Saturday 19 November 2022

Positing the notalive - what's wrong with (almost) all Christian theologies

Everything is alive - we live in an 'animistic' universe, ultimately consisting of Beings in Relationships

This truth is missing from pretty-much all Christian theologies; and even those which explicitly recognize the animistic universe (e.g. Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield, William Arkle) will often lapse-away-from their purported animism into abstractions - e.g. talking as if 'forces' or 'tendencies' - rather than motivations, relationships etc. - were primary realities; or talking of 'consciousness' abstractly, as if it could ever be separated from the specific consciousness of a specific Being. 

Although I assume that Mankind began as unconsciously (implicitly) assuming that 'everything was alive' and reality was made-of was 'Beings'; it seems that the categorization of much of reality as notalive 'things' began very early in human history (many thousands of years ago), at least in some places of which there are records - and that this has been a cumulative trend. 

Initially, it seems, only some small scale things like some 'minerals' were regarded as notalive - but in the twentieth century more and more of reality of reality became regarded as notalive.

From mid-century, it began to be assumed that plants and animals were notalive (being composed entirely of chemicals and their reactions); and in later decades (especially since computers were conceptualized and developed) that even humans were notalive. 

This assumption of notaliveness is mostly implicit; rooted in the widespread assumption (including in mass media) that whatever makes us distinctly human could, in principle, be combined with computers ('cyborg'), instantiated in a computer ('downloaded'), or replicated by some kind of 'Artificial Intelligence'. 

The point is not that this is really possible - it is not; but that many/ most people believe it to be possible; which indicates that there is no distinction between the alive and the notalive, and that in practice every-thing is regarded as notalive 

It therefore seems that, through history (and this trend is broadly repeated in the development of each individual human being) we have gone from assuming everything is alive; to assuming nothing is alive: not even our-selves. 

Christian theology, typically, tries to inhabit a half-way house on this issue. It is sure that Men are alive; but tends to be indifferent to whether plants and animals are really alive - because these are regarded as outwith the plan for salvation. And Christianity follows the general culture of many centuries in assuming that the mineral world is notalive. 

What results from this perspective is (to put it simply) a drama of the salvation of living Men and a transcendent God, that takes place against the backdrop of a notalive world.

This is a deeply alienating and unrooted view of Man's life on earth. To my mind it explains the somewhat shallow, 'two-dimensional' quality that I detect in even the very best of Christian lives. 

Such unsatisfactoriness of the normal (non-animistic) Christian theology is not wholly to do with the inevitable corruption and partiality of mortal life; because I believe it applies even to what can be imagined. 

I think that the only wholly satisfactory life we can imagine is one where there are no 'things', all is alive and conscious, nothing is notalive*. 

Furthermore, beineg alive and to some degree conscious; all Beings are part of 'the drama of salvation' and capable of theosis. 

My belief is that this trajectory from all-alive to all-notalive needs to be regarded as incomplete and incoherent; and therefore the process should be completed by recognizing that this is a living Universe; that the ultimate reality is one of Beings in relationships; but this time doing so by a deliberate act of choice. 

Whereas in the past we unconsciously took for granted that we inhabited a world of living Beings; now we should consciously choose to recognize that reality. 

Indeed if we desire this to happen, we not only can but must choose. If we are passive, and do not make an active decision and effort; then we will continue passively to assimilate the deep and pervasive cultural assumption of universal notaliveness. 

In other words; the answer lies in our own hands - or rather minds. We may make the decision to regard everything as alive; and then begin the (long, perhaps life-long) effort to make this perspective normal, habitual.    

*I suggest that this - in combination with a harmony among all these living Beings - is the special appeal of some fantasy races and settings, such as the elves of Lothlorien. 


Ann K. said...

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that every living thing—even blades of grass—have a soul, but only humans, made in the image and likeness of God, also have the spirit which, through our heart/nous, enables us to know and experience and commune with God.

Avro G said...

Thank you for this unspooling of a thread that it now occurs to me has been bound up and locked away, first by the churches and more recently (and more rigorously) by the hyper-materialist zealots of the sinister universal non-aliveness cult, e.g., Yuval Harari and his accomplices. Reading this various questions come to mind. In no particular order:
Is your view in some sense the same as pantheism- God is in all things and everything is God?
Are there “fairies in the bottom of the garden”?
Are fairies, sprites, leprechauns, etc. manifestations of what you are talking about?
Is my chair a grisly construction of the bones of murdered trees?
Should we apologize to our food before we eat or at least remember that it was once to some degree sentient?
Is sentience the same as aliveness?

Per K. said...

How does one interact with the beings differently if they are alive. What do we say to the Sun and moon. Is cementing rocks together to build a house and act of creation or imprisonment of the stone?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ann K - I know a fair bit about Eastern Orthodoxy, having got as far as becoming a Catechumen - and I don't think it is even remotely true that they believe that created reality is constituted of Beings. The metaphysics tends towards a Platonic type of oneness
- modified by a (more superficial) trinitarianism.

EO is considerably less alienated than modern atheist materialism, for sure; but a *long* way from animism - in its theory, and even further away in practice.

@Avro G and Per K - I'm afraid I don't like answering lists of questions. Nor do I regard sequential questions a good way of discovering truth - since the questioner remains firmly within his prior frame of reference.

I think the best attitude is that of certain Indian sages who allow each of those consulting them One Question.

After someone has thought deeply enough to formulate their uncertainties into a single question; often as not it answers itself.

paul sal said...

The reason such a view was abandoned is it resulted in a view that doing anything is a sin because everthing harms a living being. Broke a rock? You murderer.

R.J.Cavazos said...

Appropos of nothing..... Your post stimulated a thought that seems obvious. The torpor of the several christian churches. For whatever reason my homeland the good ol USA does not get its due as a spiritual superpower (many for reasons that elude me are fascinated by the eastern mystic traditions). Think of Mormonism, Christian Science, several Evangelical Movements, Thoreua, the continuation of the Amish, the Chapaqua movement, Walt Whitman, rebirth of Hasidism, the new thought,spread of waldorf movement and schools, the many utopian movements such as Rappites and Shakers, etc, etc. My point--agree or disagree with these and more the fact that there was such an energy, passion and creativity in these matters for a bit shy of a century (not really seen elsewhere in the western world) is remarkable and yet here we are in a dull colorless world--very much spritually moribund

Bruce Charlton said...

@paul sal - Well, I think it is true that Men wanted to be able to manipulate and exploit the world without care.

First 'rocks' were regarded thus, then plants, animals, humans; and now (mainstream - but especially with transhumanism, and the transagenda) our-selves - our bodies and brains are regarded as just notalive stuff to be modified without constraint and as currently-desired.

Once it has been decided that any-thing is notalive; there is a slippery slope until nothing is alive, because there is not - and cannot be - a real and clear division between alive and notalive. It's all, or nothing.

@RJC - Rodney Stark commented thus wrt the US in his writings on the sociology of religion; and Harold Bloom wrote an interesting (albeit inaccurate) book called American religion about the 19th century movements; and it was true up into the late 20th century - but, as you say, no longer.

Epimetheus said...

That belief that things are not-alive must also result in an awful, inescapable loneliness, as if one were an exile in a wasteland. "There's No One else." Whereas animism should perhaps produce a feeling of intense belonging, as if one were a valued member of a warm-hearted village.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi - Indeed.

One reason I did this particular post was that I believe Christians are mostly complicit in this problem. In earlier eras everybody still had a part of their thinking that operated in an unconsciously animistic way, so this existential loneliness was held at bay. But in this modern era, this has mostly dwindled to almost nothing, and so the deficiencies of classical Christian theology have become unmasked.

Some modern (and serious) Christians have a positive fear and horror of *anything* animistic, and regard it as of-the-devil - the drama of salvation enacted by human souls against the backdrop of a notalive and meaningless universe... This is horribly demotivating, and despair-inducing.

In the past this aspect was somewhat held in check by the active and involving aspects of church-life - but now this has dwindled or disappeared, and ceased to suffice where it has not - Christian salvation seems almost futile, or merely a negative escape from something worse, i.e. hell (with Heaven only seldom and vaguely discussed - and in a way that lacks comprehensibility and appeal - and with nobody ever secure in their salvations anyway, and so living in constant dread).

It is, I think, extremely difficult/ impossible actually to live animistically (except briefly and partially) but we can use imagination to help understand what that would be like, and to acknowledge its truth and desirability.

Dr. Mabuse said...

I think there are some echos of this idea that non-human things are alive in C.S. Lewis's work. Not just the talking trees and animals of Narnia, but in 'The Silver Chair' there's a chapter where the enslaved gnomes are hurrying to return to their own land ("Bism" - great name!) before the chasm closes. One of them invites Prince Rilian to come with them, and describes a place where gemstones are alive and grow, and you can squeeze a cup of ruby juice! And apart from the Narnia stories, in 'The Great Divorce' he describes animals in Heaven, though they are effectively granted a kind of soul-life through the overflow of love from the human souls who cared for them.

Gary Rymar said...

In the great Buddhist temple complex on Mt. Koya in Japan, there is an extensive cemetery called the Oku-no-in. It contains the graves of many historically notable figures, including warlords from the Civil War period. Some of the tombs go back a thousand years or more.

There is also a memorial, erected by the Japan Termite Control Association, to placate the spirits of all the termites exterminated by members of the Association in the course of their work. Here is a link with a picture of the memorial.

This webpage notes that last year they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the erection of the memorial.

The memorial reads “Termites – Rest in Peace”. The feeling seems to be, “we may have to kill them to protect our homes, but they also have their own lives and spirits, so the least we can do is ask their forgiveness”.

Lady Mermaid said...

I remember a discussion of whether pets would be in heaven. Some Christians dismissed the idea as childish nonsense and said that people who hope for their pets in the afterlife need to stop acting like children. Jesus's words about needing to receive the kingdom of heaven as a child came to mind.

God is not the god of Darwinian evolution in which most life on earth is simply here for a short while and annihilated. Romans 8 states that all of creation groans in hope for redemption. Our life on earth is to prepare us to participate in the redemption and glorification of God's creation. Perhaps our pets may receive some kind of soul as the animals of Narnia. We may then have the privilege of helping them learn to choose the good.

Jesus told His followers in John that they would do greater works than He. Our faith is often dull and feeble. We need to be living in anticipation of performing truly great creative works w/ God. The Inklings group seemed to understand the creative potential of our salvation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gary - My point, as a Romantic *Christian* is that to believe the world is alive is necessary - but it is not sufficient. We need to be Christian, first.

Bruce Charlton said...

@LM - There is an argument - which I find broadly convincing - that if animals aren't able to be a part of Heaven - then it will not be Heaven.

But I am going much further than that, in arguing for 'minerals' as well - for everything (and that there are no 'things').

And if Heaven must be chosen - then Minerals (in some sense, obviously not identical with Men, or even animals) must be 'agents'; alive and able to choose.