“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.

Sex, Celibacy and the Nature of God

Part 1

2,400 words

April 2017

The argument of this short essay is not complicated or particularly original, but it is world changing for Christianity and especially Catholicism. Simply put, beyond all the theological controversies, doctrinal disagreements and even major religious differences in the West, the “nature” of “God” was one “doctrine” that no one disputed. I contend that all the western religious programs are emanations of that assumed idea of “God.” Once you change that idea, your religious program, and the human society that is built on it will necessarily change radically. Christianity is one example of how the idea of “God” shaped religion and eventually an entire culture.

It was all contained in the word. Once you said “God” you could only mean one thing … an “idea” that by the middle ages some claimed was so clear and inarguable that it included within itself proof for the existence of what it denoted. In other words, the very concept forced you to conclude by iron logic that there had to be a “God.” This was called the “ontological argument.” It was first articulated by Anselm of Canterbury in 1076, and then reissued in slightly different form in later centuries by other philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz. Anselm’s classic statement concluded: “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogium)

The cogency of that argument has been challenged since its publication and rejected by most mainline theologians. But regardless of its effectiveness as a “proof,” its perennial re-emer­gence seems to be due to the phenomenon we are discussing here: that no one, even its opponents, disputed the definition of ‘God’ that it was built on: “a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Such an overarching label contained, of course, everything we have always imagined “God” to be: a separate entity, a rational person, all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, the source, origin and sustenance of all things and the model on which they were designed.

The evolution of “God”

The various aspects of that definition evolved in the Near east beginning in pre-history. A Semitic tribe who called themselves “Hebrews” attributed their existence, inheritance and political destiny to a god named “Yahweh.” Their original understanding of what Yahweh was like mirrored the beliefs of the people in their part of the world and evolved over time. He was thought to be one of a multitude of war gods whose status in the divine realm rose or fell depending on the success or failure of the tribe on earth with whom they had an association sealed by contract. The contract stipulated that Yahweh would provide victory in battle and political ascendancy to the tribe in exchange for worship, sacrifices, monuments, love and respect from the tribe’s people. Love and respect was shown by adherence to a code of ritualized conduct that would mark them out as his devotees wherever they went.

As their political fortunes sank in the competition for power in the fertile crescent of that era, the decision of the “nation,” now called Israel, to remain faithful to their god despite his failure on the battlefield, introduced a new dimension into their national religion and a new understanding of the terms of the contract. After the catastrophic exile to Babylon in 587 bce, they realized that, with Yahweh, it could not be a business contract about success or failure. Their growing awareness that peace and harmony among men was actually the result of human moral behavior — justice — brought them to a deeper appreciation of what the commandments meant and therefore what Yahweh ultimately was all about. Their code of conduct came to be appreciated for its moral significance, and Yahweh was understood now as a god of moral wisdom whose superiority over other gods was not military, but had to do with spiritual depth. Yahweh’s greatness resided in the fact that he gave his people the Torah — the Law — which taught men how to live justly, collaborate and thrive. The relationship endured the transition back to Palestine, and the people were able to accept their abasement as an element of what they were learning about religion and life … and this strange god of theirs. In tandem with their own moral evolution their idea of Yahweh had matured and their relationship with him deepened the way husbands and wives deepen their bond through overcoming trials. No longer a contract for war and the accumulation of power, Israel’s agreement with Yahweh was seen more like a marriage between loving and forgiving spouses who at the end of the day were interested in being together … having one another … whatever their worldly fate.

The Song of Songs

These sentiments were articulated in an extraordinary assortment of openly erotic love poems found among the Wisdom books in the Hebrews’ sacred writings assembled after the exile. They are known collectively today as “The Song of Songs,” and “The Song of Solomon,” in earlier English versions, “The Canticle of Canticles.” Some believe they were intentionally composed as an allegory of Yahweh’s relationship with Israel, and others think the poems were common love songs that were selected for the purpose of elucidating the new insight about the nature of the contract.  In either case, commentators agree that they are post exilic and their religious significance was collective, not individual.  It had to do with a new understanding of the covenant, the contract, the relationship between Yahweh and his people.

These poems sing of the intensities of emotion that attend relationships involving sexual love between a man and a woman. They describe the joy of togetherness and possession, and the anguish and despair of separation and loss. Whether they were written for the purpose of characterizing the vicissitudes between the suffering Hebrew people and their protector or not, the entire series must be read as precisely such a metaphor. Yahweh is depicted as a man and is given a dominant, ruling, protecting male personality, Israel as a woman, a weak, needy, vulnerable female eager for union with the male lover.

There is no sense dwelling on the difference between a metaphorical and a literal interpretation of these poems. The distinction made no difference to the people who wrote, selected or read the poetry. They saw the similarities and that was the object of their interest. It was not until the scientific mentality of later centuries that anyone cared at all about what was literal and what was metaphor: before that they were both real in the same way because they both had the same effect. If the poems presented Yahweh as a humanoid male person, it was because that was what everyone thought he was, and there was no reason to suspect that he wasn’t or would not act the part, in any case.

Christians appropriated that poetry as they did the entire Bible and applied it to their own community, the Church.  Ho theos, “God” — the word they used instead of Yahweh — was identified with the “Word,” who had taken flesh in the man Jesus. The “Word” was like a male lover of universal humanity whose union with humankind in the Incarnation were the nuptials that constituted the Church.

While the “Song of Songs” is exclusively focused on love imagery, the theme is not limited to that book. It is found throughout the scriptures of both testaments. At first, the Christian usage paralleled the Hebrew by seeing the poems as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The subsequent application of the clearly individual imagery of the poems to the relationship between “God” and the individual Christian “soul” was an inevitable development and internally consistent: for what is the Catholic Church but the aggregate of its people, the totality of its individual members. The imagery of the Song of Songs soon came to be primarily applied to the relationship between “God” and the individual (Christian) soul and in that form the poems took on an entirely different theological meaning, and one that came to dominate the Christian view of life and redemption. The transition from collective to individual application had the effect of replacing the allegorical character of the poetry with a literal significance, for it eliminated the distance between the analogs. Individual terminology was now applied to a relationship between individual lovers; insisting on allegory under these circumstances would have amounted to a forced reading that could not be expected to endure. It was a major influence on the Western version of the “nature” of “God.”

Nicaea’s Doctrine of “God”

These developments were occurring historically at the same time as the doctrine of “God” being elaborated by Christian theologians under the influence of the political demands of the Roman State, was forced into an unnatural focus on the unique personality of “God-with-Us” in Jesus and his elevation to equal divine status with the “Father.” Nicaea had the effect of “personalizing” “God” in Christ and justifying the spirituality that imagined this new human personal “God” as entering into a love relationship with an individual human person. The elements of the prior, platonic imagery of “God” as a nameless, motionless, distant and infinitely transcendent “Spirit” far removed from any possible contact with humankind, receded into the background as Christians turned their attention to the worship of the god-man, Christ, and compliance with “his” moral demands as the “Judge of the Living and the Dead.” The devotion to Mary was necessitated by this elevation of Jesus from being mediator — one of us, pleading on our behalf — to being “God” himself.  Mary became the new mediator, a human being we could trust to intercede for us with her Son.

“God” became a thoroughly human person and it was as a human person that “he” was imagined to relate to the individual soul, and the “Song of Songs” was disproportionately influential in guaranteeing that that imagery about “God” dominated the Christian imagination.

This was reinforced by the agreement of the “Fathers” of the Church, the earliest interpreters of Christianity who wrote during the first seven hundred years of Christian history. In sermons, letters, reflections and theological treatises, they elaborated what the Church as always regarded as the most authentic understanding of its own significance and the safest pathway to redemption — correct relationship to “God.”  New Testament Paul’s explicit identification of the relationship between Christ and the Church as a “marriage” was the first Christian reference to the tradition. Hippolytus of Rome in the second century wrote a lost treatise on the “Song,” but it was given a thorough theological exploration by Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian considered the greatest Christian thinker of antiquity.  Many consider him a martyr.  He was imprisoned during the persecution of Emperor Decius and cruelly tortured.  He was physically broken and died in 254 A.D.  Origen‘s vision was embraced and his thinking imitated by subsequent Fathers.  Gregory of Nyssa wrote his own commentary on “The Song” in the fourth century; Ambrose of Milan quoted extensively from “The Song” in his treatises on “God” and virginity. The “Song’s” significance was also evident in the work of Jerome and Augustine.

By the end of antiquity, through the consensus of the Fathers, the interpretation that the love poems of the “Song” were allegorical representations of the intimate relationship between Christ and the individual soul had come to achieve almost biblical status. In collaboration with the Platonic distortions about the evil of the fleshly matter, it grounded the pursuit of Christian perfection in the suppression of human sexuality. The ideal Christian was a virgin, or failing that, a committed celibate.

Sponsa Christi, Christian Virginity

The virginal ideal occupied a privileged place among the Christians of Late Antiquity. But however unchallengeably superior, it still remained a counsel that was understood to be completely voluntary. There were no laws forbidding marriage;  however, the pressures of the neo-Platonic denigration of the flesh made adamant by a still competitive Manichaean Christianity, introduced legal restrictions on the exercise of sexuality by priests on the days they celebrated the eucharist.  As early as the fourth century, seven hundred years before celibacy was to be mandated by conciliar degree, Councils at Elvira in Spain and Carthage in North Africa were insisting that the priests that consecrated the eucharist were to abstain from intercourse with their wives. The writing was on the wall. The identification of sexuality as evil or at least as hostile to the sacred was clearly functional at the same time that Christian perfection was being defined as a marriage relationship with Christ. The unambiguous call to virginity using the texts of the “Song” as support, was a principal theme for Western Fathers like Ambrose and Jerome. You married Christ and you forsook all others exactly the way a bride embraced her husband and forsook intimate contact with all other men. The two events could not have been so correlated in practice if they were not in fact also taken to be of the same order of metaphysical reality. To cling to Christ was a psycho-sexual act that could not occur in the presence of a similar embrace of a finite human being. “God” and man were literally equated as sexual partners; to have one was to exclude the other. Celibacy was a simple matter of fidelity. Despite theologians’ insistence that they were applying the poems of the “Song” allegorically, in practice they functioned literally, and that led to the absurd image of the sponsa Christi, the “bride” of Christ as a literal relationship on which it was believed you could build your life.

An added anomaly in this whole issue was that the sponsa Christi image was applied equally to men as to women on the grounds that the anima, the soul, was feminine, while “God” and certainly Christ were indisputably male. This mixing of metaphors helps explain why the imagery of the “bride” may have worked well in communities of women but always problematically with men. The gender reversal was not so easily accomplished, though as we know, certainly not beyond the pale of possibility. The human imagination, apparently, has no limits.

Part 2

2,100 words

Monasteries

Because monasticism pre-dated Christianity, many of the elements of its program were traditional and did not necessarily reflect the focus on the sacred marriage as the goal of the monk’s pursuits. But in the western tradition founded by Ambrose and Jerome, the counsel offered specifically to communities of religious women about the centrality of the “Song” and its relationship with “God,” came to represent something of an alternative — a source of revival and renewal when traditional male monasticism following Benedict’s ancient rule needed reform. The Cistercian reform instituted at Citeaux in 1098 founded a daughter monastery at Clairvaux in 1115 under the leadership of the Abbot Bernard, Clairvaux’s most famous monk and the order’s most dedicated reformer. His spirituality was characterized by his greatest written work: Sermons on the Song of Songs.

Bernard’s reputation as a reformer made him the most prominent political figure in Europe in an Age when the Church dominated politics. He rallied European monarchs behind the papacy of Innocent II averting a deep schism in Christendom; he organized the second Crusade for the conquest of Palestine at the request of Pope Eugenius III who as Bernardo de Pisa had been a monk at Clairvaux under himself as abbot. So it should not come as a surprise to learn that Abbot Bernard had been an organizing force at the 2nd Lateran Council which decreed universal clerical celibacy in 1139. One can assume that the influential author of the 86 sermons On the Song of Songs supported the Council’s canons 6 and 7 which ordered all clergy above the order of subdeacon to put away their wives.

The Mediaeval theocratic dream of a “Kingdom of God on Earth” which had been conjured by the Papal domination of Christendom, resisted being rudely awakened to the reality of the resulting dysfunction by the constant call to reform. “Reform” kept the dream alive. The Church exclusively looked to the monasteries for its reformers. The monks and their way of life were seen as the only salvation from Church corruption. It is my contention that the disastrous imposition of celibacy on the universal priesthood was part of the overall attempt to bring monastic ideals and discipline to a Church hierarchy addicted equally to the pursuit of impossible platonic absurdities and the wealth and personal security that came with power.

Celibacy was perhaps a viable demand in monasteries where the sexual drive could be sublimated by a family interaction supplied by the community. But to impose celibacy on the universal clergy living alone in the world was to invite a level of hypocrisy and corruption far greater than the inheritance of parish benefices by the sons of priests which had occasioned the reform measure of 1139.

Faith in the “magic” Church

Whatever historians may claim about the economic reasons why clerical celibacy has remained mandatory, I believe that its identification with the Catholic “brand” is indisputable and is entirely due to the mystical dimension. The wizard with magic powers “married to ‘God’” is at the heart of the mystique of the Catholic priest.  It formed the cornerstone of a constellation of “beliefs” considered characteristically “Catholic” that had evolved in the Middle Ages that included the “real” (physical) presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread (permanently present in the Church tabernacle) uniquely provided by the magical powers of the ordained priest whose “soul” had received a special sigillum — “seal” — that would remain for eternity … and the ability, also unique to the priest, to elevate “imperfect” (selfish, frightened) contrition to “perfect” (meriting immediate salvation) through the magical words of absolution in the sacrament of penance (auricular confession).  These beliefs were the bedrock of Catholic parish life for a thousand years, and the scholarship acknowledged by Vatican II that identified them all as of questionable Christian authenticity could not prevail against it.  The perdurance of this configuration of beliefs can be seen today in current cultural artifacts like Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a film of 2017 whose evocation of the Japanese martyrs of the 17th century could be called “an exploration of faith” only because of the lingering nostalgia for the historically obsolete ideology of Tridentine Catholicism that it was premised on.

It was because of this “faith” in the effective (miraculous) presence of a “God”-entity in the lives of believing Catholics — in the eucharistic bread, in the powers of the priest to forgive sins, and in the mystical presence of Christ in the person of the celibate priest “married to ‘God’” whose fidelity to his vows was itself a proof of “God’s” miraculous presence — that Catholics believed there was no alternative. “Outside the Church there was no salvation,” and they knew exactly why.

The Nature of “God”

The entire point of this essay is to reflect on the nature of “God,” and how that affected the nature of the Church. It should be clear from what has been said so far that much of what Catholics believe about the nature of “God” has been shaped by imagery drawn from ancient sources and ancient ways of relating to “God.” It also should go without saying that the understanding of what “God” is like has evolved through the ages in tandem with our own growing understanding of ourselves and the world around us. This occurred as much in ancient times as it has in our own. The “nature of ‘God’” is not something “out there” we can look at in itself in order to determine what it is, nor was it “revealed” and clearly recorded in the Bible.  What “God” is like can only be inferred from what we know about ourselves and our world, and is time-dependent on when we come to know it on the time line of our evolving moral consciousness.

I contend that the allegory of the “Song of Solomon” early in Christian history came to be taken literally instead of symbolically, and that collaborated with other influences to fatally skew our understanding of what “God” is like.   That disastrous distortion, I am convinced, prevented any true relationship to “God” from occurring, and resulted in a Church whose authority structures, ritual practices, disciplinary decrees and pastoral counseling were warped and twisted to conform to the implications of that impossible and absurd relationship.

Mystical marriage, the theme of the 16th century “theology” of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, imagined a “God” who was a rational humanoid entity — a being — whose masculine “presence” and “absence” was literally reflected in the emotions of the human individual, falsely identified as a feminine “soul” regardless of whether their body was male or female.   It was further believed that such a marriage was in every affective respect, except physical sexuality, able to take the place of marriage between humans, and if it did not, it was entirely the fault of the human partner who failed to yield to the advances of the divine lover.

The attempt to build a Church on a priesthood defined by such impossible fantasies accounts for the massive dysfunction of Catholic clerical life in every age: celibate hypocrisy became the norm and cover-up its constant companion. The continued absurd belief in a humanoid personal “God” is also responsible for the Catholic failure to integrate with the realities of life in our universe across the board, from the inability to accept the real creative initiative of matter in the evolution of the cosmos, through the realities of psychic inheritance due to human evolution (not original sin) and the common sense acknowledgement of the sexual and family needs of every human being.

“God” and true mysticism

“God” is not a “being, greater than which nothing can be imagined;” “God” is not an individual entity of any kind, so is not a “being.”  “God” is energy, LIFE, in mediaeval terms, Pure Act.  Therefore “he” is neither a “he” nor a “person” as we use the term. “God” is not outside of or other than the universe of matter. “God” is the pervasive and all-suffusive energy of LIFE and existence, and as such is intimately interior to every particle of matter and every individual entity everywhere and at all times in the immensely long history of our vast cosmos. “God’s” intimate interior presence to any human individual, far from taking the place of their relationship with a human sexual partner is the source of the outward focus of their sexual need: toward a companion for the purpose of survival and reproduction — more LIFE.  When the mystic is in touch with “God” he is in touch with his own personal, individual concrete LIFE-force transmitted to him with the cells of his parents and pre-disposed to certain preferences through the inherited configurations of his body and the behavioral choices he has made. The face of the “God” who enlivens his self is his very own face, always open to new choice, always aware of its conditioned dependent nature because of the driven character of his conatus, always in need of LIFE because it knows intimately — connaturally — it is not LIFE itself.

This “God” of ours, we have come to realize, is not as our sacred sources and ancient traditions have depicted.  “He” is not “male,” and even Genesis suggested that both male and female were required to even give a modicum of accuracy to the nature of the creative, generous, LIFE-giving, openhanded, big-hearted energy that was “God.” “God” is not a person. “God” is exactly as you see LIFE functioning throughout all the levels of biota and in all the environmental niches across the face of the earth, from deep-sea thermal vents, to dust particles circling high above the planet in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. There is nothing arcane, or hidden, or mysterious, or self-protective about LIFE.  It readily yields its secrets to our probing instruments and our penetrating mathematics.  Its vulnerability is legendary: we swat a fly fearlessly without a thought about reprisal from the phylum of Arthropoda.  LIFE is as fully present in the fly as in us despite the vastly different levels of functioning.

So we say LIFE is an energy that exists and functions in and through emergent entities congealed and configured through the drive of the conatus to survive and to thrive. “God” is not the person we thought.  We were misled by our ancestors who may be forgiven their mistake.  How could they have known otherwise?  Look at the world, it all fits together like a clock.  How natural to think that some rational Craftsman designed and fashioned it that way.  We know better now.  Thanks to centuries of science and the commitment to sit humbly at the feet of nature we are coming to understand. “God” is not a rational “being.”

I am not the first to realize this. The great mediaeval Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, the immediate successor to Thomas Aquinas in the chair of theology at Paris, writing in the 1320’s in Germany said:

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. Therefor God is free of all things and therefore he is all things.[1]

“God” is an immense, all-pervasive benvolent and superabundant creative force — the energy of matter — that lends its very own “self” to be the flesh and bones and scales and fur and horns and hooves of all things that fly and swim and crawl and hunt and think and build. But “God” is not our “friend,” “God” is not our “lover,” “God” is not a warrior or a psychiatrist or a surgeon or judge and executioner. Just as we have to learn to forgive our ancestors for their mistakes in thinking they knew the face of “God,” so too we must learn to forgive the real “God” for not being the fantasy that we had cherished and come to expect. “God” is not the protective father nor punishing policman our infantile selves need, to do and to avoid what we know we should.  “God” is not a champion. “God” is not a hero. If we want heroes, let‘s be heroes. If we want champions, be a champion. After all, the LIFE energy coursing in our veins is “God’s” own energy, and if that energy is to become all it can be, it is only with our collaboration and acquiescence.  If “God” is to be a hero it is in and through our heroism, for the LIFE we share in, is the only “God” there is.

 

 

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

 

Religion in the Modern World

1,657 words

Religion is a Gordian knot.  Its transcendent effects, always mysterious even when not horrifying, are so beyond our ability as a species to control that it seems entirely independent of us … like a demon or collective delusion that has taken possession of our minds.  Indeed many have decided that religion is simply not human and that it must change radically or we are better off without it.  And yet even these people remain in thrall to it, for despite their profound misgivings religion continues to intrigue and invite.

Others who also acknowledge religion’s destructive side claim to have seen enough of its benefits to feel differently.  Religion needs to change but they believe what is required amounts to little more than repairing the disconnect between religion as a ancient local phenomenon and the realities of modern global life.   Once that adjustment is made religion will prove to be the solution to the most perplexing problems that we face as a planetary species for it will provide us with a sustained sense of the sacred.  It was exactly such an optimistic assumption that I believe inspired Vatican II.  Fifty years later, however, even the optimists have conceded that as far into the future as the eye can see, aggiornamento, re-casting religion in a modern idiom” may still be discernible on the horizon, but it has not moved any closer to us.

Everyone is ambivalent.  Everyone finds religion a conundrum.

Both these groups agree that religion needs to change.  But even before getting into the details of what “doctrines” should change, we should notice that the difference between their perspectives is quite profound.  For the first is wary of religion precisely as  uncontrollable and a source of conflict, and would condition religion’s very existence on neutralizing its destructiveness and harnessing its power to human needs.  As far as they are concerned, therefore, anything that suggests that religion is beyond human control is unacceptable.  A supernatural religion, that is, one allegedly designed and revealed by “God,” by definition, is not human.  It cannot change.  Such a belief is itself the very source of religion’s conflictive nature for it puts problem doctrines beyond the human power to modify.  Religion must be subjected to rational control or it will continue to divide us and justify our worse sociopathic inclinations.   Such a demand for control strikes at the very heart of the religious imperative in the West: submission to “God.”  It is good to remember that the word “Islam” means surrender.  All the western “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — share that central dynamic.

The view held by progressive traditionalists, on the other hand, is that in its current form religion is an historical, culturally conditioned, social artifact and, while not denying that it comes from “God,” is fully human.  As a human phenomenon it can be trusted to evolve under the environmental pressures of a global society that no longer identifies with its local roots in history and culture.  Therefore the proper approach is to work within the institutional form that religion has assumed at any given point in time and encourage those influences that will change religion in the direction of the desired universalism.  (Why such a supposedly “human” religion has not already evolved on its own, however, is not explained.)

I want to pause at this point and allow the internal contradictions implicit in what we have observed so far be brought into clear relief.  They will help guide our reflections.

The first is that to speak of religion as a human artifact and simultaneously claim it was designed and revealed by “God” is a contradiction, unless you are operating with a concept of an immanent “God” whose presence and intentionality is materially indistinguishable from the natural world.   Only that kind of “God” could possibly be the divine source of a religion over which humans had total control.  Western “religions of the book” have never accepted such a pan-entheist “God.”  It is unlikely that they will suddenly do so.

Moreover, the very “sense of the sacred” that characterizes all traditional religion derives not from the immanence, but from the assumed  transcendence of “God.”  People believe that religion has the power to connect us to “another world” because it comes from a “God” who transcends the natural order.  It is precisely a “God” who is “other” that makes religion “sacred” and distinct from the “profane” world of our everyday lives.  It is that “otherness” that explains the additional energy that religion provides — “the sense of the sacred” — an energy that does not come from man, but from a transcendent “God.”  Control of religion by humankind is not part of this picture.

This brings us to a further anomaly.  Those who insist that religion is a purely human artifact still somehow expect that it will provide a sustained sense of the sacred without explaining howSince the sense of the sacred appears to come only from religion’s distinction from the profane, unless there is some other source, a sense of the sacred cannot be generated.   Aren’t the would-be controllers promoting an empty shell that may look like religion in name and ceremony but is hollow and self-serving?  Indeed, anything that fails to turn humankind’s gaze beyond itself — to something “other” than itself — cannot hope to sustain the selflessness that the “sense of the sacred” is supposed to evoke.  Without a transcendent “God” what will do that?

If a sense of the sacred is not possible without a transcendent “God,” it means that the energy that both groups hope to channel toward the solution of human conflict, is not something over which we can claim ownership or control.  If we could, it would not be authentically religious — it would not be from “God.”  Religious energy is a very special phenomenon, it is assumed, that comes only from religion, and religion is religion only because it comes from “God.”

This is the heart of the problem: the assumed transcendence of “God.”  Based on these premises a dialog among those genuinely interested in the modernization of religion will find itself at an impasse before it can even get started.  For the religious “naturalists” will insist on principle that any “sense of the sacred” must arise from the natural world; if there is to be change, the “sense of the sacred” cannot come from a supernatural “God.”

Even between traditional religionists of different persuasions who are convinced of the “supernatural” origins of the sense of the sacred, the transcendence of “God” is a stumbling block.  For the insistence that your own religion enjoys real supernatural contact, while others’ do not, forces you to disparage others’ sense of the sacred as only wishful thinking.  But it won’t work.  The uniformity of the phenomenon wherever it is found is too obvious.  It belies any attempt to distinguish them by origin.

The disputants find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.  For everyone must acknow­ledge that the religious energy — the sense of the sacred — of other religions, which is indistinguishable from their own, has to have the same origin.  Such an admission will equalize all religions as valid points of contact with “God.”  Reasonable as that may sound, it is more than some Churches will tolerate.  Roman Catholicism, for example.  The Catholic Church insists on its absolute superiority to all others.

Sed contra

The tangle of problems that surface in this preliminary scan of the issue are all tied together by a series of assumptions and premises about supernatural religion and its transcendent “God” that are, despite their antiquity and universality, simply untenable.  I contend that no religious dialogue can even begin unless we deny all of the premises embedded in the above “positions” and argue, that

(1) Our sense of the sacred is innate and natural.  It comes from the conatus of the living material organism and not from a “God” who dwells in another world.  Even those who do not believe in “God” have a sense of the sacred.  The sense of the sacred is indeterminate and can take virtually any form.  It can be distorted or denied but not suppressed; the attempt to suppress will just cause it to emerge in another form.

(2) Religion is a human social artifact which from its very inception was elaborated by the local community to control and focus the spontaneous human sense of the sacred.  It does not come from the ethereal revelations a transcendent “God” and it can be changed in accord with its mandate for the benefit of people.

(3) There is no metaphysical separation or distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Such distinctions as may still exist among us are the social residue of the practices of obsolete transcendent religions.  They are communal habits that will disappear under the tutelage of an immanent “God.”

(4) “God” is the unknown sustaining source of LIFE.  As such “God” is directly implicated in the perception of LIFE by the material organism and is, therefore, both the source and object of desire of the conatus.  There is no physically perceivable difference between what we mean by “God” and the energy of any living organism and that includes all human beings.  Whatever distinction may exist between them is relational in character (i.e., source-to-recipient / parent-to-offspring); it is cognitively implicit and materially indistinguishable.

Moreover, the fact that belief in a transcendent supernatural and historically revealed local humanoid “God” was used extensively, in the past,  by some people to justify their conquest and enslavement of others whose religious beliefs were vilified as “false,” adds to the suspicion that this was not an unintended unconscious mistake.  It is seen as purposeful prevarication in the service of domination, causing all conversation to be instantly terminated.  This approach simply won’t work.  It renders dialog impossible.  For me it is an indirect proof that it is based on false premises.  I am convinced that when we discover what is true, it will work.

 

The Big Picture (4)

A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book

4

Religion in the West, admittedly, has become a problem for modern man. It is so dominated by a false literalist narrative inherited from antiquity that it explains if not excuses Carroll’s antipathy. Carroll is right. Religion’s antiquated narrative is incompatible with science. If that was his concern, he should be reassured that there are many “religionists” who acknow­ledge science’s authority in matters of cosmological importance and are com­mit­ted to developing a new narrative that is compatible with science. Out of commitment to the poetic side of his “poetic naturalism” he might consider joining us in our efforts.

Granted that traditional religion is obsolete, we also recognize that religion has helped people cope with decline and death. Whatever other shortcomings Religion may have, it has provided “meaning” in the form of explanation and poetry. Carroll recognizes we have a right to both.   But he will not entertain the possibility that religion, purged of its defects, might be the poetry his explanations are lacking.

Western Religion’s traditional “solution” of the human problem was not factual. The narrative that there is another world of “spirits” from which we came and to which our disembodied “souls” will return after death is pure fiction. I agree. There is no other world. There are no bodiless souls; our personalities, which are the neural reflections of the coherence and temporal identity of our material organisms, disappear when our bodies disintegrate.

We are entropic beings. We participate fully in the limitations endemic to LIFE in this exclusively material universe. The “poetic” dimension should acknowledge and addres­s the apparent contradiction between a material energy that is instinctively programmed to live forever (and spontaneously cultivates relationships in view of that expectation) and is simultaneously destined to succumb to an organismic entropy that terminates all the relationships created during the lifespan of the organism. I may not care if I live or die, but I am not resigned to the loss of the people I love.

How does religion address this? How does it both acknowledge and confront the inherent contradiction in the human condition?

The first step is to distinguish religion’s intent from the traditional means chosen to achieve it. The means chosen, the narratives all preceded the era of modern science and therefore were inevitably imaginative in character. So, Yes! The religious narrative must be adjusted to accommodate the new knowledge. This adjustment is not complicated: pre-scientific “facts” are taken as mythic, i.e., metaphorical not literal. But myth has another dimension. The traditional myth also embodies the religious intent of the narrative; and the religious intent, I contend, may remain true even after the discreditation of the literal story.

Let’s make this concrete: The biblical book of Genesis contains the Judaic myth of creation. Until the modern era people believed that this was a literal account. We now know, however, that the earth and life on it was not the intentional, purposeful work of an omnipotent humanoid Craftsman; it was the self-elaboration of matter occurring over fourteen billion years. The ancient authors were probably well aware that they were making up a story. But it was a story that made sense according to their lights and it projected their religious intent: Creation implied “Will.” Humankind and the world in which it found itself was the product of intention, choice, love.

*

The intent of the biblical authors was to ground religion in relationship. Effectively what that meant was that the quest for secure existence, which is the objective of the conatus, found its ultimate answer in the benevolence of the source of existence. Were they right? Obviously they were wrong about the cosmological facts; but were they also wrong about the intent: the claim that Creation was a product of “Will,” a project of love, and that just being alive meant you were already in a reciprocal relationship with your existential source? Does the familiar, the relational, the human, the interpersonal, truly characterize existence, or is “being human” with its focus on relationship an anomaly, a freak of nature, an idiosyncrasy that needs to be sheltered under blankets of denial from a harsh mechanical universe that has no idea what we are talking about?

Consider: from our analysis in section 2 of this essay, we know that matter is alive and appetitive. Unless you are prepared to insist that something entirely new … something entirely other than the matter present, entered the scene and ruptured the linear continuity of what had been steadily evolving since the initial expansion, the appearance of LIFE has to be understood as the emergence of what was there all along, a step in a process that was already underway. There is enough evidence to make it reasonable if not compelling that the fundamental indicator of life — the instinct for self-preservation — had been operative analogously at all phases of matter’s appearance, even at the sub-atomic, atomic and molecular levels.  Conatus is the desire to live, to survive. No matter how primitive the level in which it is found, LIFE is the desire to continue living, being-here: LIFE is intrinsically, inherently, “Will” in the sense that Arthur Schopenhauer used the word:

For Schopenhauer, this is not the principle of self-consciousness and rationally-infused will, but is rather what he simply calls “Will” — a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything. Schopenhauer’s originality does not reside in his characterization of the world as Will, or as act — for we encounter this position in Fichte’s philosophy — but in the conception of Will as being devoid of rationality or intellect.[1]

As living forms evolved, the way they manifested their conatus evolved along with them. Primitive cellular behavior developed new strategies of survival that included multicellularity with its necessary internal lockstep collaboration among individual cells along with an external communitarianism connecting members of the same species to one another for securing food, defending against predators and having partners for reproduction. Eventually consciousness evolved into intelligence and “Will” came to include purpose and intentionality as we humans understand and use the word. None of these later developments, however, represented an interruption in the fundamental thrust of the conatus, established at the first moments of matter’s existence: the will to be-here.

Religion projects that relationship is the foundational underpinning of all reality. Before the scientific era, that assumption was extrapolated from humankind’s experience of its own relationality and creativity, and it was expressed by imagining a “humanoid” deity who chose to create the world as his artisanal product the way a human Craftsman would — intentionally.

Later, in Greek hands, Jewish belief in a humanoid “God” became part of a wider assumption that something other than matter existed in the universe. Platonic Greeks posited an invisible substance called “spirit” that was alive, intelligent and could never die. The theory was called “dualism” because it imagined that there were two completely distinct and opposed substances in the world: matter and spirit. It had been falsely assumed that we humans were “spirit” and belonged to another world, a world of spirits, and that we were pathetically alone with our rational intelligence in this world made of matter. But we now know that there is no such “thing” as spirit and there is no “other” world.

When “spirit” disappeared as the source of LIFE, “God,” who was assumed to be spirit, disappeared with it. Matter, without spirit, was orphaned in the reductionist universe and was assumed to be inert, passive, mechanical and utterly devoid of life. It meant that relationship lost its rationale.   Religion, without a philosophical foundation in “spirit,” could not conjure a cosmic “relationship” out of nothing.

But I have a different view. Yes, we are matter, and only matter, the material offspring of this material universe; but rather than eliminating, I maintain that being matter revalidates our spontaneous option for relationship because “Will” is not grounded in rational “spirit” — it is grounded in living matter.

*

LIFE on earth displays a remarkable homogeneity. I see in protozoa and other primitive forms the very same instincts that drive my own conatus. The LIFE we share is similar in all of us and suggests not only the same origination but an ongoing activation of the same energy. The active commonality immediately evokes a single source and matrix without specifying what that source is or how the participation occurs. The only LIFE that exists has been passed on. LIFE, it seems, can only arise from LIFE. Just by recognizing that there is a LIFE-source whose essential appetitive energy all living things autonomously and simultaneously activate as our respective conatus, is sufficient to ground what I mean by religion. We are one thing by reason of LIFE.

Religion comprises the symbolic structures that serve as vehicle for the human relationship to all the participants in this family, including its existential source and matrix. I contend that it is absolutely appropriate to relate to LIFE; LIFE, after all, is responsible for what we are … and that we are-here … even though it is not exclusively human, and in fact cannot be said to reside any­where but in the places where it is observed functioning, i.e., in all things made of matter including us. We know LIFE when we see it. It is, as far as we can tell, exactly as universally immanent as it appears. It can legitimately be characterized as it is seen functioning: an integrative tendency in unconnected atoms and molecules, a vegetative force in plants, a sentient and mobile dynamism in animals, and a conscious intelligent drive in human beings. It is also, as we saw in section 2, hierarchically ordered: each level of emergence incorporates and builds out from the level(s) that went before. No one way of being alive can be said to take priority over others, so none can be said to be secondary, caused, or the result of delusion.

LIFE is also, indisputably, as a posteriori as it appears. In other words, while LIFE as a dormant potential naturally preceded its perceptible emergence in living things, its actual activation was the work of the existing agent or agents — those particular cells — that first became aware of that potential and appropriated for themselves their power to live, i.e., to “will” to be-here. For it seems indisputable that at the moment that LIFE emerged some proto-cell or complex molecule had to morph into a self-embracing organism capable of self-directed behavior focused on self-susten­ance, self-preservation and self-transcending reproduction.

Before we go any further I would like to clarify what exactly our conclusions are saying, and what they are not.

  • This is absolutely not an attempt to prove the existence of the traditional imaginary “God” of supernatural theism.  That “God” was an individual transcendent humanoid entity who created the universe and intervenes in it at will to change the course of cosmic and human history.  He was believed to communicate with humankind through “revelation” and interpersonal contact.   There is no such “God” and this study is not an attempt to conjure “him” into existence, much less to validate the assertions made by those “religions” which claim to be the privileged recipient of his revelations and the executor of his will.
  • We are simply trying to describe LIFE across the entire spectrum of living things by identifying its fundamental characteristics, and we have determined that they are a self-embrace manifested in the conatus — the desire to live — the “Will” to be-here which transcends death through reproduction and lives on in progeny. “Will” characterizes LIFE proportionately at all levels of its manifestations.
  • The conatus is recognizable as an appetite for existential continuation which approximates to desire and will. The organism knows itself to be a “self.” The conatus is an intentionality bound to conscious identity whereby the living entity in question displays a self-interest in its own existential continuity through self-sustenance, self-defense and reproduction. It is a self-embrace.
  • Using abductive reasoning[2] the clear and undeniable presence of the conatus at all levels and all phases of living complexity evokes the concept of a common source and universal presence with an inferential certitude.24 There is no claim, however, that the word “source” gives us any information beyond the bare abstract notion itself. The best explanation for the universal activation of the homogeneous conatus across earth’s entire biota, and plausibly in all of matter, is a common source and continuous matrix.
  • LIFE is matrix. There is no evidence that the alleged “source” is a separate independent organism or entity with a unique or singular identity of its own, much less that it is rational and purposeful. There is nothing to suggest that LIFE is not identical with, or at least indistinguishable from, the living organisms where it is currently being actuated exactly as we observe it. The only information about LIFE that we have is where we see it functioning and what we see it doing: it is an appetite that resides with equal intensity and equal autonomy in all living material organisms proportionate to the level of sophistication of their behavior and their interaction with the world around them.

I hope these clarifications are enough to establish the bare simplicity of what I consider a compelling conclusion: that the LIFE we perceive in ourselves and in all living things includes the notion of existential will or intent allowing for relationship among all living things including LIFE’s source. The desire for the existential continuity (survival) of self through progeny is an intrinsic and universal property of LIFE whereby it reaches out to living things beyond itself, making LIFE at all levels and between levels intrinsically relational.

The implications of these conclusions for the human being are profound, for it means that our natural inclination toward relationship as our primary valence with the world around us finds itself validated in a cosmic milieu and an endless future trajectory, for we are nothing but living matter and we shall always be. LIFE and its reproductive (genetic) relationships absolutely defines what we are because it characterizes everything that has emerged and evolved from the material energy that is this earth. I contend it is appropriate to pursue a grateful engaged relationship to this LIFE in which we “live and move and have our being” because we are genetically related to it biologically and intentionally. For, while there is no indication that LIFE is an individual entity capable of reciprocation, our instinct to be grateful is not unreasonable because of the clear indications of intentionality — “Will” — in matter’s living energy wherever it is found, and retrospectively in its source. The notion of endless existential continuity that intentionally embraces all future progeny is intrinsic to LIFE. As the offspring and actuators of that “Will,” we exist enveloped in its pro-creative embrace. We are a chosen thing.   We are part of a project of love and our very organisms are programmed to further that enterprise.

[1] Wicks, Robert, “Arthur Schopenhauer”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/schopenhauer/&gt;.
[2] “abductive reasoning” (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference which goes from an observation to a theory which accounts for the observation, ideally seeking to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”.[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abductive_reasoning It should be noted that the highest certitude claimed by science is inferential certitude.

Poetry and Religious Truth

Truth” in the west has been identified with “science” from well before the advent of modern times. The ancient Greeks sought a rational understanding of the world we live in; they called their quest philosophy, the love of wisdom, but they thought of it the way we think of science.

Theology was born in this context. At the dawn of western science there did not exist any clear separation between theology and physics as we have it today. For millennia, theology was not only considered a science, it was the science, the instrument that reached to the inner nature and operations of reality.

But science had to compete with poetry. That was a problem for the scientists. Socrates, you’ll remem­ber, had great difficulty with the poets because they could not use other words to explain what they wrote.[1] He considered them alien to the rational-scientific quest he was pursuing.

I believe Socrates was blinded to the value of poetry because of the solid possibilities that logic seemed to offer: clarity, precision, verifiability, therefore “truth.” Poetry seems to have none of that. Multi-layered, peppered with mixed imagery and allusions, full of intense personal feelings, poetry seemed entirely subjective. Socrates wanted to know “what the poets meant.” They answered by telling him to go back and re-read their poetry; apparently they felt their words had been very precisely chosen. There was no other way they could say it. Socrates could not understand that. His demand to “explain your poetry using other words,” was, as far as the poets were concerned, an attack on the jugular. What better way to tell a poet s/he’s failed? Perhaps there was an odist or two among those who voted for the hemlock.

One modern poet calls his own poetry a “raid on the inarticulate.”[2] He speaks of “shabby equipment,” words — the poor, worn implements of daily life — that were never meant to carry the weight of the realities that the poet imposes on them. So, because words are not quite adequate, the “metho­dology” of the poets is special. And it’s used to communicate a special truth, a truth that is in a class apart from the measure­able realities of the so-called exact sciences. The methodology is metaphor, and the special truth is “relational truth.” What do these terms mean?

 

1

Relational Truth

“Relationship” is a very specific feature of our lives as human beings. It is a complex and interior experience of inter-personal connectedness of which our own participation is an integral part. Our relation­ships are difficult enough to perceive accurately but even more difficult to communicate to others. How do I express the unique relationship that I have with some­one I love. I am aware that scientific descriptors, even from a science spe­ci­fically dedicated to human perceptions and emotions like psychology, are totally inadequate for this purpose. Enter the poet. Her task is to try to find that combination of metaphors — symbols and images that lie outside the range of ordinary speech — which may convey with greater human accuracy the multi-faceted dimensions of the relationship. “Human accuracy” here is “truth” and refers to the ability to evoke in another person, an experience as close as possible to the poet’s experience in its individuality, com­plexity, scope and depth of feeling. Solomon’s poet, for example, might say:

“You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in battle array.”

How is the poet’s “love” as “terrible as an army set in battle array”? You may “get it” or you may not. But if you connect with it, you will understand what experience the poet is trying to convey, and in that act of understanding you will provide a “third party verification” both for the experience and the accuracy of its articulation. Poetry is not (only) entertainment, an elective pastime for the literati. It’s the only instrument we have for communicating “truth” at this level, relational truth.

So, I believe Socrates was wrong. The poets labor with as much commitment to accuracy and clarity as any sincere scientist or philosopher. Their art is the attempt to find those precise phrases, that precise sequence of words, that evoke human relational experience. And religion is our human relationship with the source of our existence … whatever it may be.

My point is that “relational events” or “inter-personal events” differ as object from other objects and therefore are communicated by a different kind of discourse. These “relational realities,” which include the existential relationship — i.e., my relationship to the source of my existence — are experienced by the knower as objects that include his/her self. The resonating subject is the predominant component of the object known, making the object inaccessible to another subject except through a recognized similar experience. So communication in this area involves “construc­ting” (poiein in Greek) something that evokes the same experience in the hearer. The “constructor,” the poeta, tries to create external conditions (words, dramatic dialogue, paintings, music, dance, ritual, etc.), a symbolic “construct,” a poema that accomplishes that task. And metaphor is its instrument of choice because it uses words not as concepts that try to comprehend and define the object, but as symbols that refer to and evoke the object in the experience of others. Evocation invites the hearer to find the object within his/her own file-cabinet of experience and thus interpret, compare and verify its truth. There is no other way these com­plex, interiorly experienced realities can be communicated and verified except by speech that of its very nature can only evoke and not denote, describe and not define, invite and not impose.

Traditional western theology has historically been considered an exact science in the rationalist sense. Realities that we know in and through our own experience, and whose inner workings apart from us we can only adumbrate, we in the west have historically claimed to know with quasi-mathe­ma­tical precision. All our religious discourse, doctrine, creed, dogma, even ritual formulae, have been infected with this rationalist contagion. Religion has been subsumed under the heading of “truth,” and “truth” in the west is prejudicially the result of rational inquiry.

But what gets lost in our scientistic scenario is that “true” religious speech is indeed critical to our lives but in a way that antecedes and bypasses logic. Religious discourse, — ritual, creed, doctrine — is not science; it is poetry and as such it provides evocative descriptions of our relationship to realities whose inner mechanical workings are irrelevant to the relationship whether I do or even could come to know them or not.

For example, the perception in which I relate to my wife does not include knowledge of the vegetative functions of her organism or the neurological operations of her brain. And yet I claim to have an accurate grasp of “who she is.” I may call her a butterfly today and a soaring eagle tomorrow, but even though literally she is neither, I know exactly what I’m talking about, and so does the reader. The ruling element that gives those words meaning is relational experience.

Now, in the case of “God,” the relationship stands on its own: I understand myself to exist and that I am not self-originating. I immediately understand — from my side — the relationship I bear to the existential source of existenceeven if I don’t know what that source is. Religion is the reflective description of my experience in the form of “doctrine,” which is symbol, metaphor, poetry. I say “’God’ is my Creator.” Literally, scientifically, I know neither “God” nor what it means to create. All I know for a fact is that I am not self-origina­ting; but that is sufficient to establish the relationship. Both “God” and “creation” are metaphors for what I do not know but to which I bear a constant and inescapable relationship. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip had no knowledge of his anonymous benefactor, and his conjectures were upended in mid-stream, but his awareness of what he had received and his sense of loyal gratitude was the same regardless.

Doctrine’s interpretative tool, theology, comes next. It is simply a kind of literary criticism that evaluates religious poetry in the light of the “facts” and how well the words chosen convey the indicated experience. At no point in the process does the presumption of claiming to know the object — “God” — apart from the relational experience of it, intrude.

All I know for a fact is that I am not self-originating.

 

2

Metaphor

… an implicit comparison between two unlike entities … The metaphor makes a qualitative leap from a reasonable, perhaps prosaic comparison, to an identification or fusion of two objects, to make a new entity partaking of the characteristics of both. Many critics regard the making of metaphors as a system of thought anteceding or bypassing logic.[4]

Metaphor is a symbol. As a symbol it does not conceptualize its object, it “refers to” it … or, as Wittgenstein might say, it “points to it.” Metaphor is a linguistic device that applies words to realities they were not meant to define. Metaphor is a word adequate for one reality which is used “improperly” to stand for another which has no adequate word, or whose usual word has been judged inadequate. Metaphor does not define, it rather evokes and suggests; it “points to.” But the metaphor’s very “impropriety” accounts for its evocative quality, for it throws the listener back onto his own experience for under­standing. It contributes a new, fresh and vital element that other­wise would be absent. “The winter wind with its long fingernails tore the canvas to shreds.” The wind does not have hands and fingernails, but the imagery evokes the destructive action of the wind. “Long fingernails” are symbols. They do not define any “scientific” reality; they rather describe how the wind’s action makes us feel ― and therefore how we relate to it.

Poetic metaphor is a most appropriate instrument for speaking about our relationship to “God.” For, besides more accurately communicating the experience, its symbolic character guarantees and protects apo­phasis: “God” remains ineffable, undefinable, unknowable. Metaphor is conceptually empty. Metaphor makes no pretense at grasping and comprehending its object. The believer using a metaphor is consum­mately aware that its employment is improper, therefore temporary, provisional, and compelling only in the personal sense. No one is compelled to assent unless their own experience verifies it.

If we say that the concept “God” is itself derived only from human experience, it means that the “objective” element in our knowledge of “God” includes the experiencing subject. I am not using the word “objective” to mean “the thing in itself apart from its being the object of a knowing subject;” there is no such thing. In the case under consideration here — knowledge of “God” — there is nothing known outside of the insepar­ably subjective feature of experiencing “God” in the intimate realization of our own “non self-origination.”

Does this mean that “God” is not real? … only on the gratuitous assumption that what can’t be verified independently of experiencing subjects is non-existent. But no one would say that. The most that even a scientist would claim is that you cannot compel assent to the existence or character of things that are not independently verifiable. That in itself does not prove that they do not exist, nor does it establish their character, i.e., what they are like. Unfortunately, the word “truth” has been arrogated by the over-enthusiastic scientism of our times to refer exclusively to “know­ledge” that has been subjected to the kind of probity demanded by science. Relationship — the intentional valence between conscious organisms — may be accessible to scientific measurement as far as its emotional resonance or other observable by-products are concerned, but no one would say that those things were themselves constitutive of the relationship. The emotions of elation that accompany a realization, for example, might be measurable, but they do not constitute the realization. Religion is not about what things are, but how we relate to them. I relate to the source of my existence as to “God,” and the nature of that relationship is determined by the nature of my existence and how I experience it, not by what I have been led to think “God” is. I articulate the nature of my existence, i.e., that it is not self-originating, and celebrate it in poetry. That is religion.

I call metaphor a tool of poetry and that poetry reaches “truth” — but not a scientific truth that is verifiable independent of the experience of the subject, demanding acknowledgement without concurrent experience. This “poetic truth” that I speak of, however, is also truth, it is objective and it is verifiable. It’s the communi­ca­tion and sharing of experience; as such it cannot be communicated without being verified. You verify it with your own experience, however, not some independent measuring device or a logical syllogism.

Religion tries to turn the experience of “God” into words. Poetry is our almost exclusive tool for com­muni­cating truth in these interpersonal regions. But I want to emphasize, it’s aim is truth: what is real and really there — the relationship.   We are not talking about fabrications of the imagination.[5] I am objectively related to the source of my existence — in which I live and move and have my being, whether I scientifically “know” what it is or not — and I express that relationship in religious poetry. Poetry uses metaphor, symbol, fables and allegory, to express relational truth that cannot be expressed in any other way. The very nature of the realities we’ve been talking about, realities whose existence is knowable only as interpersonal relational events, must necessarily use metaphor for their expression.

This is true of all relationships. Who would ever deny that the relationships between spouses, or friends, or siblings, or parents and children were real, even though there is no physical or chemical or laboratory test that could verify their existence?

“God-talk”

The root of religious speech is human experience which is historically and culturally conditioned. Speech about “God” that was forged at a particular time and place bears the stamp of that particularity and will need constant translation and renewal if it is to correspond to what is experienced by other people at other times and under other circumstances. The words of one age do not necessarily communicate in another. “Original sin,” for example, may have captured a Greco-Roman’s intuition that something was radically wrong with life under the Empire, but a modern South Asian may find such an idea unthinkable and an insult to the goodness of God. “In our countries,” says Sri-Lankan Catholic theologian Tissa Balusuría, “the idea of humans being born alienated from the Creator would seem an abominable concept.”[6] Metaphor preserves the relativity of local expressions.

Moreover, the uniqueness of metaphorical projection introduces a fragrance and intensity to religious communication that more adequately corresponds to the nature of the human experience in question here, mystical experience. The mystics speak of “the cloud of unknowing,” for example, a haunting image to describe the ineffability of “God.” If this evocative quality should be lost, religious truth, as we are defining it, would not be adequately transmitted; metaphor is critically important in this respect.

Again, in this same connection, while metaphor communicates, and communicates well, it also retains the quality of indefinability, a fundamental characteristic of all interpersonal encounter. It evokes, it does not define. The “doctrinal terms” are temporary because of their evocative function. Once they cease to evoke, they no longer communicate. The experience to which they refer, how­ever, remains always what it was. New conditions may require new metaphors. This is most relevant to our reflection. For it means that metaphor preserves inviolate the apophatic principle of Christian tradition, that is, the radical unknowability of God. For metaphor is essentially empty.

Theologians must analyze, weigh and judge all these terms used to define elements of religious experience. It hardly needs saying that much of what is most sordid and shame­ful in the history of humankind is directly trace­able to the unwarranted ascription of literal scientific objectivity to locally conditioned religious experience and the metaphors used to evoke them. The conviction that one has the absolute truth about “God” and how one should live has provoked and excused wars, pogroms, conquests, slavery, persecutions and xenophobic hatred of all kinds. What’s at stake, as we’ve unfortunately come to realize in these times, is nothing less than genocide carried out in the name of “God.”

 

[1]Plato, The Apology in The Works of Plato, tr.Jowett, Tudor, NY, vol.III, p.107.

[2]T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker” V

[3]Song of Solomon 6:4

[4]Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Mic VI, p.831

[5] H. and H.A. Frankfort, “Myth and Reality,” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, U of Chicago Press, 1946 & 1977 p.7; and also “The Logic of Mythopoetic Thought,” pp. 10-11

 [6]Sri Lankan Catholic theologian, Rev.Tissa Balasuriya on original sin, quoted by Celestine Bohlen, NYT article 1/15/97