Relationship to “God” is a work of the imagination

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

1.

The Imagery of “God”

1.1   Images

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

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

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

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

1.2   The naïve image: “God,” the Craftsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.3   The new image: evolving matter

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

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

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

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

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

 

2.

Being-here

2.1   Conatus: the desire to be-here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.2   matter’s energy to be-here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.3   Is matter “God”?

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

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

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

 

3.

the psychological transcendentals

3.1   Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.3   the sense of the sacred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

4.

Transformation

4.1  Personal transformation

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

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

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

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

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

4.2  Social transformation

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

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

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

 

5.

Mysticism

5.1  The mystique of the personal Craftsman

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

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

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

5.2  The nuptial image

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

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

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

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

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

5.3  A new imagery, a new mysticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.4  Self-embrace and the goal of psychoanalysis.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Materialism and Spirituality

Reflections on the fallacy of common assumptions

2000 words

For readers of spiritual literature it is not surprising to find statements that accept the existence of the human spirit as axiomatic. Sometimes such declarations are grounded on a more basic metaphysical worldview, but more often they are offered without further justification except for the force of practice, an unassailable ascetical premise. Belief in spirit is considered a dynamic necessity for spiritual growth, regardless of the metaphysics.

The message is implicitly anti-materialist and is justified as the fruit of experience not speculation. if you are serious about advancing spiritually, they claim, you have to acknowledge that you are NOT your body. Since control and training of bodily urges is central to all ascetical practice, it is a common assumption that the practitioner must confront the body as if it were alien ― something “other” than one’s self. I can control my body because I AM NOT my body. Thus belief in spirit enters by the back door.

The point of this essay is to affirm that the same dynamic of practice can and does function well and perhaps even better in a world that is exclusively material. This is more than an academic exercise or personal preference of mine. For, while the material energy that comprises all things is capable of producing an amazing and unexpected range of behavioral phenomena including what we have traditionally called “spiritual,” there is no evidence of the existence of a separate kind of “thing” called “spirit.” If, as science suggests, there is nothing but matter’s energy, then there must be a way to explain and sustain historical ascetical practice, otherwise thousands of years of attested human transformation would, implausibly, have to be dismissed as illusion. Whatever the metaphysics might be, the traditional practices work. If it is also true as science claims that we are not “other” than our bodies, then there must be a way to understand how both can be true.

Matter’s consistency with traditional goals

Two principal aims of traditional spirituality, the objectification of one’s own body for the purposes of its control and training, and the practitioner’s personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism, can be achieved in an exclusively material universe without having recourse to belief in a separable human “spirit,” or projecting the existence of a separate world.

First, my total identification as matter does not in any way necessitate that I identify exclusively with my particular body. As a matter of fact, identifying my body as comprised of the selfsame particles that comprise everything else in the material cosmos tends to de-emphasize the particularity that my intense spontaneous urges for self-protection and self-aggrandizement seem to imply. The feelings they elicit are ephemeral and therefore, spiritually speaking, their demands for satisfaction are bogus. If every particle of my organism is a generic entity, entirely replaceable by other particles of the same type, it is much more difficult to assign my feeling of unique­ness to anything more objective than the minor variations that differentiate my organism from other “things.” All “things,” not only human beings, are made of exactly the same clay.   The insistence on existence ― the drive to survive ― is common to us all. Nothing justifies the priority I am inclined to give myself.

The Buddhist claim that the metaphysically independent, stand-alone “self” is an illusion, is supported by this scientific description of reality as material energy. In fact, no “thing” of any kind in our universe is only “itself” according to science, since all things are comprised of the same material energy. Buddhists have been saying this at least since the Mahayana Reform at the beginning of the common era. Buddhists, however, do not adduce the common material base as the reason for it; rather, they point to the multiplicity of “causes” that conspire in the “arising” of any phenomenon. Regardless, the fact of universally shared matter implicitly includes the dynamic interactions ― the “dependent co-arising” ― characteristic of material elements. In both descriptions, the “self” is absorbed into a totality-in-process which Buddhist teachers like Thich Naht Hahn claim is the point of meditation: to come to a full cognitive-affective realization of one’s identity with all things. Knowing that I am pure material energy ― whole cloth with the rest of the universe ― accomplishes exactly that.

This brings us to the second supposed unique achievement of belief in spirit: the personal identification with a transcendent ground that provides a basis for the embrace of altruistic universalism. All major traditions ultimately agree on the goal of human transformation: universal love and compassion for all things.

Traditions like Christianity which are metaphysically dualist in nature (because they believe there are two distinct kinds of “stuff” in the universe, matter and spirit), assign the human self to the spiritual realm not just because human activity transcends the limits found in other entities and organisms, but because they attribute that transcendence to a metaphysical source: a separable “soul” that is made of spirit not matter. Spirit is further believed to be the “stuff” that comprises a multitude of invisible entities variously called angels or devils and includes the highest entity and source of all things spiritual: “God” theorized to be pure Spirit. By identifying oneself as spirit, therefore, one identifies oneself with “God” and thus is metaphysically predisposed to the kind of generosity, compassion and creativity characteristic of spirit. Besides, by realizing that one is not matter, domination of the body’s insistent urges is rationalized: there is a reason why the mind can and should dominate the body. Thus many Christians (and other dualist traditions) see belief in spirit as uniquely foundational for the pursuit of “perfection” which is to live morally, to love and to give as “God” does.

Other traditions, like Hinduism, which are more accurately described as a spiritual monism (because they believe that all things including matter are ultimately illusory manifestations of an underlying universal Spirit they call “Atman” or Self), claim that belief in spirit is simply acknowledgement of what is really real. The body is an illusion. The human “self” (atman) is the evolutionary emergence of the underlying Universal “Self.” And it is only through meditation that this identification can be brought to consciousness and firmly established in the practice of daily living with justice, love and compassion. The Great “Self” is thought to be “Mind” not matter, and therefore the human mind is similarly not matter. This grounds the dynamic of the ascetic pursuit of self-control leading to self-transformation into the “first principle.” Matter is ultimately resolvable into Spirit.

In contrast with both these traditions, Buddhists quite intentionally avoid ultimate metaphysical worldviews as distractions from and hindrances to the principal goal of ascetical practice: the realization and full acceptance of all reality including one’s “self” as impermanent.   The full acceptance of impermanence reality as it is ― is, for Buddhists, the end of sorrow and the beginning of compassion and loving kindness for all things. All suggestions that there is a way out of this impermanence for oneself are obstacles to nirvana which is identified with the “letting go” of any clinging or craving for permanence that would enthrone the “self” ― the conceit of “I am” ― which is the self-inflicted source of all suffering.

“Mendicants, when the perception of impermanence is developed and cultivated it eliminates all desire for sensual pleasures, for rebirth in the realm of luminous form, and for rebirth in a future life. It eliminates all ignorance and eradicates all conceit ‘I am’.[1]

Some may think that by encouraging the practitioner’s identification with the totality, that Buddhists have somehow “found a way out” of the impermanence ― and that the totality represents a permanence that the parts do not. Not at all. For the impermanence evident in the flow of day to day reality is equally applicable to the totality as a totality. The totality itself is impermanent and, according to all scientific predictions, will eventually run out of energy and metamorphose into something that is utterly unrecognizable to current definitions and descriptions of reality.

Negative effects of belief in “spirit”

On the negative side, there are reasons why belief in spirit has been and may continue to be a damaging and dangerous thing. The feeling of alienation, what I have called in other places an autogenic disease, wherein the human organism identifies its own body as alien, can push efforts for the control of bodily urges into self destructive territory. Practitioners who believe they are spiritual “souls” trapped in dungeons of flesh are justified by the metaphysics alone in loathing, denying, negating, and ultimately punishing, torturing, damaging and even killing their own bodies. A case could be made for saying that even when carried out in the most rational and emotionally detached way, alienated dualist metaphysics guarantees that the efforts will be repressive and therefore ultimately ineffective. So that even from the point of view of bodily control, the belief is counter-indica­ted. Many of us reading this today have experienced in our own flesh the damaging effects of these beliefs. This is not just speculation.

Similarly, in the spiritist worldview what is true in one’s attitudes toward oneself is applied with all the more rigor when it comes to other people. Having accepted that self-loathing is part of self-control, the practitioner has little hesitation in inflicting pain on others with the justification that “it will give them a healthy distance on their bodies.” Humiliation, isolation, the denial of affection and constant denigration heaped on those for whom the ascetic has “spiritual” responsibility are deemed necessary for the lowering of self-esteem which is routinely confused with the egotistical self-projection of the mindless conatus. Thus belief in spirit tends to prevent the loving embrace of our organic nature, which in some traditions contradicts the doctrines of creation being the gift and image of a loving “God.”

We need also to be constantly reminded of the disastrous ecological implications of the belief in spirit. For by attributing all value to spirit and denigrating matter as inferior and corrupting of human aspirations, the earth itself with its multitude of other biological species, plant and animal, is disdained except as it might serve humankind. It is of absolutely no concern to the spiritist if any number of species “irrelevant” to human survival or utility were to disappear. No life form other than man is respected for itself. The result has been the ever increasing deterioration of the water, air, soil and climate that all species rely on for their sustenance. I don’t think it is far-fetched in the least to attribute our environmental crisis directly, if not exclusively, to belief in the existence of separable “spirit” and the anthropocentrism that resulted from it. It paradoxically spurred our self-serving technology (which has kept many of us alive well past our otherwise expected time-of-life) even as it conspired to disregard other species and the life-supporting resources of the planet.

We are not the gods we would like to think we are. The rest of creation does not have to bow down and serve us. We are matter ― an integral part of an impermanent material universe. Our survival is bound up with the survival of all.

Now, the point of this reflection has been to suggest that belief in a transcendent materialism dovetails with the dynamic goals of the spiritual aspirations of our many religious traditions. Does it prove that “there is nothing but matter”? No. But it shows that belief that I am my body does not necessarily inhibit my spiritual growth and that belief in a separate kind of “thing” called spirit is not a necessary prerequisite for the spiritual programs of the great religious traditions of our social history.

 

[1]Bhikkhu Sujato. Samyuttanikaya: Linked Discourses 22:102 (Kindle Locations 10696-10698).

“. . . the most to be pitied.” (II)

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

1 Corinthians 15:19

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

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

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

Paul and Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRUST IN LIFE

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

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

Trust in death

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Self”

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

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

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

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

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

 

Reflections on Emptiness

3,000 words

  • Emptiness, one of the foundational notions of Mahayana Buddhism, is a strictly metaphysical term. It is not primarily psychological or spiritual nor is it merely phenomenological. It refers quite specifically to the fact that all phenomena of whatever kind are not themselves the source and explanation of their existence. They are causally dependent on other phenomena; they are empty of their own being.
  • The concept of metaphysical Emptiness did not originate with Buddha. Buddha’s teaching was experiential; it was about the perception of impermanence ― that things compose and decompose. He deduced no-self (anatman) from the universality of impermanence. All things compose and then pass away with their decomposition. The human self is no exception. He saw it as part of a phenomenon affecting all things. I personally ascribe it to the fact that whatever exists is all and only matter. Emptiness was a later Mahayana metaphysical conjecture articulated to explain impermanence and anatman, but it was not specifically materialist.
  • Emptiness of own-being characterizes the self. It is the basis and reason for the Buddhist claim of “no-self,” anatman, which means that a permanent self separate from the coherence of the body is an illusion. The phenomenological, temporary self, however, is not an illusion, it is quite real. But it is not permanent. In physical, material terms, it is the efflorescence of the integrated energy of the matter of the body.   When the organism disintegrates, ― the self ― the integrated energy of all the various particles, disappears. The self is a reverberation of the complex coherent interrelationship of a vast amount of material energy under the (temporary) control and guidance of a living DNA (which is also all and only matter). What the Buddha decried was the delusional attempt to create a permanent self by amassing wealth, control over others (including God), social status and recognition, etc. No such self can be created. The self dissolves with the body.
  • Living in the present moment is a corollary of emptiness for it accepts as ultimate the fact that there is nothing permanent that can result from any interaction of the self with any other dependently arisen phenomenon (which is everything in our material universe). To “do” anything or to “get” anything, is simply to add more dependently arisen phenomena to the totality. Temporary phenomena do occur and are real but nothing permanent can come from them. No event can ever be anything other than a composing or decomposing of material components. Therefore, enjoying the experience of the event itself in the moment when and as it occurs is a direct and valid derivative of emptiness, for, vanishing as it may be, there is nothing more here than what is occurring now, generated by whatever confluence of factors happen to be operating, and will disappear when that confluence ceases.
  • Pointlessness refers to the same phenomenon as emptiness but from a psychological point of view; it is a teleological corollary of impermanence, i.e., it is impermanence seen from the point of view of purpose. All things are empty: they have no purpose beyond just being-here, and are unaware that their being-here is dependent on evanescent factors whose disappearance will “cause” their own disappearance.
  • Emptiness is metaphysical. Nagārjuna (the principal Buddhist philosopher of emptiness, who wrote in the second century ce) uses the word “essence” the way western philosophy used the word “being.” Emptiness means “things do not have (they are “empty” of) their own “essence” or “being.” They have the power to cause other phenomena to appear, but they do not have the power to prevent them from disappearing or to prevent their own decomposition and disappearance.

The West: idea and spirit

  • In the WEST, on the other hand, where idealism prevailed, philosophers, dominated by Plato’s theory of reality, ascribed real being to ideas alone. Ideas were considered the anti­thesis of matter and were made of a different kind of “stuff” that did not compose and decompose as matter did, and were not limited by space and time as matter was. They were believed to be one of a large category called “spirit” which included the permanent human self, the “soul” (which existed before birth, during life and after death), and the “selves” of other “spirits” believed to exist outside time without bodies, like devils and angels (and for a while, gods, who were a little of both). When the idea of one all powerful, all knowing Creator “God” emerged, it was naturally assumed that it was one of those spirit-persons outside time and without a body.
  • In a universe dominated by spirit, a “thing” was believed to be first and foremost an idea (the definition of whatever that thing was) that gave “being” to a meaningless undefined matter. In that form, the idea was called the “essence” of something, also the “form.” Plato believed all these ideas of things actually existed as real substances in a world of Ideas, which was later identified as the “Mind of God.”
  • Since reality was basically ideas, it had to be permanent; the impermanence that we all experience, therefore, was an anomaly and had to be explained. Plato surmised that ideas were yoked to matter, and that it was the disparate elements of matter that had been organized and connected by the idea lost coherence when the idea departed. Without its principle of coherence matter decomposed. In the case of the human being, decomposition occurred with the departure of the “soul” which, like all spirits, had substantial existence and could continue on without the body.
  • Widespread rejection of belief in the substantial existence of ideas began with William of Ockham who wrote in the 1320’s. Today that rejection is almost universal, but its residual effects are still with us, primarily in the form of belief in the existence and natural immortality of the human soul separated from the body.
  • Aristotle defined “things” as composed of matter and form (matter and a particular idea), but that neither could exist without the other. He called existing things “substances” because they stood on their own while they were-here as opposed to other phenomena that were clearly only variant qualities of things, like their color or their size, which he called “accidents.” Aristotle isolated and identified esse, existence, as an energy that underlay all existing reality. He called it act and contrasted it with unactivated potential. He surmised that the “first mover” in the universe had itself to be pure act without any admixture of potential, or it would have needed to be activated by another, and therefore would not have been the “first mover.” Pure Act, then, became the working definition of existence and therefore, “God.” This was still consistent with the assumption that all act had to be “spirit” and that an isolated “matter” without the energizing of spirit had to be pure potential, utterly incapable of energizing anything. They called it “prime matter.”
  • Thomas Aquinas said that things received “substantial being” from God who “gave” them an inferior kind of existence (that Thomas called esse commune) that was different from God’s own (which he called esse in se subsistens). Thomas’ esse began to lose the quality of an energy and took on the coloration of a “thing.” Meister Eckhart, his successor, demurred. He held (with more Ockham-like simplicity) that esse was act. There is only one esse as Aristotle said, and that esse is God. Therefore if there is any esse anywhere in the universe it has to be an emanation from God’s own esse. This brought Eckhart’s terminology closer to pantheism than Thomas’ and helps explain his problems with the Inquisition.
  • Spinoza’s thinking was similar to Eckhart’s in saying that there was only one esse. He followed Aristotle’s definition of “substance” as “that which exists by itself and on its own” and concluded that the only “stand alone” thing in the universe was “God.” Everything else existed by reason of participating in God’s existence, and therefore could not be called substances. He couldn’t call them “accidents” because that category was already linked the qualities of things, so he called them “modalities” that had emanated from the one substance which was God. His intention was the same as Eckhart’s who said that all things were “nothing” because all their being came from God; they had no being of their own. Nothing outside of God had its own being. Spinoza said that the organic drive for self-preservation, the conatus, was a finite version of God’s self-subsistent esse. All things imitate the “God” from whom they emanate.
  • This development is noteworthy because the very term “own-being” became the Mahayana Buddhist word that identified emptiness. There was no semantic link; it was a purely fortuitous choice of words. Everything was empty because everything lacked its own-being. The Buddhists, for their part said that the phenomenal being that things actuated came from their “causes” which were other things. Everything was dependently arisen because everything owed its existence to causes other than themselves. Nothing was the source of its own being-here and when the causes responsible for its existence disappeared or became inoperative, the phenomenon necessarily disappeared.

Materialism and non-duality

  • The absolute identity (oneness, what the buddhists call non-duality) that I share with my source (the multiple “causes” of my dependent arising, including the components of my organism) is only conceiveable in a scenario like our material universe where the very source of being-here for all the “causes” are the very same components. We are ― causes and effects ― all and only one homogeneous matter’s energy. Our identity with all things (and our source) is metaphysically absolute because in the most profound sense we are the same reality, even though from the point of view of phenomena we experience ourselves and all things as stand-alone substances as Aristotle said. Aristotle’s problem was that he thought “things” were metaphysically substantive because he attributed existential bearing to the idea, whereas Buddhism saw through the illusion of permanence to the true temporariness of the composites and continued to call them all phenomena including their idea.  
  • Now if the source of my existence were other than a material component, as in the case of the West where we believed a “spiritual” person (“God”) was the real cause of everything and that the ideas in the Mind of God actually carried existence and conferred it on the things they defined, there would always be a duality because, no matter how close they come, the one ― the source, “God,” ― is simply not the other ― me ― and never will be. There will always be an identity difference because there are always two “beings,” two “wills” which in a universe with real stand-alone spirits represents two separate and distinct entities. But in the case of exclusively material components, that in and of themselves as sub-atomic particles have no identity at all and no pre-composite “will” of their own, the only identity is the identity of the organic composite: me. There are not two things, only one, but the existential energy comes exclusively from the components whose collective conatus also provide an inchoate pre-composite intentionality to the organism ― toward endlessly continual (permanent) existence. All organisms of whatever kind, no matter how primitive or complex do not anticipate dying.
  • Many claim this is difficult to grasp. I contend it is not, and the only reason why people struggle with it is because they are still dominated by the imagery of a substantial “self” ingrained in their minds. It is this residual imagery that is blocking the understanding of a very simple fact: we and our components are one and the same thing. We are nothing but material energy with a specific configuration that allows us to interact with the rest of the material universe as humans rather than as some other form of organism. But the hardened delusion that we are other than the universal matter that all things share, comes from our spontaneous sense of self-identity reinforced by millennia of conditioning under the tutelage of Plato’s idealist theory of the “soul.”

The Eternal Now ― the present moment

  • Both Mahayana mindfulness and the Eckhartian living in the eternal now are the same in practice. They both encourage focusing exclusively on the present moment. The only difference between the two is the difference in belief about the ultimate nature of the Source. I should say “possible difference” because in some forms of Hindu-Buddhism ― I am thinking of those that hold to the existence of Atman or Brahman ― they may fundamentally be the same as the Eckhartian “God.” But for forms of Buddhism that resemble the more primitive Theravada, where there is no talk of Atman, the source is an undetermined multiplicity of “causes” forming an infinite regress. This infinity of impermanence provides the motivational dynamic for mindfulness, living in the present moment. There is nowhere else to go. There is nothing to get. The present moment, the evanescent product of everything in space and time that has gone before, is the only thing that is here ever and it is always fast disappearing.
  • Eckhart, on the other hand, remarkably focused on exactly the same present moment, and without tinkering with its phenomenal character as evanescent and dependent in the least, embraces it as the point of contact with the eternal Now of a serene and impassive spirit-God emanting the universe of time from his existence ― his esse. Eckhart’s “Godhead” (Spinoza’s “God”) in virtually every respect is indistinguishable from the Hindu Atman. So for Eckhart the very pinnacle, the leading edge, of the infinity of impermanence in flowing time ― the present moment ― is paradoxically the doorway to the permanent “God” who exists in an eternal stillness of self-em­brace. Note that “self-embrace” is also the same phenomenon in both the Hindu-Buddhist and the Eckhartian views. I would also argue that “self-em­brace” and being-here are one and the same thing; they are also the present moment and the Eternal Now. All refer to the same phenomenon, seen through different perspectives.
  • Along these same lines, Eckhart would also agree with the Mahayanists that there were not two worlds. But for a different reason. Eckhart’s experience-based vision sounds like it reduces everything to “God.” But Eckhart would insist that it’s only the temporal nature of ours that prevents us from seeing the one single and undivided esse that is the totality of each. Metaphysical duality at the level of emanation is non-existent, swallowed up in the monism of esse. Multiplicity is only in our heads. Everything that exists in time and space derives its being only and always from the very same esse of the Eternal Now.
  • Now this kind of talk for orthodox Catholics has always been considered pantheistic. Even though under a disciplined philosophical-theological analysis it is not, less educated pastoral personnel, priests, catechists, etc., tended to shy away from it. However, that its conceptualization was beyond the people’s ability to grasp, I believe, was an excuse that functioned right up until our own time. Even Thomistic immanence, a far more domesticated version than Eckhart’s, was labeled “too philosophical” and seminary students were told to disregard it in favor of the anthropomorphic imagery of the Bible. This was the mindset of the Inquisition that drove Eckhart, along with the Beguines who shared his vision, into extinction. By the time of the Protestant Reformation the only vestiges of Eckhart’s spirituality that were still active, as in the case of the Theologia Germanica, had already lost the sense of emanant participation in the metaphysical oneness of God.
  • A serious incorporation of the insights of Hindu-Buddhism could help western Christianity to recover some of its own tradition ― like Eckhart’s vision ― lost to the demands of the theocratic quid pro quo imperative that was imposed on Christianity by Rome and subsequent religious monarchies. Christianity was re-shaped to function as a motivation for harmony in society, an objective that even the sixteenth century reformers ― despite rejecting the dogmatic quid pro quo ― were unable to shed. Correlatively, the incorporation of the metaphysical scope of Eckhart’s philosophy (updated by modern science into a transcendent materialism) could serve to provide Hindu-Buddhism with a cosmic worldview that it now lacks. But in all cases the concurrence between the two traditions confirms the embrace of the present moment as the unique place where, in Buddhist terms, suffering will end and nirvana is found, and in Eckhart’s terms where the breakthrough takes place and the “soul” experiences the stillness and joy of its origins in the common esse that it shares with the “Godhead” and all things that have emanated from it.
  • The experience of the present moment that all seek, however, is to touch reality deeply ― as it really is ― in all its wealth and profundity. This is not a desperate counsel to a cynical and superficial hedonism, a mindless return to the prison of a selfish and shallow samsara. Living in the present moment includes penetrating into the depths not only of the savory and comforting, but also the painful and empty ― the loss, impermanence, pain, decomposition that is equally characteristic of life in our material universe. It means coming to terms with the strange nature of the abundant generosity that has poured out our human organisms into this weird world of entropic time. It is a generosity that is embedded as an innate dynamism in our own material energy. We are born of LIFE, and we are driven to reproduce and protect LIFE. If we fail to understand that, we shrivel and die. Universal love, justice, compassion, generosity, that is what living in the present moment means.

Anatman … the Buddhist teaching of “No-Self”

3,500 words

Those who are familiar with Buddhism are aware that Buddha taught that the “self” is an illusion. It has been called the core teaching of the Buddhist vision and forms the basis of its practice. The word for it in Sanskrit is anatman, and anatta in the Pali dialect.

While it is emphasized that Buddhist truths are not to be understood metaphysically but experientially, most observers believe that, whether intended or not, what we in the West call the human “soul,” conceived as a permanent, separately existing entity, the locus of thought and the individual human identity, intentionality and personality — a metaphysically real “thing,” — is exactly what the Buddhist teaching rejects. The position is that the Buddhist “No-Self,” which is claimed to be an undeniable fact of experience, would not be possible if there were a metaphysical “soul.”

Rather than debate potentially unsolvable metaphysical questions, Buddhists focus on what they believe really matters: the effectiveness of the No-Self teaching in directing and energizing the individual’s liberation from the cravings that create suffering.

The “soul,” the Fulcrum of Western culture

Western observers, however, are a different breed of cat. What No-Self means in the physical / metaphysical world may have been of no interest to Buddha’s followers, but we in the West come out of a tradition that has been centered for millennia on the doctrine of the spiritual soul, an “immaterial substance” (sic) that is capable of living without the body. The traditional western “soul” is immortal and its destiny is to exist for all eternity in another world where only spirits reside.  Naturally those who are still convinced of the ancient western tradition in this regard want to dispute the Buddha’s claims, for their view of the world depends on it.

The “soul” has been crucial in the West because it was the inner dynamic of all social construction.  If there is no soul during life, there also are no persons.  Persons are distinguishable in our tradition from other biological individuals because persons have souls and the others do not.  So the issue is relevant to our original question.  Is there actually a “soul” which really exists and bears the identity and eternal destiny of the human individual?  Everything social depends on recognition and respect for individual persons, from family patterns to legal systems, from business transactions to law enforcement and penitentiaries.

In addition, the “soul” is the basis of moral coercion.  If the soul does not survive as this individual person after death, there can be no judgment or punishment; and without fear of punishment there is no way to compel obedience to the moral law.  Of course, the down side is it tends to reduce human life to quid pro quo — a business transaction: moral behavior in exchange for an eternal life without suffering.

So the question: does the human being have an immortal soul?

You might be surprised to hear that Christianity has had a strange history in this regard. The earliest “theologians,” like Tatian and Athenagoras, known as “apologists,” who wrote in the second century, believed that the soul was the form of the body and when the body died its animating principle — the soul — disappeared with it. That the soul was naturally immortal and could live without the body they condemned as a pagan belief.[1] They argued that it would render the resurrection superfluous.  Immortality belonged only to the gods, not to humankind, and the overwhelming gift of God in Christ was that divine immortality was now shared with man, a completely undeserved supernatural donation, and that the recipient was not a disembodied soul, but the individual living human being.

But that changed.  By the third century Christian writers like Tertullian were declaring the soul to be naturally immortal.[2]  This change of perspective suggests there had been a “coup” in which educated upper-class converts to Christianity had taken over leadership in the Church and had begun to reshape doctrine to concur with their worldview.  The belief in the existence of the immortal soul was the centerpiece of the Platonism that was the accepted wisdom — the science — of the Greco-Roman educated classes in Late Antiquity.  It came to be considered an undeniable fact of nature.  That assumption lasted until the fourteenth century when William of Ockham showed it could not be proven by reason alone.  He relegated it to a matter of faith.  It was officially defined true as a matter of faith by the Catholic Church at the 5th Lateran Council in 1513.

That doesn’t prove there is a soul. But there’s also no way to disprove it. The Buddhists don’t even try. They claim that what is compelling for them is the way the doctrine of No-Self functions for the liberation of the individual and through that for the wellbeing of human society.  For the “self” asserts rights and makes demands that contribute to cravings to seek pleasure, avoid pain and aggrandize the ego that lead to entrapment in an unending cycle of demands and dissatisfactions that adversely impacts human society. And correlatively, when those cravings are starved they tend to shrivel and disappear, lending credence to the proposition that the “rights and demands” originally asserted by the “self” in their regard were fictional to begin with.  The individual survived and actually lived quite well without responding to them.  That, in turn, corroborates the Buddha’s insight that the “self,” the source of those demands, is itself an illusion.  The self has no rights and can make no demands because it is not really there.

So the Buddhists can always say to the westerner who demands proof of the teaching of No-Self that they have an indirect proof.  They can prove experientially that the human organism is malleable — changeable.  What appear to be its needs can be reduced to the point that they no longer assert themselves, calling into question the validity of those needs and the metaphysical ground claimed to be their origin.

The Metaphysical Question

But for us in the West, the question of the real existence of the soul deserves to be resolved — physically and metaphysically — in the same terms which have been used to support it for millennia.

First, by physical I refer to the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biology. Do these disciplines with their specific tools ever encounter evidence that would compel one to conclude that the “soul” as traditionally believed actually exists? Can it be observed and measured in some way? Theories that a body weighed right before death and again immediately after showed a difference, were made in pursuit of exactly that kind of proof.

By metaphysical I refer to the rational examination of the conditions that accompany existence. Metaphysics determines what the minimum requirements are for something to be-here, to exist. Are those conditions present in the case of the soul?

I think it’s safe to say that there is no compelling physical evidence that the soul exists without the body. Claims of weight loss at death have been disproven. But there are other claims. For example, phenomena emanating from the human organism, specifically the ability to think, identify itself, observe itself thinking, etc., suggest capacities that go beyond what material reality was traditionally thought capable of. But none of those pheno­mena seem grounded in anything but the human material organism; and when the organs that serve as platforms for those activities are damaged or destroyed, the behavioral phenomena disappear or are altered beyond recognition. What have been traditionally adduced as materially transcendent activities, therefore, on closer examination appear to be completely dependent upon the material organism for their existence and character.

Besides, the growing acknowledgement among philosophers of a possible “mental dimension” to material reality, represented by the term “neutral monism,” suggests that projecting a separate spiritual substance outside and independent of matter is no longer necessary to explain the phenomena.[3]  Matter may contain within itself the explanation of what it is obviously capable of evolving into.  Human thought is the product of the human brain, a completely material organ, not an other-worldly ”soul.”

But the Buddhists’ argument for the No-Self is also telling in this regard.  The apparently identifiable permanent “self” experienced during life is thoroughly changeable (albeit not without difficulty) exactly as they claimThis seems to be similarly dependent upon the body, for those practices designed to reduce craving involve the imposition of self-denial on organic urges resulting in their quiescence.  The “self” changes because the body changes.  This provides more evidence for the absence of any permanent and substantive “self” even before death.  The “self” is a mental construct — a result of organic urges, it is not the source of those urges.

Then, when the organism dies, all activity of whatever kind  ceases. There is no indication of the existence after death of something containing the essence and identity of the deceased human individual any more than in the case of any other species of biological organism.  Like all human functions that go beyond the ordinary behavior of other biological entities, the identity function is dependent upon the human organism for its existence and normal operation.  When the brain deteriorates, even before death, self-coherence is also affected, sometimes drastically.  So in answer to the question about the metaphysical conditions for anything to exist, it appears that the first requirement is that it be matter; and when the organism’s matter decomposes or becomes diseased, the “self” disappears or becomes unrecognizable.  Even if the self is a “soul” it needs a corresponding and healthy material base to exist.

The atomic composition of the human organism

But there is another side to this question, and that is the nature of matter itself.  This impacts the unity and integrity of all things made of matter including the human being.  All things are comprised of the same material energy coalesced into various kinds of sub-atomic, atomic and molecular particles and corresponding force fields.  There is nothing that is not made of the very same matter, and that includes all living organisms at all levels of complexity and in all aspects of their form and function, even the neurological.  It is all the same matter.

The human being is a biological organism — a highly complex fully integrated combination of atomic elements and the fields associated with them.  These elements, in turn, all come from the material environment where the organism resides.  Oxygen, the element needed to combine with nutritional fuel for the metabolic combustion that occurs in living cells, is drawn into the organism continuously from the outside through respiration with every breath.  The waste products of cell metabolism, carbon dioxide and water, are similarly borne by blood returning to the lungs to be expelled outside into earth’s atmosphere where it becomes available to other organisms that use it for their own lives.

The water that makes up 70% of the human body is a chemical combination of hydrogen with oxygen forming a liquid.  It is, like air, taken in continuously from outside the body and, as the bearer of the waste products of metabolism, expelled outside.

All things share these elements that comprise the human body.  Hydrogen is the simplest element: one proton and one electron field.  Every other element of the more than 120 that make up the periodic table, represents a complexification of hydrogen, as nuclei gathered more protons and their accompanying electron fields.  Everything made of matter is a result of the evolution of hydrogen, combining and integrating with itself over eons of time, first in the super-hot furnaces at the heart of stars forming elements that later evolved into the life forms we are familiar with.  So that scientist and author Curt Stager can validly say to his readers: “Hydrogen has become you after billions of years of stellar fusion and countless dances of atoms in air, earth, fire and water” and in turn, “you bequeath them” … “to the many lives yet to come.”[4]

What is true of air and water can be said equally of everything that makes up the human organism and all its metabolic and behavioral functions.  They are constructed of the temporary possession of elements and their composites that exist in sufficient quantity in the surrounding environment to provide the organism with an uninterrupted existence.  I say “temporary possession” because every single atom of every organ or function in the body is replaced on the average of every seven years with atoms from the environment.  The atoms of the elements in the human body are exactly the same as those residing in other life forms and in the rocks, soil and water of the accessible surroundings.  All this suggests a continuous exchange of material elements between the individual human organism and the rest of the material universe. The homogeneity and the sharing of the matter possessed by all the entities, living and non-living, evokes for some observers like atomic physicist David Bohm the image of a single flowing river within which there develop waves and eddies and vortices (whirlpools) which give the appearance of being separate individuals but are all and only the river.[5]

There is nothing unique about any biological organism; it is all made of the same matter, and if the “soul” is defined as the coherence of this human body, it would seem to partake of the same homogeneity. So it should be no surprise that we recognize the characteristic functioning of the conatus in all other life forms.  Self-preservation, on display in self-defense, the flight from enemies, the search for food, the desire to reproduce and the need to gather with others for collective survival, is com­mon across all the phyla of living things.  The signs of its functioning are unmistakable, especially among animal forms, and creates the basis for our sense of compassion and companionship with them.  The very fact that despite vast differences in our organisms — like insects — we are able to recognize similar behavior driven by the same needs, suggests a homogeneity of the source.  We all act the same because we are made of the same clay — matter’s energy, and in its living forms we can see that matter is driven to exist, so we suspect it was driven to exist even before it was incorporated into a living organism.

Life, we conclude, is not something separate from the matter we encounter in the living forms that inhabit our planet as if injected from outside.  It was an intrinsic property of matter all along that only became perceptible when it came together in just the right way.  Similarly, with consciousness. The individual recognition that occurs between and among all species of animals reveals that the phenomenon exists across the various phyla of animal life.  We also suspect that the potential for consciousness — Strawson’s thesis — is an intrinsic property of matter that necessarily functions at all levels of evolved integration albeit with the capacity of range and depth allowable by the extent of the complexification.  Those familiar with farm animals know that chickens, goats, horses, pigs, dogs and cats can differentiate between human individuals even though they all do so at very different levels of ability.  We observe that consciousness is present according to various levels of complexity in all species of animals and therefore we extrapolate this potential to the substrate itself of which all these species are made.

Relativity and quantum mechanics

The 20th century saw two major breakthroughs in physics that have completely undermined the security we once had about the nature of matter.  The theories of relativity and quantum me­chanics have revealed matter to be a fundamentally mysterious quantization of an essentially homogeneous flow of energy through time that fills the universe.  This energy sometimes manifests itself as particles and sometimes as force fields or waves.  It calls into question the fundamental imagery we have had that matter and what is made of matter are dense impenetrable “things” that are all outside of one another.

Rather it appears that at the quantum level matter compenetrates other matter, exists in more than one behavioral state simultaneously and that in its wave form each particle extends through­out the universe and its presence where it integrates with others to form organisms can only be accounted for statistically, i.e., with a certain degree of probability, not with precision.

This indeterminacy has made it impossible to simultaneously fix the location and behavior of particles.  The observations themselves are revealed to be part of the phenomenon observed adding credence to the suspicion that the imagery of impenetrable masses that we have inherited from our traditional science is false.  The observer is not outside of what is observed.

… relativity and quantum theory agree, in that they both imply the need to look at the world as an undivided whole in which all parts of the universe, including the observer and his instruments, merge and unite in one totality.  In this totality the atomistic form of insight is a simplification and an abstraction, valid only in some limited context.[6]

The proposal for a new general form of insight is that all matter is of this nature: that is, there is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can only be known implicitly … . In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather they are different aspects of one whole and unbroken movement.[7]

The human organism, in this scenario, is thus comprised of trillions and trillions of these sub-atomic components whose physical reality is commensurate with the totality of matter’s universal energy of which its presence here and now is a statistically determined resolution.  Our particles are the distillations of a homogeneous energy that suffuses and pervades the entire universe.  In this context the heretofore unchallenged claim that the human organism is “only itself” and exists radically independent of other material entities, suddenly becomes a highly questionable proposition.  How much more so does the claim that the “self” — which arises from the merger of the passing urges of the individual organism — is permanent and is capable of existing independently, lack credibility.

As we can see in Bohm’s propositions quoted above, science is beginning to speak in terms that are remarkably consistent with the worldview implicit in the Buddha’s recommendations for practice.

Relativity and quantum theory, in fact, provide excellent illustrations of this strange world [of the Buddha] so contrary to common sense.  In the Buddha’s universe a permanent, separate self is an illusion, just as substance is an illusion to the atomic physicist.  Distinctions between an “outside world” and an “inner realm” of the mind are arbitrary.  Everything in human experience takes place in one field of forces which comprises both matter and mind.  Thought and physical events act and react upon each other as naturally and inescapably as do matter and energy.  … As Einstein described matter and energy solely in terms of the geometry of space-time, the Buddha describes matter, energy and mental events as the structure of a fabric we can call consciousness. His universe is a process in continuous change — a seething sea of primordial energy of which the mind and the physical world are only different aspects.[8]

How does the “self” change?

While I believe it has become abundantly clear that there is no separately existing “immortal soul” as the western tradition has projected since Plato, the Buddhists have to acknowledge that the changeability of the “self” which they adduce as proof of its impermanence, is only possible because there is an agent of change that is resident in the same organism.  That agent represents the activation of human intelligence with its undeniable moral clarity, and of the conatus with its irrepressible drive to live, to bring the “self” to heel, and eventually to transform it, drop by drop, into a generous and compassionate moral force in a world of perishing beings.  What exactly is it, then, that changes the “self.”

It is the very same self, whose intelligence allows it to compenetrate itself from within, render itself totally transparent, and activate a potential derived from the living self-emptying energy of creative transcendent matter, LIFE, coiled in the conatus at the very center of its own life that effects this change.  There is only one “self,” and it is capable of doubling back on itself, assessing itself with its own resident resources and applying its intentionality — drop by drop — to the reduction of the unconscious self to obedience.  There are not two selves.  The belief that what effects change is an Absolute Self that is metaphysically distinct from the human self and exists alongside it is a fallacy.  There is a transcendence to the human self that might allow that projection to gain purchase.  But it is precisely the total compenetration of LIFE’s creative material energy resident at the core of the material human organism that is activated in the process of personal transformation.

Aquinas would say that “the Primary Cause only works through secondary causes.” The collaboration is seamless, and therefore the agencies are indistinguishable.

 

[1] Joroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, U. of Chicago Pr., 1971, Vol. 1 p. 30

[2] Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Translated by Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Ed. by Roberts et al. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0310.htm&gt;.

 [3] I am referring to authors like Galen Strawson who explores “panpsychism” in Mental Reality, MIT press, 1994.

[4] Curt Stager, Your Atomic Self, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2014, p.246

[5] David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge, London & NY, 1980, p. 12.

[6] Ibid., pp. 13-14. (emphasis in the original)

[7] Ibid., p. 14

[8] The Dhammapada, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Berkeley, 1985, from the introduction, pp. 80-81

Wage Slavery

3,500 words

One of the objectives of this blog is to highlight the value-shift that occurs when we finally accept the fact that we live in a material universe. Fundamentally, that means eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm that remains embedded in our social structures and value judgments.

This post is the third in a series on work. It ventures into the realm occupied by economic systems, and by implication the political structures necessary to support them. If it seems radical, it’s only because of the great distance we have drifted from an acceptance of our nature as material organisms. It lays out principles of practice derived from the premises established in two posts of July of this year: “Work,” posted July 1st and “Work in a Material Universe,” posted July 14th. I hope you can read them as a whole.

I want to start by making series of propositions.

(1) The economic systems of all modern complex western societies are based on what is aptly called wage slavery.   Wage slavery is a version of the master slave relationship. Wage slavery is not a metaphor. It is slavery. People may no longer be owned as persons, but as workers they are not free. Their work is owned by someone else.

(2) All remunerated labor tends to be servile. Money paid for labor is most often equated to the purchase of non-human objects or products. Such use considers what is bought to be then owned by the buyer. The buyer in effect becomes “God” with the right to annihilate or abuse the object purchased as he sees fit. He artificially individualizes the worker by treating his labor as an object owned, extracting him from the natural survival community and its instinctive cooperative collaboration.

But human work cannot be owned by another. Labor cannot be alienated from its author and his community because it is the expression of the conatus the resident energy that imposes the obligation to continue to exist on the individual material organism in its social matrix. Work is and always remains the output of the worker’s personal survival drive in collaboration with his natural community.

Analogous to the deferential way professionals are treated in western society, an individual’s labor can only be compensated for. Payment (in money or kind) can only be the attempt to counterbalance the temporary (and voluntary) deflection of the worker’s own life energy to the survival interests of someone outside of his natural community. To claim that labor can be bought and owned by the employer is fiction; it is metaphysically impossible. To force it is enslavement; it will fatally distort the humanity and relationships of the people involved in the attempted transaction.

Notice that professionals are treated differently. They are also remunerated, but because of the high value placed on mental as opposed to physical activity in the Platonic worldview, no one considers that in paying a professional, like a doctor, that he becomes your employee and must obey your orders. You compensate him for his creative initiative on your behalf. That should be the paradigm for all labor output from all human beings.

(3) Wage slavery is culturally conditioned by two things: the mythic significance of money and the perennial existence of officially approved master-slave relationships in our western “Christian” societies.

Slavery

The fundamental division of labor is between masters and slaves. Slavery in western society originated in pre-Christian Mediterranean culture, which in turn inherited it from the earlier civilizations of the fertile crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Modern wage slavery is grounded in the ownership of labor. It is the recapitulation in commercial, contractual terms of the slavery characteristic of the ancient world and its Christianized continuation in mediaeval serfdom, indentured servitude, penal and other forms of impressed service.

The oldest form of slavery was ethnic; it was maintained by the conquest and control of people identified as “alien” and, since one’s own tribe, culture and language was assumed to be the only fully human version of humanity, conquered aliens were necessarily considered less than human and therefore similar to the animals that humans used for work, sport or pleasure.

Ancient slavery shed its ethnic roots and was given a universal and specifically spiritual justification by Platonism as the care and guidance of the less-than-human. From the time of the ascendancy of Christianity in the Mediterranean world beginning in the third century, all cultural entities, including the institution of slavery, so essential to the ancient economies, came to be evaluated and universally justified under the aegis of Platonic categories which Christianity embraced, “baptized” and carried forward. It is important to realize that, like imperial autocratic power itself to which slavery is the categorical counterpart, slavery was never repudiated by Christianity in the ancient world.

The principal Platonic tenet that was used to justify slavery was also embraced by Christianity and placed at the center of its world-view, despite the fact that Jesus never endorsed it. It was the concept of the “spiritual soul,” defined as a rational mind, separable from the body, believed to be the person itself, naturally immortal, destined to be judged at death. The soul was an immaterial substance opposed to matter and the material body’s fundamental nature as “animal,” or “carnal” and mortal.

Body and soul, constructed of diametrically opposed “substances,” matter and spirit, were mutually inimical. The spiritual soul, and by extension “spiritual people” (whose lives were relatively free of bodily domination), were considered fully human. Professors, teachers, landowners, administrators, magistrates, senators, merchants and bankers, religious elite, military commanders, etc., people who lived by the work of others and confined their activity to labor of the mind, were in this class. Slaves who lived by the work of their hands and body were deemed less than fully human — their souls were crippled by bodies which were physically controlled by others when not dehumanized by their own animal urges and survival needs. Slaves required having a master to control them, guide their daily activities and determine what they should accomplish with their lives. Slaves, women and children were the first constituents of the primary division of labor: between master and slave. Platonism gave it philosophical form: it said the division was between the fully human and the sub-human — those that worked with their mind, and those that worked with their hands.

Platonism attributed a spiritual dimension to the male body and an excess of material density to the female which supposedly accounted for what men called “women’s erratic behavior.” Thus the domination of the husband over his wife — already well-established as a function of paternal ownership — was re-presented under Platonic Christianity as a replay of the need for the mind to control the body … for spirit to dominate the flesh.

The father/owner/slave master, far from being identified as oppressor in this view, was re-conceived as protector, and it was as protectors that Christianity imposed moral obligations on the slaveholders: they were not to mistreat their slaves. But at no point did Christianity condemn slavery as an institution, or insist on the parity of the partners in marriage, or defend the full humanity of slaves, or require that masters refrain from disciplining them in any way they saw fit. These norms and standards were also applied to the father’s control of his family.

This same thinking was used to justify mediaeval serfdom and the 16th century conquest and enslavement of primitive peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas.   The supporters of slavery quoted Aristotle directly. It was all done under the aegis of a slavery-tolerant Christianity.  Christians have universally tolerated or justified slavery in one form or another in every epoch and in every place they gained ascendancy. There is evidence that even the monasteries used slave labor.

The paternal family in the west is an integral part of this picture and is both the source and the result of the Platonic-justified master-slave relationship. That an adult gives commands, and children obey, is a necessary and unavoidable practicality because adults are more knowledgeable than children. But that the right and obligation to command whether the authority has superior knowledge or not, and the moral duty to obey even though the subject knows more than the authority, claimed as justification for coercing obedience to the proprietary male from women, children and servants, deemed carnal, inferior and needing control, is an arbitrary cultural value choice, imposed for the internalization of the master-slave system. Fathers were owners of their wives and children, every bit as much as of their slaves. That convention has been justified by Platonic Christianity as a spiritual function since its birth in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Based on the value placed on mental as opposed to bodily energies in the Platonic system, the educational patterns in western society imitate and in turn reinforce the master-slave relationship by preparing students to accept the primacy of rational thought over any other human activity. Educational practices and goals are dominated by the values prioritized under the Platonic paradigm: respect for and obedience to the spiritual superior. Rationality, exemplified as mental operations ruled by logic and mathematics, was the standard of highest value set for the student. Feelings — internally experienced forces that have been traditionally ascribed to the body — were excluded as less-than-human; manual work, it goes without saying, was demeaned as subhuman; they were all to be eliminated, or at least suppressed and controlled. Historic movements of awakening — 12th century humanism, 15th century renaissance, 19th century romanticism, 20th century post-modernism — were all attempts to reassert the rights of the integral human organism against the tyranny of the Platonic exaltation of the mind over the body

Professionals in our culture are those who live by mental activity, not physical. Students are taught that professionals are a “higher” version of human being. Education prepares the educated to accept the “natural right” of mental over physical labor and therefore the control of the commanding manager who thinks, over the toiling worker who supposedly does not. In reality, it is a fiction that disguises the fundamental myths: the myths of the disembodied mind and its ownership of all things material, including “material” people..

In Plato’s world, the body does not think, only the soul thinks. The Platonic prejudice is so powerful that despite the fact that the ideal of pure rational cerebration is almost never realized, giving clear indication of the delusional nature of the belief, it has not mitigated in the least the supreme value placed on it in our dualist culture. It has justified the existence of a master class as superior thinking human beings. It encourages its devotees to denigrate and dismiss contributions to human discourse and decision-making that fall short of that ideal. It means that the uneducated, i.e., those who by definition have never been thoroughly indoctrinated in the cerebral illusion by certified “masters” during an extended period of mental submission, are pre-emptively excluded from the gatherings where directions are chosen and the means of achieving goals determined. It means the worker has no input. It divides society along educational-intellectual lines and consigns the uneducated to lives of obedient physical reflex, either entirely devoid of a rational dimension or where the rational element, which has already been determined by the educated elite, is to be applied without revision or deviation.

From this short description it should be clear that most “jobs” — what people mistakenly call work — fall into this category. Jobs, for the most part, are slave labor based on the Platonic scheme of values. From society’s perspective wage slavery is not only arbitrary and unnecessary but it is inefficient and wasteful of the creativity of those who are employed. Moreover, it risks generating sociopathic blowback for, from the worker’s perspective, it is dehumanizing.

Wage slavery tends to reduce “owned” labor to a mechanical reflex, and thus has encouraged the adoption of the “assembly-line” factory system, operational world-wide at this point in time, premised on the mind-numbing repetition of some minor procedure, as the ideal (most efficient) form of labor. But workers also think and can plan the desired outcome of community endeavors; such is their predisposition as living organisms. Their exclusion from that process is a profound injustice endorsed by the Platonic delusion. Money cannot compensate for the loss of participatory autonomy. Work is a survival function of the human organism; we are innately determined by it.

The key valence and infallible indicator of the presence of the master-slave relationship is absolute obedience on the part of the isolated individual worker whose instinct to collaborate creatively with companions in the work effort is totally frustrated. The worker is under orders to make no input of his own into the task at hand. For the successful completion of a project he is to relate to the employer alone, not to his work companions.

The ancient monks saw very clearly the power of obedience to stifle the self — in their case what they believed was a false self — and replace it with what they believed to be their “true self.” The slaveholder is equally intent on suppressing any self in the worker that would compete with his own goals. Hence he requires absolute obedience from individuals isolated from their natural community because he has bought and thinks he owns their labor. The monk used obedience as a tool to achieve his own chosen goals, one of which was the formation of a brotherhood. The isolated jobholder, however, knows very well that the only goals of his own or of his community that he will ever achieve through his job will be those he wrests from his employer by force.

Money

Money prevents workers from exercising control on two counts. The first is the myth that a private person can actually own (with the right of annihilation) the means of production of goods and services that are used and needed by the whole community. This is patently impossible.  At most the community may consign management to a private entity, but it cannot allow its survival to be held hostage to private concerns. It is a logical tautology because the “private” person survives only in and through the survival of the community.

The second myth is that employers can buy and therefore own the labor of their individual workers. Both myths are based on the more fundamental belief that money gives ownership with divine rights over what is owned.

The Latin language, which has been the source of so many helpful distinctions in our thinking, in this case does not distinguish between owner and master: the same word, dominus, is used for both. Similarly, ownership and political power have only one word: dominium.

Historians surmise that trade began with barter: the use of equivalent values for items that each trader needed. Then it seems likely that some highly desirable object became the standard of calculation. Precious metals lent themselves to being such a standard because of their association with the gods and immortality. In Egypt, gold, which was associated with the sun god, Ra, because of its yellow brilliance, was calculated at 12 times the value of silver which was thought to capture the pale light of the moon. To participate in such divine power was everyone’s desire.[1]

Money is believed to give ownership to the buyer. Even the customer momentarily becomes “master” over the corporate giant that sells the product in question because money has exchanged hands. The “customer is always right” is the acknowledgement of the supreme power that money is given in our culture.

Survival in a complex society requires money. When money is the exclusive form of compensation for every kind of labor, even the most meaningless (or dehumanizing) task can earn one his living. “Jobs” that are paid for with money pretend to own the energy immanent in the artificially individualized worker. Employment pretends to redirect that energy toward ends that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the survival needs of the worker and his community and claim that the deflection is fully justified by money.

There are no differences in the recognition provided by money except through quantity. Hence the volume of money alone becomes an index of value. This equation is so ironclad that even those who are aware of its falsifying potential are unable to extricate themselves from its illusions: everyone defers to those who have a lot of money. Many silently harbor beliefs that the rich are superior: smarter, more disciplined, more moral and “blessed” by God. The myth is reinforced by traditional religion that ascribes to divine providence the actual state of affairs in human society. If someone is wealthy, it’s because “God” willed it. The fact that this is obviously preposterous should be enough to put an end to these illusions. There is no such providence.

This blurring is especially damaging to the economic programming that these reflections are suggesting: that we can re-structure the division of labor and remuneration in such a way as to guarantee that each individual is included in the collaborative effort to survive and through that participation achieves survival and a place in society.

The first element in any analysis of how work and reward should be distributed is clarifying the distinction between survival work and other human endeavors that are directed toward the quest for life that transcends the moment, many of which are of dubious value. The second is to insure that the worker’s efforts are respected for their double significance: work achieves organismic survival in a community that acknowledges the human instinct to transcendence through social membership. The collaborative participation of the worker expresses the communitarian character that matter’s energy has used as a survival tool over and over again during the course of 14 billion years of evolutionary development. The natural human instinct is to work with known companions as part of a collaborative endeavor.

Worker Justice

From all that has been said it should clear that the exclusive focus on “bread and butter” issues (salaries, benefits and working conditions) when addressing the question of justice for working people, omits the most important: collaboration and worker control. It assumes that the worker is an isolated individual whose labor can be redirected by the master who owns it. In a material universe that is committed to eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm, the primary injustice is identified as the isolation of the individual worker and his alienation from his work — the claim to own the labor of another human being. The fundamental injury is the institutionalized frustration of the need of the human organism, embedded in its community of survival, to express its intrinsic and constitutive existential bearing in its work. It is the refusal to permit the collaborative, intelligent, autonomous participation of socialized human organisms in the communal decisions and collective labor that determine not only what work will be done but also all the associated conditions that impact the project and the workers.

Wages and benefits are not the be all and end all for working people that many labor organizations claim. In their haste to be part of the prevailing economic system and to avoid alternatives prejudicially labeled “socialist,” labor unions end up collaborating with management in the maintenance of the mindlessness and isolation of wage slavery. Worker collaboration, input and control is never part of any contract package, and it is not even part of labor unions’ declared mission statement. Workers who become union members do not join a brotherhood; each isolated individual worker performs only one collective action: he votes with other isolated individuals to hire a corporate lawyer who will defend his rights as an individual worker.

Justice for working people will never be secured until the issue of collaborative human participation is acknowledged as an essential part of any and all human endeavors, including the jobs protected by labor unions.   Human work must be the act of fully engaged human organisms, body and soul, mind and spirit. None of this can be “owned” by another.

Transition

The enormous gap between these principles of practice and the actual state of affairs in our economic system is so great that many will dismiss this vision as quixotic. But don’t be fooled. These proposals are not some new utopian innovation. They address a massive historical deformity that we have inherited from our dualist tradition: the human organism has been trapped in an ongoing cultural fiction that has destroyed its integrity in the service of exploitation by the master class. We have been living with wage slavery for more than two centuries. The consequences for working people have been catastrophic. It’s time we put an end to this mockery of the human being.

We fail to implement the reform of this system at our peril as humans. That doesn’t mean that society faces imminent collapse or that armed insurrection is inevitable. Things may very well go on just the way they are. But the human destruction to working class individuals and to community at the level of family and neighborhood will continue unabated and even intensified. It will continue the propagation of individual and social pathologies of genocidal proportions, an effect that we have been living with among the working class in our cities since the early 19th century. To change the situation a transition from the patterns that now dominate wage slavery will require a complete overhaul of the way work is planned from the very beginning.

Such a change would be a “revolution.”

[1] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Wesleyan U. Press, 1959, p. 234 ff.

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