Fundamentally, under the aegis of a meditative mindfulness a new self emerges through the conditioning imposed by the conscious mind. And this new self knows itself to be a material organism whose components have existed for 14 billion years and are part of a Cosmic Adventure of Creative Evolution … and whose end we cannot see.

 

 

 

“Catholics” (II)

Symbol and reality

2,600 words

This is a second commentary on Brian Moore’s 1972 novel, Catholics, made into a movie with Martin Sheen and Trevor Howard in the seventies entitled The Conflict.

A reminder of the story-line: an Irish monastic community has been offering mass in Latin with back to the people and hearing individual confessions in violation of the explicit prohibition by the official Church. This is the background to the entire novel — the rejection of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. It’s what provided the initial tension, brought the Vatican envoy to the monastery, and turned out to be the horizon against which all the characters had to define themselves, especially the abbot who, unknown to all, had lost his faith. The novel ends with the monks’ capitulation to obedience and the abbot’s act of spiritual self-immolation: he kneels to pray with his monks.

My previous post, “Catholics,” published on July 28th, dealt with the abbot’s ordeal which I believe was the main point of the novel; in this reflection I want to address the theological anatomy of the background issue that gave rise to the conflict: the real presence.

The problem was elaborated thematically by Moore in the form of a dispute argued between the secretly unbelieving abbot, Tomás O’Malley, and the dozen or so monks who had gathered in the chapel on the night of the Vatican envoy’s arrival. The monks were determined to continue their current practice of making the sacraments available to people in the traditional ante-conciliar Tridentine form. Their passion came directly from their theology: they believed that the bread and wine literally — physically — became the body and blood of Christ. It was, they said, a miracle.

They believed it principally because it was what the Council of Trent taught and what they had accepted on faith since their childhood from the Church they considered “infallible.” It could not have been clearer:

If anyone denies that the sacrament of the holy eucharist really and substantially contains the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore the whole Christ, but says, rather that [Christ] is there as in sign, or figuratively, or potentially: anathema sit. (Ann. 1551, Cc. Trident.. Sess. XIII; Denzinger-Schönmetzer, #883, #1651, p.389)

The decree, issued in 1551, in an unusual departure from scriptural language, in the next paragraph actually used the word transubstantiation, a philosophical term, unmistakably Aristotelian in character, employed by Thomas Aquinas to explain scientifically the nature of the transformation. “Transubstantiation” meant, in the terms understood by Aristotelian mediaeval science, “literally, physically.” The material “thing” that was there looked like bread and wine, but was really the body and blood of Christ. When the monks, in their contentious dialog with the abbot, say that anything else is heresy, they were standing on solid ground. The Council of Trent was very clear: si quis negaverit … anathema sit. Roughly translated: if you say otherwise … may you burn in hell!

Vatican II made no change to the Tridentine formula, and even alluded to the significant disparity between Catholics and other Christians over the eucharist, citing specifically the crucial difference made by the sacrament of orders. I think that is very revealing. But the Council also said in various places that the eucharistic bread was to be taken as a symbol of the loving nature of the Christian community. If both the Council of Trent and Vatican II were not in conflict about the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, why was there such a problem in Moore’s story for the monks and the many people who shared their point of view?

The problem, I claim, even beyond the deep habituation to the worship of the host for over 500 years prior to Vatican II, is one of common sense logic. It affected many people at the time of the conciliar changes, and I believe it explains why Moore put it in the mouth of the monks. Let me state it very simply: if the eucharistic bread and wine is really and literally “Christ himself,” then that overwhelming fact will necessarily eclipse any other religious significance you may try to give it. It’s common sense. To insist on another meaning is implicitly to detract from the “real presence.” The liturgical reforms intentionally ignored the overwhelming nature of the doctrine of the real presence.

Both symbolisms were inherited by mediaeval Christians from the ancient Church, but the insistence on the real presence took over to the detriment of the “family meal.” I claim that is a natural consequence of the absence of parity between those two aspects of the doctrine. It stands to reason: if it’s really “God,” what else is there to think about? It explains Flannery O’Connor’s trenchant remark quoted by Ellsberg in the introduction: “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it!”

Vatican II encouraged a return to origins. According to early Christian documents the eucharist was originally a meal of fellowship. Its historical evolution from being a symbol of Christian community, to being literally, physically, the “body and blood, soul and divinity” of the risen Christ, is the key to this whole flap and is worth taking time to understand. Not surprisingly, the “problem” is rooted in the erstwhile Platonism that dominated Christian thinking for more than half its historical life.

There are few historical gaps in our knowledge of what was going on during the entire two thousand years of Christian experience. One of those gaps, however, occurred very early. We do not know how the current hierarchical structure of bishops, priests and laity actually evolved out of the more egalitarian formations recorded in the New Testament. All we know is that by the time Constantine chose Christianity as the Roman State Religion, it was all in place. The sacrament of orders conferred special powers on ordained priests that the merely baptized lay people did not possess.

Together with those changes the Church also began to announce its message in terms that revealed its approval of the categories of Platonic philosophy. That process culminated in the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325 under the auspices and direct control of the Roman Emperor where the divinity of Christ was definitively described as homoousios — “consubstantial” — a Greek philosophical word, not found anywhere in scripture, to explain how Christ was “God.”

In the century after the Council numerous Christian theologians, east and west, began the process of interpreting the tenets of the faith, and following the lead of Nicaea, continued to do so in Platonic terms. What does that mean?

At the risk of oversimplification, there are two seminal ideas characteristic of Platonism that set it apart from other worldviews and that affected the Christian understanding of its beliefs. The first is that ideas are not just mental states but are substantive realities in their own right that reside in another world, a World of Ideas, which was identified as the Mind of God. So “justice” is not just an idea of ours, an “opinion,” it is a real reality with objective defining features that derive from its objective “scientific” literal reality as an archetype. Our idea of justice is a reflection (as in a mirror) of the “Justice” that dwells in God’s Mind.

The second notion that characterizes Platonism is that ideas are immaterial; they are able to compenetrate matter so that ideas (forms) suffuse and inform “matter” which is formless. That compenetration allows for a phenomenon they called participation.

Participation means that the reality of the material things that we see is derived from the reality of the ideas that inform them. “Matter” is devoid of reality. Only “ideas” have reality, and impart their reality to matter. The concrete thing, therefore, participates in reality through the real ideas that define it. The words of consecration over the bread and wine brought to mind the idea of the body and blood of Christ, and the presence of the idea, which enjoyed archetypal reality, conferred that reality on the bread and wine — the symbols that evoked it. So it was said that Christ was really present in the bread and wine.

Since matter in the Platonic system is not real, what is happening is that the bread and wine are being allowed to participate in the reality of the idea — as an idea — of Christ’s body and blood. There is no thought of conferring on matter a reality that it is incapable of bearing. In this case the bread and wine, while remaining bread and wine, make the idea of Christ present to the minds of the communicants through the symbolic words of the priest, and it’s the idea that is real for Platonists. Christ is really present because the bread and wine together with the words evoke the idea. Thus the symbol, by participating in the reality, is part of that reality.  But at no point did the Platonists imagine that the bread and wine themselves actually became the body and blood of Christ. They had too little respect for matter for that.

Enter Aristotle

The rediscovery of Aristotle’s writings in the 12th century produced an enthusiasm among theologians of all faiths, first the Arabs who discovered the manuscripts in the lands they had conquered, and then the Jews and Christians. The rush to incorporate Aristotle into their world­view became something of a competition, with each belief system vying to prove that the prestigious Greek scientist supported and confirmed their worldview.

Aristotle was a dualist like Plato, in that he believed that things were made up of matter and form (ideas), but he differed from Plato on the most basic point. He did not subscribe to the notion that ideas had their own substantive reality. His teaching was that material “things,” what he called “substances,” were comprised of matter and form which were principles of being. Matter and form did not exist on their own apart from one another. Only substances (material things) had existence. An idea was only a passing human mental state. By itself it was not real — it did not exist apart from the mind that was thinking it and while it was thinking it. It was what Aristotle called “an accident,” a phenomenon that existed as part of and dependent on a substance. What something looked like, its color, for example, or its size, were accidents. Bread was a substance, a human being was a substance. But an idea was an accident.

Under Aristotle’s influence reality was seen as a quality only of concrete existing things not ideas; therefore symbols could no longer get a derived reality from the idea. They had to have their own reality as “things.” So the symbol itself, the bread and wine, which was the only concrete thing there, had to become the risen Christ, there was no other way to conceive of the real presence in that system. Theologians imagined that the very “thing” (substance) that was bread, became the very “thing” (substance) that was Christi’s body. They called it transubstantiation, and claimed it could only be explained as a miracle. So the bread and wine went from being a symbol to being Christ himself, body and blood, soul and divinity. Both systems referred to it as the real presence. But they meant two totally different things.

Return to symbol?

The difficulty for believers now is that to return to a symbolic interpretation of the eucharist does not reinstate the level of reality that it once had under Platonism. We are no longer Platonists and we cannot return there. We are still in Aristotle’s camp with regard to the basics. Concepts and their words are not independently existing entities for us. We see the concrete thing as the only existing reality. We do not see the idea as real nor that its symbol participates in the divine reality. Many observers have identified the abandonment of Platonism in the 14th century as the beginning of the “disenchantment” of western culture — its turn toward an arid scientism. If we are going to insist on the real presence in terms of that worldview we have no choice but to claim the “thing” in front of us, the bread and wine, is Christ.

This is patently absurd. Take a step back and you realize that the exclusively “Aristotelian” perspective on reality represented by this absurd interpretation has consigned all reality to “things,” and leaves out the reality of the entire world of human social interaction and personal development. This is a truncated view. None of what is specifically human is about “things” or “substantial forms.”

Human reality

Religion is about human reality. Human reality is interpersonal relationships and the individual transformations that turn those relationships either into “hell” or something we can call “divine.” Religion would have us become like “God.” Religion is not about entities or places or “things” — gods, angels, devils, magic rituals, cowled robes, statues, candles, incense, churches, reward in heaven, punishment in hell. It’s about moral and spiritual transformation, the unfolding of individual personalities that sustain just and loving relationships that would turn this earth into a paradise.

The reality of the religious message is inner transformation, and for us from a Christian background, Jesus is the teacher, model and energizer of that transformation. Rituals that claim to provide his real presence, therefore, are real to the extent that they evoke and activate that transformation. The reality of the eucharist is to be found in its transformative power, not in its physical or metaphysical constitution.

In this view, everything remains what it is. There is no supernatural alchemy, there are no magic material transformations. The only thing that changes is the human being who, through the imagery evoked by the eucharistic symbols and using Jesus’ message and life as a blueprint and invitation, transforms himself by consciously re-evaluating the social conditioning that, in order to give him a place in an unjust society, inculcated an egoic defensiveness, a greedy self-projec­tion and a fear and rejection of others as competitors for scarce resources. As the communicant progresses over time in these transformations a new “self” begins to emerge — ironically, the self that preceded the distortions of the social conditioning to selfishness. This is really a return to the unvarnished coherence of the material organism that came to us with birth. It’s not surprising that some have called it a re-birth, and that what emerges is selfless, generous, compassionate and committed to LIFE.

As the conditioning to selfishness and domination of others is incrementally neutralized by the evocative power of the eucharistic ritual and other transformative practices, the “still small voice” of our fleshly organism can be heard clearer and clearer. We come to discover that we were perfect bodies all along, a perfect mirror of the material LIFE that enlivens the universe, now increasingly cleansed of the deformities … the insanities of our delusional, paranoid, egomaniacal culture. We no longer look on our companions in life with anything but compassion for the suffering and anxiety that we continue to heap on one another under the delusion of the need to acquire existence in competition with others. We assume the burden of assuring that no one suffers injustice or rejection. We come to recognize our material organism for the “divine” thing it really is and has been all along. We no longer make the mistake about where “God” is to be found, or what he looks like.  

We discover

that the face of God

we have been searching for

is our own.

Work in a Material Universe

3,600 words

This blog is dedicated to elaborating the social implications of a new set of premises about the nature of reality that modern science has helped us establish.   After 500 years of careful observation and critical analysis we are now fairly certain that we live in an exclusively material universe.

That wasn’t always true. We used to believe that reality was dominated by and could only be understood as idea, an immaterial product generated by an immaterial substancespirit-mind — and that the entire universe was the result of a Spirit-Mind’s insertion of a multitude of self-reflective immaterial ideas into a formless plasma called matter.

That unchallenged assumption which molded our thinking for thousands of years, has been overturned in our times.  It is a radical inversion that has amounted to a complete reversal of our image of reality and our scheme of values. Trans­cen­dent phenomena like human consciousness, whose “obviously immaterial” characteristics were once taken as prima facie evidence for the existence of spirit-mind and an entire other world where spirits originated and to which they were destined to return, are now, without losing anything of their quality as phenomena, accepted as functions of this one material world. There is no other world.

Of all the implications of our new understanding, this is the one that is the most relevant to our lives: there is no other world.

Being and work

Science has discovered that all of reality — everything — whether in the form of particles or force-fields, and regardless of its level of structural and operational complexity, is comprised of a homogeneous material energy. To be, in other words, is to be matter. Based on that central fact, material energy is, in corollary fashion, also responsible for the by-products of its time-driven dynamism: (1) a conatus or drive for self-preservation observable in each and every living organism, and inferred to exist in some form in every particle of material energy, making survival (existence) an innate and insuppressible urge; (2) evolution, defined as an adaptive mechanism driven ultimately by the conatus that guarantees matter’s continuing existence despite the changing environmental conditions that impact its survival; (3) a sense of the sacred arising spontaneously in human beings whose innate self-con­scious desire to exist, springing also from the same conatus, reverberates in an insuperable appreciation for and desire for union with the projected source of existence, material energy, LIFE, as a guarantor of survival.

Because to be-here is the inner dynamism that constitutes its very reality, everything matter does and becomes is a reflection of its existential bearing. Every living organism of whatever kind and at whatever level of complexity or ability to act is driven to survive because and only because it is made of matter. Everything it pursues and everything it does, whether in action or at rest, is a question of continuing to exist. It ultimately defines work.

Life from LIFE

Living organisms openly display dynamic characteristics which may not be perceptible in inanimate matter before it has been drawn up onto the plateau of life — the most revealing of evolution’s stunning achievements. Matter’s energy even at the most primitive levels must possess in dormant form the potential for what it does at the level of life. Nothing comes from nothing. Hence we say that matter is a dynamism driven by LIFE whose potential is released through the aggregations and complexifications achieved in the process of evolutionary adaptation.

These evolutionary developments are observed occurring throughout pre-life as well, first in the construction of the elegant table of the elements and, later, in the emergence of ever more complex molecules. These innovations reveal matter’s communitarian nature: matter achieves survival by unifying and re-arranging its separate particles and forces.

The process of evolution by unification and complexification continues at the level of life. Very early in earth’s geologic history unicellular organisms invented sexual reproduction and discovered the survival power of multicellularity and the division of roles within the resulting organism. Both advances involved the enlistment of many individuals in the pursuit of a common benefit; both measures enhanced survivability exponentially. Multicellularity, in turn, seems to have been taken up as a paradigm for species’ societies at all levels. The congregation of individuals and the distribution of roles and functions within the survival community proved to be the most effective strategy for the continued existence of the individuals of a species. All individual organisms survive communally with other members of their own species and also, symbiotically with members of other species. Commonality is a function of the unity of material energy. Communal survival activity shared among individual organisms is work. Work’s communal, collaborative nature is aboriginal: it is both the source and the result of 14 billion years of material evolution.

This communal character stands in sharp contrast with the exaggerated individualism evoked by the Platonic paradigm.   The separate soul of Plato’s imagination was quintessentially solitary. If it was to liberate itself from the dungeon of the body and its corruptions, it had to do so alone. There was no communal “salvation” in the Platonic system. A mother could not save her thieving son, nor a village its drunken idiot. Family and clan lost whatever survival significance they may have had in a material universe, because in Plato’s universe the world where survival was really won was another world reached only by dying — a world of bodiless spirits, where the relationships spawned by bodily reproduction were meaningless. Entrance into that other world required the death of the body along with all its genetic connections to family and clan. The only saving connection was with the impersonal rituals of the Church. The Church took the place of all natural communities.

Work as a function of existence

In a material universe, however, collaborative work is the direct result of the insuppressible urgings of the conatus in the real world and therefore is part of the line-up of characteristics that are found wherever material energy is found. They are corollaries of existence. It is precisely because all matter is innately driven to survive, that all matter is also collectively active in the pursuit of its continuance. That activity is work. It is a universal expression of the dynamism of the conatus and I claim it is a feature of all of reality.

[A note: Since my interest in this reflection is work as a human activity, my terminology will reflect that. But I want to state clearly at the outset that there is no intention to exclude non-human reality from the analysis or the conclusions. Work is a dynamism for continued existence that is natural to all material reality. There is evidence that at the quantum level, matter is proactive in the genetic adjustments neces­sary for the adaptation of the living organism to its environment. If that is true, it means that evolution itself is the result of work.[1]]

Human Consciousness. Human self-awareness represents another astonishing plateau in evolutionary development, responsible for characteristics that seem not to have existed in any prior life-form, analogous to the way life did not appear to have been present in earlier material entities that were not alive. But following out the analogy, and faced with mounting evidence of the presence of complex consciousness in animals other than human, we are compelled to attribute some dormant potential for consciousness to the very quanta packets of energy that constitute the building blocks of everything material in our world. Teilhard de Chardin called it the “interiority” of matter.

Some modern philosophers, like Galen Strawson, have suggested this feature of reality be called panpsychism. The meaning of the term is contained in its etymology: “everything,” pan, is “mental,” psych-. In other words, similar to our judgment about the presence of LIFE dor­mant in inanimate objects, mind is present as a dormant potential existing in all material reality because all psychic phenomena of whatever kind are clearly the products of material activity coming from organisms that are all and only comprised of and nourished by exactly the same quanta of material energy that constitute everything else in the universe. The data of daily observation, in this regard, is so universally corroborative of this conclusion that we are confident of it even though we have not as yet determined what mechanisms are employed in the activation of that potential. The simple fact of the matter is that consciousness exists, and there is nowhere else it could have come from except this world’s matter.

Desire. The full flowering of mind, most evident in the human species, reveals the intense appetitive nature of the conatus. With the evolution of higher consciousness it becomes clear that the conatus was not just a mechanical drive, a blind and passive reflex, but rather a living thirst, a passionate self-conscious hunger to be here that when satisfied fills the organism with ecstatic joy, and when thwarted, with dejection and despair. This nuances our understanding of the nature of work. Work is not only a reaction to the animal instinct to stay alive, it is a response to the desire for existence.

The human species’ conscious awareness of the inevitability of death is an aspect of this mental phenomenon. It adds a special dimension to the human conatus. The human instinct for self-preserva­tion necessarily extends its preoccupations to the place where the ultimate threat to the organism is perceived to reside. Hence the human conatus is necessarily addressed to transcending death. LIFE is assumed to have a source. Given the imperiousness of the conatus, desire for union with that source is not avoidable for the human organism. That means religion or its equivalent is natural and spontaneous; it springs from the very instinct for self-preserva­tion.  Work is the active application of that instinct.

This passion to possess existence through union with its source is a response to the Sense of the Sacred. The reflexive awareness of this appetitive relationship to existence generates the peculiar communal response called religion. Religion is work like any other, only clearly focused on the pursuit of that aspect of the conatus’ goal that reaches beyond daily survival. Thus religion must be understood as a function of matter’s existential bearing, bound up with work and the very destiny of the human individual stemming unavoidably from its being a material organism facing death whose innate instinct is to be-here. That internal contradiction is elemental to humankind and explains its unique sense of disconnect with the natural world.

Religion or its equivalents are natural and unavoidable. Insofar as work is the emanation of the conatus, in the case of humankind that conatus and its genetically driven activity is necessarily suffused with the passionate desire to ensure that the organism continues existing endlessly, because at any other terminus, death would give the lie to the conatus. It is not surprising, then, that human work would extend its reach beyond securing shelter and the day’s food. We can say a priori, that virtually any human endeavor that goes beyond securing those basic survival needs, contemplates projects that in one sense or another appear to guarantee the conatus’ ultimate goals, whose most fundamental characteristic is endless existence. These activities are the equivalent of religion and can take almost any form.

Religion, in this scheme of things, then, is only the most formally labeled and socially acknowledged example of this uniquely human pursuit of immortality. It is not difficult to identify others; they are myriad: all achievements that are believed to linger in human memory offering a kind of life beyond death, monumental projects including the magnification and ascendancy of the nation, military and economic conquests, academic, artistic, literary and athletic achievements, the abasement and exploitation of others for the purposes of asserting one’s or one’s tribe’s superiority, fame derived from any source, competitive activities specifically designed for creating distinction and recognition, the superfluous accumulation of goods, power, influence, land, capital, money. Animals do none of these things, because none of them are necessary for survival. These all speak to the attempt to extenuate and amplify individual existence beyond one’s limited “size” and location in the time-line of social history. I would put the perennial drive toward empire on the part of nations in this category of ersatz religion. It is an attempt to achieve immortality, and individuals identify with empire as their own participation in immortality. Empire is not only a pursuit of the elite.

If religion in our day no longer fires the imagination with hopes of immortality, it’s not because humankind has lost the hunger for endless existence. It’s just that, having decided that religion’s narrative lacks credibility, people have turned to other endeavors as more realistic substitutes. Whatever else has changed, the innate insuppressible human passion for endless life has not, and work as the emanation of that passion, will always tend toward securing it. Hence work must also be understood — and judged — under the rubric of man’s sense of the sacred as the pursuit of transcendence.

The dangers here are real. The perennial tendency of nations to take conquest and domination of others as a sign of superiority, is one of the principal substitutes for transcendence. The unabashed admiration on the part of most readers of history for the great empires and their accumulation of wealth, power and territory, suggests that the futility of seeking that kind of ascendancy has yet to be appropriated and internalized. There seems little chance that a political dynamic built on any other purpose will be put in place anytime in the near future.

Work in a Material Universe

Given this background, work has to be seen as (1) a natural and necessary activity of material organisms in pursuit of survival, (2) necessarily having a community dimension not only stemming from the communal processes that characterize evolution but because human survival is not physically achievable by solitary individuals working alone and because the collaboration among individuals is itself constitutive of society giving work a defining importance for humankind. Work is also (3) necessarily a pursuit of transcendence: the individual is transcended through collaborative endeavors which identify the worker with the surviving community and the attempt to embrace the source of existence by mutual consent of the collaborators. It doesn’t matter what that source of existence is believed to be. Even if it is only “the memory of humankind.” These are all transcendent pursuits and should be assessed as such.

Work as survival. The primacy of survival activity — work — as the fundamental expression of the conatus means that the entire category of servile labor, necessarily the object of disdain and revulsion in our erstwhile dualist-spiritist universe, is revealed as completely baseless. There is no distinction between body and soul, matter and spirit. There is no sub-human, bodily labor distinct and separate from reason and therefore there can be no sub-human “carnal” people consigned to the eternal repetition of mindless tasks. Survival work is not only the responsibility of each and every human organism for its own sustenance, it is the very expression of the organism’s roots in matter which grounds its existential bearing and the equality among human individuals that shapes the community that survives by it.

Work and existence. By survival work the material organism is manifesting openly its acknowledgement of belonging to the totality of matter’s living energy, the source of confidence in the endlessness of its being-here. Hence work is more than mere physical exertion; it is a dynamic declaration of self-aware­­ness and self-accep­tance. It is the conscious embrace of materiality. The organism embraces itself precisely and unapologetically as a material organism and takes a profound satisfaction in what work achieves: organismic life for another day — food, clothing, shelter and human community built by cooperative collaboration. Work is the expression of and commitment to belonging fully to the totality that endures. And belonging to the community of matter is the surest guarantee of individual endurance.

Work as ascesis. Work can no longer be thought of as a punitive discipline, the result of and punishment for some ancient transgression of our forebears, and a liberation of the spirit from the flesh. Work is rather a carnal joy and a privilege: the opportunity to express our intimate participation in the source of existence itself: material LIFE. The principal reward that work provides — survival — is immediately confirmed by ancillary benefits that enhance the organism: a strong healthy body full of energy and enthusiasm for life; a positive disposition and self-esteem that prevents the onset of depression or despair that the awareness of death might otherwise engender; the sense of security derived from the palpable comradery, companionship and mutual support generated by working cooperatively with others for the survival of each and all.

Far from being the whip that begins the process of liberating the spirit from the dungeon of the flesh, work in a material universe allows the material of the human organism to realize its full capacity to bring resident reason and spontaneous compassion born of material empathy to interface with the matter that work is transforming. Mirror neurons, the physical source of our empathy, are pure matter. We are all pure matter. The work worked and the working worker. The weight of matter borne is no longer a crushing burden that breaks my carnal will and forces compliance with my spiritual soul, but is rather a sibling’s touch that evokes in me a creativity not unlike that of an artist, who in elaborating what his vision reveals, may see a potential that no one knew was there. It’s like clay molding clay. The resulting mutually compenetrating engagement is explosive. Hesiod noticed certain workers got it right: “… they do their work as if work were a holiday.”

Manual labor in particular, which involves the intimate and continuous contact between my body and the matter under elaboration, becomes an occasion for the acknowledgement of the most important relationship of all: of the material energy which I am and the material energy that constitutes everything in the cosmos. It is one and the same. I AM THAT! This sense of intimate oneness with all that IS — LIFE — can serve to sustain a sense of one’s secure belonging to existence that has always been the great goal, the desideratum, of ascesis since before the advent of Christianity.

Of course all this assumes that work is guaranteed its primary and constitutive goal: survival.   Justice for the worker first and always means that work’s fundamental existential bearing is not frustrated.

Survival as a community effort

The significance of this new paradigm for the structuring of just and fulfilling work relationships hardly needs to be elaborated. First of all it reveals the class system that continues to divide work along servile physical lines to be baseless, demeaning and inherently destructive of the integrity of the human organism. Whatever needs to be done to secure survival is a responsibility that devolves upon everyone. If work is divided among the members of the community it is done for efficiency and convenience, not as a reflection of some putative quality difference among human beings, much less some illusory distinction between matter and spirit.

That some people are so wealthy that they never have to work is not a “blessing,” it is a travesty.   And those who intentionally pursue careers that will free them from the onus of physically providing themselves with food, clothing, shelter and community have entirely missed what it means to be human.

This has a primary application in the equality of men and women despite the obvious role differences established by their bodies. The female organism is not “more carnal,” more subject to emotional needs for being the place of gestation of offspring. All human organisms are equally capable of assuming all the roles in a complex society. Male-female role differences may be established by convention but they always remain conventional; there is nothing necessary about them. Reproduction is an instinct and function of all organisms. Indispensable genital equipment and efficacious function are features of every individual body, male and female. To heap burdensome and self-effacing tasks on one and not the other is a profound injustice, and may be the result of conscious exploitation. Platonic dualism lent itself to exactly such distortions of humanity.

In the case of children, the development of the rational function should no longer be given such priority as to entail the suppression or disregard for the wholeness of the human organism. Children’s emotional balance, ability to relate to others, predisposition to sense their unity as material organisms with other species of life and more primitive forms of matter’s energy, should be given as much emphasis as the development of their rational abilities to control the outside world by logical cerebration and emotional distance. The child should be educated to empathetically relate in organic material solidarity to whatever part of reality she/he will be later asked to manipulate and control with their work.

Earning a living: the division of labor in complex society

This topic — the division of labor in complex society — brings together all the contradictions that come from our tortured history.   I believe our materialist paradigm can offer new insights into how to resolve the problems that Platonic dualism bequeathed to us.   Having established the premises, future posts will begin reflecting on what this may mean for the future of work in a material universe.

 

[1] Cf McFadden and Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, Random House, NY, 2014, pp. 219-221.

Surrender

2,800 words

We are exploring the question of Religion in a material universe. Our quest is complicated because we come from an ancient tradition that believed that we are not matter, but “spirit.” And based on those premises our forebears developed a lore of wisdom and a storehouse of ascetic practices that they used and tested and passed on to us. Some of these people we knew personally and we can acknowledge that, whatever it was they did, it made them extraordinary human beings.

We know, like them, we are just human.  We have to ask ourselves: Would our times have changed us so radically that what worked for them could not continue to work for us?  That does not mean we are trapped in an eternal repetition of the past, but it does mean that our dialog with this new world that science has opened up for us must constantly include a third party: the people who have gone before us. After all, it was they who implanted in us the obsessions that drive our search for the face of God.

Following up on the two previous posts, this reflection is focused on the inner transformation that some ancient Christian spiritual masters recommend for the individual believer, and as a by-product, the effect on the community made up of those believers. As our ruminations unfolded in earlier posts, Benedictine monasticism as reflected in the Rule, written toward the middle of the sixth century, was seen to focus on achieving humility as the most highly prized inner attitude. And the tool that was declared to be the most effective in that effort was obedience.

But obedience, aside from its therapeutic function in the monasteries, also formed one side of the two-sided quid pro quo distorted Romanized version of the Christian religion that I believe occasioned the rise of the monasteries to begin with. In that respect we can anticipate that obedience might not always work as a gospel corrective; if misapplied by the abbot or mis-taken by the monk, it could work to sustain the original distortion. There is nothing magic about obedience, and it should be noted that Jesus’ message conspicuously ignored it. He spoke of imitating God, not obeying him.

Then we looked at mediaeval theologian and mystic Johannes Eckhart who offered a theological “theory” as to how exactly obedience functioned for the divinization of the Christian. He believed that obedience was the most effective tool for achieving detachment, amounting to a radical internal poverty of willing, knowing and possessing that most closely imitated the independent serenity of the “Godhead.” Humility for Eckhart would then be a poverty of spirit that, because the “soul” knew itself, like God, to be part of “Being” — the source of all things — and therefore already in possession of all there was to have, “wanted what it was, and was what it wanted.” He called such a gospel-conscious individual “an aristocrat,” a term that evoked a sense of permanent independent self-worth. He was condemned by the Inquisition, in part, “because,” they said, “he confused the ordinary people.” Humility for Eckhart is knowing the truth about who you are. Indeed, in the rigid class society of mediaeval Europe, suggesting that the ordinary people enjoyed the same worth as an aristocrat directly threatened the very basis of social cohesion. The Inquisitors could be expected to take notice.

But this was nothing new. From even before Constantine, mainline Christianity, determined to survive in the real world, had accepted the absurd task of finding a way to make Jesus’ egalitarian vision function within the exploitive two-class society ruled by Rome. That helps explain the schizoid incoherence at the heart of Western civilization. It is an internal contradiction that has functioned throughout its history right down to our day. The Christian West has traditionally proclaimed itself the champion of liberty and equality, while remaining a two-class society ruled by a wealthy elite that routinely exploited the labor of the lower class, conquered and enslaved outsiders perceived as “heathen,” and expropriated their energies and goods. Obedience under these conditions, is not a tool of perfection; it is submission to oppression.

The Roman Empire

I have argued that Roman Christianity as we have inherited it, is not what was preached by Jesus or originally understood by the community of his followers. It is rather a doctrinal and structural distortion developed under the influence of the Mediterranean civilization of the second century dominated by the control needs and theocratic traditions of the Roman Empire.

At that point in time, the Roman Empire was the latest, greatest example of an ancient culture whose economic life functioned on the continuous influx of slaves obtained by conquest. Mediterranean civilization, regardless of the various political structures which its city-states adopted to govern themselves, ran on an economy dependent on slave labor. This created a two class (master-slave) society. Christianity lived with it, but was never able to justify it and seemed resigned to simply accept it. What else explains not only ancient Christian inaction about slavery, but its stone silence.

I contend that a thousand years later, mediaeval aristocracy, born together with feudal serfdom as the coefficients of a purely agricultural economy, was the ultimate product of that anomaly. It was the Western European Christianized version of the ancient Greco-Roman society of masters and slaves which the “barbarians” had inherited with Christianity.

Monastic Obedience and Feudal Serfdom

In the West, the anarchic, almost stateless era between the demise of the Roman slave based commercial economy and the rise of feudal agriculture, was dominated by the Church and its most cohesive social model, the monastery as an agricultural enterprise. The Church could not justify slavery, but it could justify religious obedience. The monastic elevation of obedience into a tool of perfection had the effect outside the monastery of reinforcing the distorted quid pro quo version of the Christian message and provided the link that transformed Roman slavery that had always lived in a shaky co-existence with Christian ideals, into a full blown Church sanctioned obligation. Slavery, effectively, was sublimated. Monasticism gave feudal serfdom a “religious” significance. The serfs’ obedience to their lords was no longer a counsel to resign oneself to an inherited monstrosity; it had become a sacred duty, the very bond of a new social order presided over by the Church that presaged the end of times. It had to be the “will of God.” And in the offing, the ruling class was given a metaphysical upgrade commensurate with its new role as representative of God on earth. Mediaeval aristocracy enjoyed far more than political or economic power; aristocrats were given sacred power. The nobles became God’s surrogates, and their commands were the commands of God to be obeyed in a spirit of latria — worship.

As late as the Peasant Wars in Germany, 1525, the serf’s disobedience to his lord was categorically declared to be “mortal sin” entailing eternal torment in hell. The unspeakable tortures, burnings, blindings and maimings of the peasants that came in the wake of the nobles’ treacherous suppression of the insurgency reflected the religious aura that surrounded the feudal relationship.

Suddenly, the spiritual significance of monastic obedience in the West is revealed to be defenseless against the overarching dominance of obedience’s theocratic role. Theocracy represents a very simple formula. Do what you’re told, it is “God” whom you obey and God’s punishment for disobedience is eternal damnation. Benedict’s attempt to turn obedience from being a response to the threat of eternal punishment into a creative spiritual tool administered by a benign and gospel-conscious father-abbot, had to fail when applied in the aggregate, if only because there were precious few who were interested in exercising authority like benevolent fathers even if they were capable of it.

Eckhart’s attempt to explain obedience as an exercise generating a detachment that imitated a “Godhead” of pure infinite indifference, was necessarily addressed narrowly to fellow monks, because outside the monasteries obedience as a spiritual exercise and not a quid pro quo demand did not exist. Not even the Beguines were structured around a central authority, and the lay people whom Eckhart counselled would generally be under authorities of dubious gospel-consciousness. Benedict’s obedience needs a true father to function because the object of the obedience is not the external compliance, it is the internal surrender.

Obedience /compliance; humility / humiliation

Hence, in this analysis, our own experience is confirmed: the effect of a misapplied obedience can be humiliation rather than humility, and can result in a strengthening of the selfish, self-protective, self-aggrandizing ego born when its own deep origins in the “Godhead” and its own inalienable value are unacknowledged. Once born, the humiliated ego quickly becomes lost in a futile quest to acquire value from outside itself, from a finite world that cannot provide it. The instinct of the desert fathers to use obedience itself as a personal tool to tear down the false ego its misapplication had created, has got to be one of the great achievements of our tradition; but it depended on how it was used. Obedience as mere compliance always remains potentially humiliating.

Eckhart’s theory may seem complex because the unconscious ego has so many surrogates it has identified as necessary to this delusional acquisition of value, but seen from the other side it is really quite simple: our origin in the depths of the Godhead is something we can never lose, making the individual incomparably and inalienably wealthy — like an aristocrat. No amount of superficial loss can affect our roots in the ground itself, and therefore slapping down the false ego does you no real damage. To the contrary it makes you free.

We are made of Esse — God-stuff. Eckhart’s focus on detachment, therefore, is aimed at the central issue: the eternal value of the individual rooted in its existential origination. To be effective, however, it is the one who obeys who must use obedience as a sword to slay the dragon that would devour him.

Seen from this angle, humility becomes even more clearly highlighted as truth. Humility is the flip-side of an aristocratic self-awareness, or as we would say today: an independent sense of self-esteem. It needs nothing because it has everything. In Eckhart’s vision it is grounded in the origins of the individual in Being Itself, the source of all things. It is my contention that Eckhart’s insight is insuperable. There is no way to achieve a sense of independent self-worth without conceding the implication: I am already in possession of an invulnerable well-spring of existence. There is nothing I can accumulate that can compare with what I already have as a human being.

Humility in a material universe

Fast forward to our era. The identity of the human organism with the totality of matter’s energy parallels Eckhart’s identification of the “soul” with the Godhead defined as Esse, Self-subsistent Being. We must remember Eckhart believed both the “soul” and the Godhead were “substantial ideas” meaning “spirits.” It was the state of the art science of his times. We have moved far beyond such conceptions. Our science now suggests that the phenomena we used to attribute to “spirit” are actually the activities of a single substance that displays the qualities and capacities of both matter and spirit. The conceptual system is called “neutral monism,” and it provides an unexpected philosophical congruence with what science observes, measures and describes.

In our world, the observations and measurements of modern science are accepted as the authentic description of what constitutes reality. Everything is made of the same material energy which is a self-transcending dynamism internally driven to survive. In living things it is palpably experienced as the instinct for self-preservation traditionally called the conatus. Every living thing is recognizably driven by its conatus because everything is made of the same material energy. Material energy thus manifests itself as an existential energy. It is a living dynamism for being-here and everything it enlivens is intelligible very simply as a function of continuing to be-here.

This implies an expectation of endlessness. This is not specific to human beings. It is characteristic of everything that lives. The tiniest paramecium’s tireless search for food, mates and the avoidance of predators is, formally speaking, endless: it does not anticipate any moment when living will terminate. Humans are no different. We are programmed to live; we do not expect to die. There is nothing in us that tells us it will ever end, and when the realities of life enter forcibly and make death undeniable, it runs so counter to our instinctive expectations that it can be immobilizing. Our grief can be intense. The human species, of all the billions of living things on earth that we know of, is the only one that knows it will die, but that knowledge is acquired from observation, not internal instinct. As far as the material organism is concerned, we go on forever.

The power of the instinctive drive to live is so overwhelming that even the immobilization of intense grief is effortlessly overcome by the organism in a relatively short time without conscious intervention, and while remembered as a fact, is quickly forgotten as a feeling and no longer interferes with the mundane pursuits of the conatus. The natural attitude of all living matter is simply to live.

What I find remarkable is that despite the vast divergence in the metaphysics between Eckhart and today, the spiritual dynamics remain the same. Whether you believe, as Eckhart did, that the “soul” had existed as an “idea” in the mind of the Godhead of Being from all eternity, or, as I do, that the human organism is constructed of living material energy which is neither created nor destroyed, the implication for the human interpreter is the same: my organism is part of a vast totality that is itself the source — the very well-spring — of existence.

Surrender

It is the individual human perception of independent self-worth that is the sine qua non of Benedictine humility and Eckhartian detachment, both of which in the ancient monastic tradition were elicited by obedience. Monastic obedience was employed to directly challenge the reality of the false ego born of the illusion of groundlessness — the illusion that we are existential isolates, and must create ourselves in order to obey the dictate of the conatus. To the contrary, we who align ourselves with Eckhart in the sense of belonging to the totality of being, know that we have already been created by matter’s evolving energy; we do not need to do it again. What’s left to us is to embrace it.

That means we are talking about surrender … surrender to reality. Ancient monastic obedience is no longer available to us as a resource; there are no abbots to command us. But we can reproduce its action in our lives. Obedience is a metaphor. Obedience symbolizes yielding to the truth of the human immersion in a vast creative project extending beyond the species in every direction and involving the totality of reality. Belonging to a project so immense in both time and extension, reveals the individual attempt to shape and secure an endless existence for itself to be a patent redundancy, an absurd, self-defeating and unnecessary exercise. Obedience means denying that false ego its reality. We do not need an ego in order to exist.

The role of the family community in this awareness is crucial. A community of families who understand they are part of the totality and communicate that conviction to one another, and especially to their children, serves as the medium by which the sense of inalienable self-esteem is made concrete, transmitted and is reinforced for all. The dynamic interaction within such a community obviates the temptation of any individual or group to mis-take the urgings of the conatus and attempt to achieve what is both impossible and unnecessary: to create oneself and expand one’s quota of existence. Of course, it assumes justice as a prerequisite. In such a community voluntary enthusiastic collaboration between individuals may even come to resemble the obedience that the monasteries once employed in the pursuit of perfection.

We are all being carried along in an evolving current that in 14 billion years, using only quarks and leptons — the particles produced in the big bang — created a universe with at least one earth teeming with billions of life forms and dominated by intelligent, thinking organisms of enormous depth and complexity. If evolution makes anywhere near the same exponential leaps in the next 14 billion years, what the future holds in store for evolving matter cannot even be guessed at. And we are THAT. Our reality — and our worth — derives from our place in the whole.

Tony Equale, June 2017

Eckhart’s Obedience

2,800 words

Readers of this blog will likely be familiar with Meister Eckhart. A Dominican friar from Germany, he entered the order in 1275, the same year Thomas Aquinas died, and after a career distinguished by academic achievement at Paris in Thomas’ chair, high administrative responsibility in his order in Germany and the Rhineland, and a widespread reputation as a preacher and counsellor of the Beguines, a lay women’s movement in the Rhineland and the Low Countries, was con­demned by the official Church at Avignon in 1328. He escaped what might have been a most heinous execution by dying of natural causes before sentence could be passed.

His condemnation must be understood in the context of his times. Church authorities used the Inquisition to control groups like the Beguines whom they claimed were guilty of heresy. The Beguines were self-governing communities of laywomen who had dedicated themselves to contemplative prayer and a life of Christian perfection but were not under the control of the official Church or any of its approved religious orders. Eckhart supported them, taught and counselled them and was himself a disciple of one of their own advanced contemplatives, Marguerite Porrete, who was burned at the stake in 1310 in Paris by an Inquisitor of Eckhart’s own order. As for the issue of heresy, many believe it was largely the concoction of church authorities determined to maintain control of a population increasingly aware of the corruption and hypocrisy of the hierarchy. The Beguines were condemned in 1318. Eckhart’s conviction of heresy 10 years later was not an unconnected event.

Eckhart was a monk in an age when spirituality was moving out of the monasteries. Monasticism was coming under criticism for arrogating to religious elites the means of perfection and the contemplative life, while lay men and women were consigned to second class Christian citizenship. Movements like the Beguines and their priest supporters sprang up in response. They were most active in “frontier” areas where new towns were expanding with the influx of serfs freed from their fiefs by land enclosures. The sermons for which Eckhart is most famous and which contain the most radical expression of his vision, were aimed at a spirituality for laypeople. They were delivered in the vernacular German — the language spoken by these searching people — itself a daring and iconoclastic gesture at the time, representing a movement toward democratization. His work was clearly an attempt to bring the best theology to ordinary Christians and to emphasize the effectiveness of the active life in achieving perfection. The Meister was famous for reversing John’s judgment; he said “Martha has chosen the better part.”

It could all be subsumed under the heading of “reform,” and while no definitive reform would be forthcoming for at least another century, and Luther’s revolt, two centuries, the universal desire for reform and the broad outlines of its scope were already in place. Eckhart has been identified as the symbolic precursor of the Reformation in the Christian West. Nevertheless, the mysticism that was characteristic of Eckhart’s time and can be said to constitute the bulk of his contribution, was not characteristic of later reformers. The growing “personalist” spirituality that imagined Jesus as one’s intimate friend, confidant and even spouse, represented by such works as The Imitation of Christ, was not yet solidly in place, and Eckhart’s Logos spirituality had more in common with Benedict of Nursia than Thomas à Kempis.

Eckhart’s system and Doctrine of God

Eckhart’s system was internally consistent. Peoples’ needs derived from what they were as human beings, and that in turn reflected the nature of the “God” from whom they emanated and in whose “ground” they remained immersed for eternity. Whether you began with the behavior he encouraged, or with the doctrine of “God” that he proposed, it all fit together.

Perhaps the place to start is where Eckhart seems most at odds with the mainstream understanding of Christianity: the doctrine of “God.”

For Eckhart, Being, esse, is “God.” This does not seem very radical given the philosophical thought of his age. It is similar to what the principal theologians believed. Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that “God is being.” But their ultimate meaning was different. Aquinas meant that God had his own being which was absolute and unconditioned, but also created another kind of being that was conditioned and dependent on his. Aquinas called the second, esse commune. It was finite; belonged to creatures and was distinct from “God’s” which was esse in se subsistens — infinite. With Eckhart, in contrast, there was only one esse. It was Aristotle’s “Pure Act,” conceptually akin to what, in a material universe we would call “matter’s energy,” and everything that existed participated in the unique and exclusive existence — esse — which was “God.” There were not two esse’s. There was only one. To exist at all, therefore, was to possess and be energized by the only esse there was, and for Eckhart, that was God.

This neo-Platonic participation made Eckhart’s system different from his contemporaries, and the source of misunderstanding that got him in trouble with the thought police. But from our point of view it makes his concept of “God” much closer to what modern science might infer from the absolute autonomy of matter that it observes as the building blocks of all existing things. If material reality is absolutely commensurate with esse, i.e., if matter is the very energy of existence itself, then material energy is “God.” “God” is material, and in a material universe, Eckhart’s “Being is God” remains intact.

Eckhart’s definition of Being as God brought him to imagine a “Godhead” of pure limpid being with characteristics derived from the simple bareness of the concept. This “Godhead” is the serene unrelated “ground” from which all things flowed, and in which the human soul pre-existed as an “idea” in the divine mind from all eternity. Eckhart distinguished the utterly detached Godhead from the image of “God” the Creator of the universe, later identified as a Trinity of Persons who related to humankind in and through the redemptive work of the Logos in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Triune God of Christian doctrine was, for Eckhart, a theophany — a mask — a role, as it were, assumed by the Godhead for the purposes of relating to humankind. To embrace this Trinity, therefore, was not the ultimate quest for human beings. The final goal was to “break through” the conceptual imagery of Christian doctrine and touch the “Godhead” itself in whose infinite ground the finite being finds its home: its origin and place of rest. The “breakthrough” recapitulated the neo-Platonic reditus — the return of all things to their source.

The Trinitarian analog for this cosmic cycle involves the generation of the Son by the Father as a first instance of the “boiling over” of divine self-love in an abundant generosity that necessarily reproduces itself “outside” itself. God cannot help it. He must love and reproduce himself even if he didn’t want to; and since he is ground he reproduces himself as ground. That is the exitus. In a second instance, creation emanates from the Father as part of the same dynamic of overflowing love that generated the Son; and the “boiling over” is reproduced a third time in the “birth of the Son” in the soul of the human being in “grace,” setting up a tension of attraction that propels the individual on a return — a reditus — back to the ground. The “soul,” swept up in this dynamic of Trinitarian love, becomes aware of its destiny — its true identity as ground in the Godhead. When that awareness occurs in this life it is what Eckhart calls “the breakthrough.” This identification with the utterly detached serene transcendent “One” beyond the Trinity who needs nothing is the keynote of Eckhart’s vision.

The “birth of the Son” in the soul means the human being is necessarily immersed in a cosmic trajectory that is finalized only with the breaking through to the “Godhead,” the ultimate ground where there is no more “God” as a Creator-entity separate from the things he creates. All of Being is identified as itself as it was from all eternity. Thus the human being, re-immersed in its source, now knows itself to be “ground,” i.e., everything once thought to be unique to “God.” The soul realizes it is an integral part of its own source and reason for being. It is like a drop of water in the ocean. It’s in describing this Godhead, the Alpha source of the primaeval exitus and the Omega goal of the final reditus, that Eckhart’s language about “God” yaws so noticeably from the mainstream:

The authorities say that God is a being, and a rational one, and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither a 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.[1]

“Free of all things,” is the characteristic of the Godhead, pure Being, who lives in a detachment of unrelated serenity which ultimately must also necessarily characterize the human being who originated in that “ground” and always remains constituted by it. Detachment, therefore, is the key to the liberation of the human being. As the individual becomes more detached, he becomes more and more like the Godhead, the ground to which he is returning.

As a corollary to this concept of the Godhead Eckhart counsels his disciples to avoid “prayer of petition” because the detached unrelated source of all things is beyond change of any kind and therefore could not possibly respond to prayer in time. God has known everyone’s needs from all eternity. Besides, as ground, the human being realizes he needs nothing; to ask for anything more than what one already is, is meaningless.

Obedience and the ego

The “birth of the Son” in the soul marks the incorporation of the individual into this cycle of return. But its occurrence is neither automatic nor passive. The individual is responsible for an active receptivity which involves preparing space for the birth by “letting-go” and “clearing-out” everything that is not consistent with the soul’s own participation in the “ground.” Generally translated “detachment,” Eckhart uses German words that were later picked up by 20th century philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s asceticism, however, is not Eckhart’s. The modern existentialist is trying to find a way for dasein, the human self, to “create” itself (find itself) by allowing “being” to emerge and stand out resolutely in the gale winds of nothingness, while the mediaeval Meister is explicitly intent on eliminating the self-creating human ego in favor of allowing the “ground” which the soul shares with the Godhead, to become empty — the place where the “Son,” a new Self, is born and replaces the false needy and grasping ego.  All this happens here and now, as the point in which God’s creative action is actively sustaining the existence of all things.

The final step for Eckhart is the identification of “obedience” as the most effective tool for achieving detachment — the reduction of the power of the false, self-creating human ego — providing the emptiness which is the sine qua non condition for the entry of God. Once the soul is empty, God flows in, as it were, necessarily here and now, because the soul has become all and only “ground” and, morally speaking, presents no obstacle to the creative presence of the Godhead. There is no longer any false human ego, whose self-will claims to be the creator of itself, blocking God’s access to the shared ground and the “Son’s” loving return.

It is the attachment to imaginary “goods” which are pursued with existential intensity that “clutter” the ground making it impossible for God follow through on the process of bringing the soul back to its ground in the Godhead. Detachment, therefore, equates to a radical poverty that is the flip-side of the infinite wealth (nobility) of the individual. Eckhart called the human soul “the aristocrat” which would explain why the Inquisitors said: “he confused the ordinary people.” The soul, whose ultimate ground existed before birth and is shared with God, is already in possession of that existential wellspring — Being itself — that the ego thinks it lacks and must go out and find and possess. “Letting go” therefore involves dropping the fantasies of need and the delusions of inadequacy that generate the lust for accumulation — including “merit” in the afterlife — that are the spontaneous deceptions of the ego.  

This emphasis on the false ego and its replacement by the infinite aristocratic “Self” of the divine Logos puts Eckhart in a direct line of inheritance with Christian ascetics going back to the New Testament itself. Paul spoke emphatically and often about “putting on Christ” and urged his readers to put aside the “old self” in exchange for the “new self” created to be like God. In Galatians he boasted, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.” Eckhart’s insistence that the “old self” is to be identified as ”having your own way” finds its psycho-spiritual antithesis in obedience.

Following Benedict, since obedience is not sought as an end in itself but only for its power to transform the selfish, grasping, self-exalting self into a generous, compassionate, servant of others, there should be little chance that obedience will be made into an absolute. It is a tool for breaking the habitual self-exaltation and self-protection that requires the abasement and exploitation of others. Obedience is not a totalitarian idol demanding the humiliation and obliteration of the self, an absolute demand of good order, a tool of the state. For Eckhart as for Benedict obedience is not for the sake of society; it is meant to serve the healing of the individual. So it should never fall into the false quid pro quo transactional category that was responsible for turning the gospel into law under Roman tutelage despite Paul’s attempts to prevent it. Obedience is a means for intensifying and re-directing the self’s energy toward the acceptance, enhancement and service of others … turning the ego into a more highly energized “self” driven by donation, generosity, self-emptying and the wellbeing of others: the human recapitulation of the divine “boiling over” of creative love.

In modern terms it is the self-forgetful abundant benevolence characteristic of matter’s energy itself, LIFE, the very “stuff” of which we are made. I am convinced this is essentially what Eckhart experienced. He called it “being,” we call it matter’s self-transcending energy; but it is the same thing. It is the Source of LIFE, the Godhead beyond the metaphors of doctrine. By realigning the self with the “ground,” the return is anticipated in the individual’s contemplative experience. That’s what he calls the breakthrough. We know we belong to the totality, and we are not distracted by seeking a final answer anywhere else than in our return to it.

Self-forgetful, self-emptying. Understanding the transformative purpose of religious obedience brings us back full circle to Benedict’s humility. The achievement of humility represents the final metamorphosis of the false self into the “true self” which Paul said was “to be like God.” Once we realize that obedience is a tool and what it is supposed to be used for, it may occur to us that there are other things that we may use for the same purpose. Not all of us, after all, have access to an “abbot” or another religious superior who understands the transformative function of obedience. Many people are caught in situations — at work, in the family — where obedience is demanded for all the wrong reasons by someone whose own sense of inadequacy requires the abasement and exploitation of others for compensation. Obedience under these circumstances will more than likely have a reverse demonic effect. The assaulted “ego” will defend, protect and enlarge itself.

But the person sincerely in search of humility, having understood its significance, can find alternatives to religious obedience that will work as tools for the transformation of the self. There is nothing “sacred” about obedience in itself. Detachment can be pursued by other means. Once we understand that the false, self-exalting self is nothing but a futile attempt to compensate for one’s own feelings of inadequacy and exclusion, our awareness of our eternal origin in the “ground” (our belonging to the totality of matter’s energy) and the divine dynamic at work in bringing us back to our source (the return of the material of our organisms to the pool at death to be recycled), gives us a foothold for denying the ego’s demands. “Obedience” can be taken as a metaphor for anything that will help us deflate the false ego.

post script

Matter’s self-transcending energy and Eckhart’s Esse

800 words

In the universe observed by modern science, all things are constructed from the same building blocks: the quanta of material energy, sometimes observed as particles, sometimes as waves or energy fields. Metaphysically speaking, there is only one “kind of thing” out there, material energy in the form it has assumed as the result of the aggregation, integration and complexification of itself — evolution. There is nothing else. Since material energy is all that exists, it is reasonable to assert that its energy is before all else an energy for being-here. In other words, there is no other “existence” that is prior to or responsible for the existence of self-transcen­ding matter.  Self-transcending matter is esse — the energy of existence.

Of course we know Eckhart was a Platonist and thought of “being” as an idea. But in his world, ideas were also “things,” what they called “substances.” The substance genus to which ideas belonged was immaterial “spirit.” Being was a very special idea; it included all other things and all other ideas. It was an infinite and transcendent Spirit. That could only be “God.”

Eckhart’s focus on the simplicity of Being meant that his worldview was an idealist monism akin to Hegel. Everything that existed was Being, “God” by participation. Since being was immaterial, everything was basically “spirit.” Eckhart does not explain why or how “matter” came to exist in this world of spirit, and as far as humans are concerned, matter has no meaning except as a foil for spirit. Spirit dominated the universe. Matter was a kind of non-being, or anti-being that needed to be eliminated or neutralized so spirit could realize its full potential.

However, if we take “being” and “material energy” to be conceptual equivalents, as modern science suggests, Eckhart’s terminology explains the world much better than dualists like Aquinas, because esse in our world is also a monism. For us everything is made of self-transcen­ding matter; there is no such thing as “spirit.” Spiritual phenomena are the products of matter. Ideas are not things. They are the changeable mental states that human organisms assume when they think. People are “things.” Ideas are not.

Participation was a Platonic notion that worked within that ancient theory of substantial ideas: two “things” of the same species, like two people, must participate in the idea of what they have in common: humanity. The physical compenetration implied in participation was believed possible precisely because ideas were immaterial. Also, the two participants were both human beings, they shared the same one idea univocally. Humanity was the same in all its manifestations.

However, two existing things, God and any creature, both participate in the idea of being. But Being is “God.” God and creatures are not at all on the same level. Therefore the idea of being could not be applied to each univocally. Aquinas proposed that being be applied analogously to God and creatures, effectively dividing the concept of being between esse that was unencumbered by any principle of limitation, and esse that was limited by a defining form. The first he called esse in se subsistens, and the latter he called esse commune.

But the concept of Being is not divisible without introducing a factor which would have to be some kind of unrealized potential. Esse commune includes such potency as part of its definition. But that would contradict the very definition of Being as Act. Once it stopped being Pure Act and admitted a potential to be more, it stopped being “Being.” Once potency was introduced it became a “thing.”

Also ideas are only “one.” Divide an idea by some qualitative differentiation and you have two ideas, not one idea with two “levels” of itself. So Aquinas’ attempt to avoid pantheism amounted to an equivocal predication. He ended up saying that there were two separate “esse’s,” one that belonged to God and the other that was proper to all created things.

Unfortunately for Eckhart, his idealism also falls by the same premise. This highlights the contradictions internal to all forms of Idealism (belief in “immaterial” reality). “Being” as an idea cannot be shared at different levels (i.e., between Creator and creature) without imagining it as something divisible, that means quantifiable, which immediately neutralizes it as an idea and converts it into some kind of “stuff,” matter. To imagine Being as Act that is quantifiable is to imagine esse as a force field, material energy. It stops being only an idea, “spirit,” and becomes “stuff,” matter . Eckhart’s system works as a monism of neutral, self-transcen­ding matter.

But if the energy packets that constitute material reality are themselves the very act of existence, they are esse, and we participate in its energy by literally disposing of different quantities and levels of complexification of these quanta of energy without sacrificing anything of their quality as existential.

To make all this easier to grasp, think of LIFE itself. A large complex multi-cellular animal like a human being is not any more alive than a single celled paramecium. Similarly, all things are “God” by participation because they are made of the same “stuff” as “God” — material energy — while their “level” of functioning differs from one another by the amount of material energy possessed and the degree of complexity achieved through evolution enjoyed by the organism at that point in time. “God” is the infinite pool of material energy that expresses itself in incrementally more sophisticated ways through the emergent forms that it has evolved into. That’s why we call it self-transcending materialism. Evolution determines the form and function of the living energy of matter. “God” in this system, as Whitehead said, is both Alpha and Omega — the initial fully dispersed energy source driving the evolving complexification of matter, and matter’s eventual advanced level of functioning made possible by that evolution. If you want an example, just look at our spectacular universe with earth’s trillion of hierarchically ordered life forms from cyanobacteria to humankind. We are all — ALL — made of the same stuff.

Eckhart must have had something like the totality of the pool of material energy in mind when he generated his imagery about the “Godhead” as ground and the “soul’s” participation in it. He could not have been clearer: “God” was not an entity, nor rational, nor a person, and everything was part of “God” and necessarily shared those characteristics, therefore “God was all things.”

Let’s not get lost here. Forget the mediaeval categories. “God,” as John asserted, is LIFE. Science may avoid using the name but it does not dispute the fact, and LIFE as we find it, is material.

Tony Equale, May 20, 2017

[1] From sermon 52: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” printed in Meister Eckhart trans. Colledge & McGinn, Paulist Pr 1981, p.201