Philosophers and mystics throughout time have been showing us that everything is connected, that humans are part of that everything, that unity is fundamental — and sacred. This tradition is more prevalent and prominent in the East and in most Indigenous cultures, but in the West we have our cosmologists and pantheists, even within the Church. Some, like Giordano Bruno, were executed for their faith in connection and the sanctity of all, but many were tolerated if perhaps with condescension. Hildegard von Bingen believed in green-ness, viriditas, the juicy and interconnected vitality of all living things. She saw her world as a glowing embodiment of life-force, of god, and she wrote volumes on her visions, always feeling the need — possibly a vital need — to apologize away her sight as that of a weak and silly woman. But her music makes no apology, and her herb craft — science, truly — could only have come from a mind that firmly believed in a holistic nature.
When the current pope took the name Francis, it was a sign. He chose as namesake perhaps the most famous Western pantheist, or panentheist if you will, the belief that god is in everything in the universe but also transcends that universe. God is the unity, the ground state from which space and time spring, and everything in this world reflects that essential deity. Francis of Assisi had many followers, some very influential in their own right, but he himself was never a leader. This may be because he refused to be elevated, believing in a radical, rooted equality as he did; but I do not doubt that the Church did not want too many people to listen too closely to Francis’ words. There would be no Church if Francis could gently mould the world into a grace-filled unity, non-hierarchical and generally unmediated. But this present-day pope chose that name, and many things from the Vatican since that name-choosing have shown that he fully intends to elevate that message of wholeness in the world — if allowed.
Because this message is still not accepted in the West. Like the Church, upon which many of its ideas are founded, the EuroWestern tradition would crumble in a world of equality and wholeness. If everything is a sacred reflection of god, if everything is god, then nothing can be wasted or abused or appropriated. Capitalism can’t exist in a pantheistic world. Ownership becomes a farce and a lie when deity is in all things. Hierarchy can not coexist with a rooted equality that places no one being above another because all beings are essentially connected. So Pope Francis has work on his hands, and I’m not sure he will succeed. For one thing, success probably entails the destruction of his office. But even a partial success threatens the position of power-over-others that EuroWestern men have taken for themselves — or more precisely them-Selves.
The EuroWestern tradition is a hierarchy of selves. It is unrooted and unconnected and essentially fractured. There is no sanctity in the world. There is no god. Therefore there is no morality, no essential structure to the hierarchy, except might. Might makes right through conflict and aggression and dominance between selves. Of course, the self that is most elevated is the one that resembles those that originated this fantasy of a world full of conflicting autonomous individuals all striving to meet their own goals. The autonomous individual is A Man that, through his own might and skills, goes forth to subdue Nature — by which is meant all not-A-Man — for his own profit. This is the idolized yet sticky and strange Möbius construct known as the Self-Made Man.
A Man makes all choices uninhibited by responsibility to anything except greater power. This is called rationality, liberty, though it is neither reasonable nor free. This is the world a spoiled toddler inhabits. A Man is a child, but one that lacks love. A Man is isolated in a world he believes to be mechanical, dead, uncaring. A Man lives in a cage of his own making and in taking power over others has placed us all in our own isolated cages. And because he believes the world is dead, a life-less, god-less collection of things to be exploited for his profit, A Man is using up — destroying — our world. When A Man proclaims that god is dead, what he is truly saying is that there is nothing restricting his impulses, that there is nothing of essential worth and sanctity in the world that might stay his destroying hand, that A Man is the apex and rule of this striving heap of selves that he has created out of human culture. The sniveling toddler has taken control of our world with all the chaos one might expect in that.
This is a tragedy on the face of it, but it’s also just… wrong. There is no A Man, no person that lives in isolation. There is no autonomous individual. There is no being that is an entirely closed independent system. All beings are mutually dependent. We all breathe. We all require water. We all have specific temperature and nutrition needs. We need air that is richer in oxygen than in most oxygen-bearing compounds and that is generally low in carbon. There is no body that meets his own needs. There is no person whose existence is not utterly contingent, at a minimum upon his parents.
Humans are social creatures by nature. We not only physically depend on others of our kind, we are spiritually and emotionally tied to others of our kind. Our physical health declines when our social needs are not met. We all require care, physical and emotional. We rely on the existence of sewers and plumbing and water treatment plants. On roads. On waste removal and cleaning. On food production, shipping, processing, and marketing. On healthcare. And we also rely on friends. On family. On love. On teachers and mentors. On those who give care and help us meet our needs. On those who inspire us. Even the autonomous individual does not thrive by himself. All his wealth and status signaling, preening and performing, all the maintenance of those hierarchies requires an audience. Indeed, he is singularly dependent on validation from others and crumbles without it (thus a large swath of our culture’s fictional narrative). We are all interdependent.
And humans are just as connected to the more-than-human world. Truly, we are all interdependent with the entire web of being. Without plants there is no oxygen or energy. Without decomposers life would run out of its essential building blocks. Without this unique planet’s geochemistry there is no life. Humans are interesting beings, but we are not nearly as important to existence as soil microbes or indeed the microbes in our own gut biome. And just as we languish without human society, we also need social contact with the non-human. We seek out the society of the more-than-human world, I believe, because we intuitively know that we are deeply interconnected with everything, that we have kin and kith with many beings beyond humanity. We want to be with these people that aren’t human as much as we want to be with our human kin — because they are kin too.
Science is increasingly converging with philosophy to support this view of essential connection and interdependence and to undermine the EuroWestern world of hierarchical selves. Indeed, it’s becoming clear that there is no individual being at all. We are all organisms, interdependent with other organisms, probably all the way in any scale and direction. When I say “I am”, it is a fiction. A story my language-loving brain has invented to explain all these causes and effects and beings and doings that are happening within the vicinity of this physical bodily material. I am is a really nice tale about a whole slew of interacting creatures and systems doing life together in this moment of time. There is no way to even designate any given part of me as a human being, unless human is defined as an organized system of many species and inorganic compounds together.
However, A Man does not acknowledge this connection because this would negate his constructed hierarchies. Moreover, it would invalidate his distinction. A Man is not a part of Nature. He is above it. He is above even his own body, or so he thinks. Hierarchies in the EuroWestern tradition give this body less value than the mind that chatters away to itself in this body’s brain. Mind over matter. Control over the emotions. Pure reason. A Man is believed to be a creature of cold rationality, an intellect self, free from the messy restraints of material existence. Making a disembodied mind superior to the physical body is the principle way that A Man has distinguished himself from all the rest of Nature. Nature does not possess intellect and is therefore inferior material.
I find this all tediously absurd. Where is this mind located if not in the body? And what is exerting control over what? There is no mind; there is only matter. However, though we are only beginning to understand thought, two things are becoming quite clear. First, there is very little of it. What we call thinking is largely the brain translating the body’s neuro-chemical response to perception— in other words, thinking is emotional. We think with our feelings. Secondly, the brain is not the only place this takes place, nor is the human portion of the body the only thought generator. The phrase “gut feeling” is proving highly accurate. We feel with our gut, and our gut is not only us. The many non-human microbes in our bellies stimulate and to some extent regulate neuro-chemical processes, from sensory responses to brain function. There is no separation between the human parts of the body and all the microscopic bodies that live within it. There is no I am running things in any human body. There is no division between A Man and all the not-a-man, not even within his own body. If this primary hierarchy is false, then the whole system that rests upon it must be false as well. If A Man is not even master of himself, then he is master of none. And this is the verdict of A Man’s own science.
The idea of the individual is based in the Church, not in the world. It is bound up with the idea of transcendent eternities and salvation of the soul. I don’t know if there is or is not a soul; the question seems illogical to me. What part of what is the essence of I am? But ignoring the irrationality, the lack of factual basis, I feel that the idea of a soul may be ethically and socially wrong. Or perhaps I believe that focusing on a non-material soul is wrong. Because this particular idea of a soul is dependent upon the idea of an autonomous self — which does not exist in fact and can not exist in theory in an equitable world. A world of selves is not a world that acknowledges dependence and so therefore does not acknowledge the true debt of being. A world of selves is not interdependent and connected. A world of selves is just… wrong.
There may be a soul, for all that. Because there certainly is something that happened before this universe and nobody knows what effects rippled out from that ineffable ground state. There are so very many known unknowns in our theories of this existence that the number of things we don’t know that we don’t know about is undoubtedly astronomical. However, I do know that there is connection. All across this universe, and most particularly on this unique and amazingly delightful planet, this one place that we know holds life. I might even call this essential fuzziness of boundaries between this and that, this entanglement in space and time, this nebulosity in I am, I might call that intrinsic deity, the sanctity of Life, the essence of the Whole.
At least, I would agree with Hildegard and call it succulently juicy.
And I think we both would agree that there is no A Man.
Teaser photo credit: Scivias I.6: The Choirs of Angels. From the Rupertsberg manuscript, fol. 38r. by Hildegard of Bingen. By Unknown author – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8543170