Contingent Divinity: The Golden Calf of the Universe
By Phillip Darrell Collins (August 1st, 2014)
Author’s note: The following is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Invoking the Beyond, which I am co-authoring with Paul David Collins.
In Romans 1:25, St. Paul pens the following comments concerning the practices of idolaters: “They changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.” St. Paul’s identification of the “creature” as the idolater’s surrogate for God elucidates a parallel between the ancient world and modernity. To understand this parallel, one must first examine the etymology of the term “creature.” “Creature” is derived from the Latin word creāre, which means “created thing.” The material cosmos qualifies as a “created thing” and, within the dominant cultural milieu of modernity, it is the material cosmos that tends to occupy the lofty status of divine. Today, the idolatry of the ancient world is expressed through the Weltanschauung of naturalism and enjoys pseudo-scientific sanctions with evolutionary theory.
Naturalism holds that nature brought itself into being without a Creator and continues to arrange itself through purely organic processes. Of course, structure and organization imply design, which, in turn, implies a Designer. Since the naturalist views nature as the originator of its own structure and organization, he or she is tacitly deeming nature a de facto designer. Essentially, the material world is hypostatized. Within the context of this discussion, the term “hypostasis” is being invoked to denote a fundamental, self-sufficient rational entity upon which all else is contingent. Ironically, those who advance the hypostatic depiction of the universe typically contend that their immanent surrogate for the Divine is anhypostatic. Yet, given the irreducibly teleological nature of their cosmology, such an anhypostatic characterization of the universe is not logically sustainable. Invariably, the elevation of the sensate cosmos to the status of the Divine results in the hypostatizing of the contingent universe, a reality tacitly underscored by the anthropomorphic terminology that scientific materialists tend to invoke in discussions concerning the material world. This hypostatic depiction of the universe provides the basis for the virtual apotheosis of material agencies and the enshrinement of immanentism.
Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov identified two core commonalities shared by materialism and immanentism. These are “the rejection of a transcendent God and of ‘contact with other worlds'” (Valliere 185). In the absence of a transcendent God and another world, the hypostatic view of material agencies gains the semblance of sense and human reason can be elevated to the status of divine revelatory agency. The denial of contact with a world beyond this one provides the basis for the Enlightenment’s self-sufficient portrayal of nature, which is supposedly explained through an incoherent narrative involving an infinite regress of contingent agencies imbued with the causative powers of the Divine. In turn, the denial of a transcendent God provides the basis for the Enlightenment’s apotheosized portrayal of reason, which supposedly uses the hermeneutical keys of fetishized science and logic to decipher the sublime mysteries of the inexplicably eternal universe. Conrad Goeringer articulates the Enlightenment’s symbiotic portrayal of reason and nature:
Reason, then, was the faculty for comprehending nature, the second important element in the Enlightenment triad. Nature was just that – the natural, real world. It was not the realm of the supernatural, the demonic, or the godly, but the empirical or rational “stuff” of which the universe was, and is, made. Nature could be understood through reason; through logic, scientific inquiry, and open mind of free inquiry, nature would yield her secrets. (“The Enlightenment, Freemasonry, and the Illuminati”)
These elements–a self-creating, self-sustaining natural world and an apotheosized human cognitive faculty–comprise an anti-metaphysical view of the universe that echoes the schools of occultism that populated antiquity, particularly the ancient Mystery religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia. All the elements are in place for the transplantation of divinity within the ontological confines of the physical universe, an interpretation of God that pervades pantheism, immanentism, and even naturalism. In fact, Perennial Traditionalist Rene Guenon contends that all three constitute “anti-metaphysical errors,” which are “closely interrelated” (The Reign of Quantity 288). All three fetter the Divine to material agencies, albeit through a variety of different conceptual frameworks proffered by different theoreticians. As much as some may object, this is just as much the case for naturalism.
St. Paul’s description of idolatry is equally applicable to the luminaries of Enlightenment thought and all of its ideational progenies. Radical empiricist and Enlightenment theoretician David Hume admits as much in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:
It were better, never to look beyond the present material world. By supposing it to contain the principle of its order within itself, we really assert it to be God; and the sooner we arrive at that divinity, the better. (94)
Thus, the naturalist strives not toward an objective understanding of the natural order, but the re-assertion of pagan spirituality and the divinization of the universe. In his book Pale Blue Dot, deceased astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan prophesies the arrival of such a religion with glowing approval:
A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge. (77)
The desire to worship the creation instead of the Creator is certainly nothing new. The adherents of many orthodox religions, particularly the traditional Abrahamic faiths, assign this desire a very specific and pejorative designation: idolatry. The Bible is replete with case studies in idolatry, even within the very nation through which the Lord would bring His salvation. Of course, the invocation of such a designation typically invites mockery and contempt from the anti-theist. Yet, in their religious veneration of the universe, anti-theists level a similar charge against traditional theism. A commonly reiterated mantra among anti-theists is that belief in a transcendent Creator devalues the creation, which is regarded with reverential awe in spite of its axiomatic contingent nature. This denunciation is exemplified by the words of Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go!
In other words, belief in God constitutes a corrupting “otherworldly hope” that robs the world of its supposed divinity. The infidels (i.e., traditional theists and adherents to orthodox religions) must be allowed to expire by the “poison” of their own beliefs. Once they have been expunged, the earth can be redivinized. Nietzsche tacitly promotes an inverted interpretation of idolatry. Through Nietzsche’s interpretative lens, devotion to the allegedly untenable belief in a transcendent Creator qualifies as idolatry. In this sense, Nietzsche is advancing some form of immanentism as the one true religion. Therefore, the legitimacy of the charge of idolatry is not what is in question. Instead, the question is, “What qualifies as idolatry?” If St. Paul’s criteria for defining idolatry holds sway, then it is the naturalistic outlook and its closely aligned anti-metaphysical beliefs (e.g., scientific materialism, pantheism, immanentism, etc.) that satisfies all of the prerequisites.
Man’s idolatrous impulse did not recede with antiquity, as is evidenced by the deified portrayal of the natural order promoted by the Enlightenment and several modern men of “science.” The sciences did not banish this anthropomorphism to the realm of superstition. Instead, under the guidance of certain theoreticians, the sciences have actually enshrined the worship of nature. At this juncture, it is most elucidating to revisit Guenon’s observations concerning “anti-metaphysical errors.” Guenon contends that the adoption of such errors “shuts out all ‘transcendence’ and so also shuts out all effective spirituality” (The Reign of Quantity 288). The anti-metaphysical interpretation of transcendence is one case in point.
Within the framework of such anti-metaphysical outlooks, there is no longer any ontological transcendence. Instead, transcendence is redefined as moving beyond the constraints of finitude (e.g., time, space, death, etc.) while still indwelling the confines of immanent experience. Such a false transcendence has been advanced through the new immortality narratives of scientific materialism, which reduces the soul to an information pattern that is contained and fragmentarily transmitted through genes. Simultaneously, all organisms are portrayed as mere survival mechanisms for genes. The perpetuation of a species means the perpetuation of genes. In turn, the perpetuation of genes means the perpetuation of the information pattern that constitutes the soul. Herein is the newly defined immortality for the anti-metaphysical age of modernity. In The Selfish Gene, ardent anti-theist Richard Dawkins distills this new immortality narrative:
Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing-over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose we are cast aside. But genes are denizens of geological time: genes are forever. (The Selfish Gene 35)
Interestingly enough, the chapter of the book where Dawkins exposits this reductionist conception of zoe (i.e., eternal life) is entitled “Immortal Coils.” Since genes transcend death, humanity enjoys genetic immortality without God. Once again, there is no ontological transcendence. Instead, there is just some vague circumvention of finitude through the impersonal agency of genes. Interestingly enough, Dawkins, who is a stalwart evolutionist, characterizes pantheism as “sexed up atheism” (The God Delusion 40). The New Atheists, who have swept the bestsellers lists with their literary works and championed a rallying call for the waning paradigm of Darwinism, appear to be the missionaries of evolutionary pantheism. Fleshing out the definition of pantheism, Dawkins writes: “Pantheists don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings” (40). It is ironic that Dawkins, who fiercely advances a dysteleological outlook, would acknowledge the “lawfulness” intrinsic to the natural order. Such an acknowledgement bespeaks a distinctly teleological outlook.
Dawkins is not the only New Atheist who has invoked distinctly teleological language in regards to the material cosmos. Examining Spinoza’s pantheistic outlook, Daniel Dennett uses terms like “Design” and “creation” to describe the natural world (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea 520). Obviously, such terms are inherently teleological. Yet, simultaneously, Dennett makes appeals to dysteleological “mindless purposeless forces,” citing them as the ultimate causative agencies behind the universe (520). In short, Dennett presents a grand narrative of human origins that attempts to blend the mutually exclusive philosophical views of teleology and dysteleology. Dennett argues that this cosmological myth is rendered coherent by Darwinism and that the alleged divinity of the universe, which he dubs “The Tree of Life,” is worthy of religious veneration:
Spinoza called his highest being God or Nature (Deus sive Natura), expressing a sort of pantheism. There have been many varieties of pantheism, but they usually lack a convincing explanation about just how God is distributed in the whole of nature… Darwin offers us one: it is in the distribution of Design throughout nature, creating, in the Tree of Life, an utterly unique and irreplaceable creation, an actual pattern in the immeasurable reaches of Design Space that could never be exactly duplicated in its many details. What is design work? It is that wonderful wedding of chance and necessity, happening in a trillion places at once, at a trillion different levels. And what miracle caused it? None. It just happened to happen, in the fullness of time. You could even say, in a way, that the Tree of Life created itself. Not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, over billions of years.
Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not. But it did make the ivy twine and the sky so blue, so perhaps the song I love tells the truth after all. The Tree of Life is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm’s “Being greater than which nothing can be conceived,” it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred. (520)
Dennett’s veneration of Darwin as the theoretician responsible for scientifically dignifying pantheism’s distribution of divinity “in the whole of nature” is well-founded. While several atheists and neo-Darwinians might raise objections, there is a body of evidence that suggests Darwin was exposed to occult ideas, particularly pantheistic concepts that circulated in Freemasonic circles at the time. In turn, exposure to these ideas tainted the interpretative lens through which Darwin would view his “evidence.” Once Darwin had systematized his data, the resultant theory would be appropriated as affirmation for the new secular gospel of an intra-mundane god.
Erasmus Darwin is responsible for developing “every important idea that has since appeared in evolutionary theory” (Darlington 62). No doubt, orthodox evolutionists contend that these ideas originated with dispassionate, objective scientific observations. Yet, Erasmus’ organizational affiliations suggest that he was exposed to certain occult and pantheistic ideas, which, in turn, shaped his thinking. William Denslow’s 10,000 Famous Freemasons from A to J, Part One states that Erasmus was “made a Mason in the famous Canongate Kilwinning Lodge No. 2 of Edinburgh, Scotland” (285). Having established Erasmus’ Masonic pedigree, it becomes necessary to contextualize the early evolutionist’s ideas within the corpus of the occult beliefs pervading some strains of Masonry.
In Morals and Dogma, 33rd degree Freemason Albert Pike claims that the brotherhood is a retainer of the occult beliefs espoused by the pagan Mystery cults of antiquity, albeit in a fragmentary and imperfect form. He boldly proclaims: “Though Masonry is identical with the ancient Mysteries, it is so only in this qualified sense: that it presents but an imperfect image of their brilliancy, the ruins only of their grandeur . . .” (23). Therefore, it must be understood that Masonry advances a flawed and possibly embellished facsimile of the Mysteries. While some elements of the original Mystery religion might remain intact, they are probably buried beneath layers of errant interpretation and extraneous doctrines. Yet, Masonry, which is permeated by a form of spiritual elitism akin to Gnosticism, has never encouraged modesty among its members. It is not uncommon for Masons to arbitrarily lay claim to either authorship or stewardship of ancient traditions and supposed repositories of mystical wisdom. Not surprisingly, Pike characterizes Masonry as the “successor of the Mysteries” (22). However, whether or not Masonry’s philosophical and spiritual lineage can be directly or indirectly traced back to the ancient Mysteries is inconsequential. Instead, it is important to determine the extent to which Masonry’s reformulated version of the Mysteries might have informed the evolutionary ideas of Erasmus and, in turn, Charles.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica contributor William L. Reese, the Mystery religions “stressed types of mystical union that are typical of pantheistic systems” (“Pantheism and panetheism in ancient and medieval philosophy”). This pantheism seems to have remained intact within Masonry’s reformulated version of the Mystery religions. In The Lost Keys of Freemasonry, Thirty-third Degree Mason Manly P. Hall likens the Lodge to the cosmos and characterizes the various natural kingdoms as the constituents of some sort of pantheistic homogeneity. Hall contends that the apprehension of this pantheistic analogue is a prerequisite for becoming a “mystic Mason”:
Every true Mason has come into the realization that there is but one Lodge–that is, the Universe–and but one Brotherhood, composed of everything that moves or exists in any of the planes of Nature… He realizes that his vow of brotherhood and fraternity is universal, and that mineral, plant, animal, and man are all the included in the true Masonic Craft… The mystic Mason, in building the eyes that see behind the apparent ritual, recognizes the one-ness of life manifesting through the diversity of form. (63)
Masonic scholar Albert Mackey states that the advanced Degrees concern themselves with the “doctrines of Philo, the Gnostics, and the Cabalists” (324). All of these doctrines, according to Mackey, included the theory of emanations (324). Mackey relates this theory to the idea of anima mundi or “spirit of the world” (324). Various Renaissance philosophers viewed this pantheistic world-soul as the “unifying principle” at work throughout the “hierarchical order in the cosmos” (“Agrippa Von Nettesheim: Philosophical Magic, Empiricism, and Skepticism” 126). At this juncture, it is interesting to recall the fact that Rennaissance-era humanists co-opted the operative Mason guilds, thereby birthing speculative Freemasonry. Given the Renaissance’s preoccupation with the concept of anima mundi, it is possible that the aforementioned humanists introduced some form of pantheism to the corpus of Masonry. Such an outlook certainly seems to be espoused by several pieces of Masonic literature. One case in point is Masonic historian John Sebastian Marlowe Ward, who writes:
The unknown Pantheistic deity hinted at in masonry is a matter of vital importance, both to those who desire to know what F.M. [Freemasonry] teaches, and also to those who hope by means of hints in our present ritual to rediscover something of our past history. (44)
While the British Grand Lodge contends that Ward’s work represents his own private interpretations and not the Brotherhood as a whole, his statements concerning Masonic pantheism appear to be supported by the preceding observations of other Freemasons. After examining a variety of other Masonic authors, Martin L. Wagner also concluded that pantheism comprises a large portion of Masonic teachings. Wagner states:
The Masonic view of the revelation of God, in the lower degrees, is deistic, but in the higher degrees it becomes pantheistic. The writings of Garrison, Buck, Pike, and other eminent Masons show this unmistakably. It is this peculiar pantheistic conception of deity which has passed from India through the secret doctrines of the Kabbalah into modern speculative Freemasonry, as Buck intimates, that constitutes the secret doctrine of the institution. In Masonry, a God distinct from the life of nature, has no existence. (309-310)
Given this thread of pantheism running throughout the secret doctrine of the Brotherhood, it is possible that Erasmus Darwin, as a Freemason, was exposed to the belief that “a God distinct from the life of nature, has no existence.” Such a pantheistic conception of the Divine is insinuated through the title of Erasmus’ popular poem, The Temple of Nature. Implicit in the title is the contention that nature is due religious veneration because it possesses causative powers reserved for divinity. In the poem, Erasmus delineates the alleged progression of life from the infusoria that populated primordial oceans to the upright man who presently occupies the highest tier of evolution (Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition 121). In the preface, Erasmus candidly discloses the ancient inspiration for the outlook that he is about to poetically distill:
In the Eleusinian mysteries the philosophy of the works of Nature, with the origin and progress of society, are believed to have been taught by allegorical scenery explained by the Hierophant to the uninitiated, which gave rise to the machinery of the following poem. (The Temple of Nature ii)
According to Ron Leadbetter, the Eleusinian mysteries were a series of initiatory rites and festivities held by an Athenian Mystery cult in veneration of Demeter, a Greek goddess of fertility and grain (Eleusianian mysteries). The very nature of this deity suggests the cult’s implicit adherence to pantheism, as is evidenced by Demeter’s inextricable relationship with grain. Grain is, of course, a product of nature and it plays a central role in the fertility-laden symbolism of the harvest. Through the interpretative lens of pantheism, fertility can be viewed as nature’s ability to create and perpetuate itself. Thus, nature becomes a self-originating deity. The pantheism implicit in the veneration of Demeter provides some context for Eramus’ characterization of the Eleusinian mysteries as “the philosophy of the works of Nature.” Erasmus makes it clear that this pantheistic outlook, which was allegorically conveyed to neophytes by the Eleusinian priesthood (i.e., Hierophants), supplies the source material for “the machinery of the following poem.” Thus, one could argue that The Temple of Nature presents the pantheistic outlook, albeit re-envisioned through the purely physiological optic of biology.
Erasmus’ biologicized formulation of pantheism pervades several of the verses of this lengthy poem. A deistic disjunction between God and creation, an immanent cosmos peopled by causative forces symbolized by ancient deities, the supposed mutability of species, and the religious primacy of nature are among the themes communicated throughout the text. All of these themes emerge in some of the early stanzas of the poem, where Erasmus writes:
GOD THE FIRST CAUSE!–in this terrene abode
Young Nature lisps, she is a child of God.
From embyron births her changeful forms improve
Grow as they live, and strengthen as they move…
Ere Time began, from flaming Chaos hurl’d
Rose the Bright sphere, which form the circling world
Earths from each sun with quick explosions burst,
And second planets issues from the first.
Then, whilst the sea at their coeval birth,
Surge over surge, involv’d in shoreless earth, Nurs’d by warm sun-beams in primeval caves
Organic life began beneath the waves. (26-27)
While Erasmus correctly identifies God as the First Cause, he immediately situates the Creator at an unbridgeable ontic distance from His creation. With God arbitrarily deemed an absentee landlord, nature becomes the sole causative force from which “changeful forms” are birthed. Erasmus’ characterization of all organisms as “changeful forms” bespeaks his belief in the mutability of species. In a statement that foreshadows the evolutionary hypothesis of his grandson, Erasmus claims that the developmental journey of all species “began beneath the waves” of the ocean. During this early stage of its evolutionary ascent, organic life was nurtured by “warm sun-beams in primeval caves.” The ontic exile of God and the enthronement of nature lays the groundwork for the reorientation of man’s epistemic compass towards what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” Taylor describes the view from this immanent frame and the corresponding form of social order it implies:
And so we come to understand our lives as taking place within a self-sufficient immanent order; or better, a constellation of orders, cosmic, social and moral…
At first. the social order is seen as offering us a blueprint for how things, in the human realm, can hang together to our mutual benefit, and this is identified with the plan of Providence, what God asks us to realize. But it is in the nature of a self-sufficient immanent order that it can be envisaged without reference to God; and very soon the proper blueprint is attributed to Nature. This change can, of course, involve nothing of importance, if we go on seeing God as the Author of Nature, just a notational variant on the first view. But following a path opened by Spinoza, we can also see Nature as identical with God, and then as independent from God. The Plan is without a planner. (543)
Thus, the immanent frame either marginalizes or rejects God, thereby hypostatizing the immanent order and elevating nature to the status of a deity. Meaning and purpose, which were initially derived from the transcendent beyond, are transplanted within the immanent present. The corresponding societal model implied by this outlook is inherently technocratic. The ontological confines of the physical universe have been deemed the totality of reality itself. In aggregate, material agencies and natural processes are viewed as the sole principle of creation. The physical, visible cosmos is viewed as the product of spontaneous generation.
Erasmus expresses the concept of spontaneous generation and its corollary metaphysical doctrine, pantheism, in the following verses:
Hence without parent by spontaneous birth
Rise the first specks of animated earth,
From Nature’s womb the plant or insect swims,
And buds or breathes, with microscopic limbs. (30)
In a later philosophical footnote to his poem, Erasmus posits an impersonal “central chaos” as the chief causative force out of which worlds such as this one emerge:
Thus all the suns, and the planets, which circle round them, may again sink into one central chaos; and may again by explosions produce a new world, which in the process of time may resemble the present one, and at length again undergo the same catastrophe! These great events may be the result of the immutable laws impressed on matter by the Great cause of Causes, Parent of Parents, Ens Entium! (The Temple of Nature 196)
Astute readers will automatically identify a logically unsustainable narrative that attempts to invoke the mutually exclusive philosophical views of teleology and dysteleology. Erasmus is positing meaningless, purposeless forces as the progenitors of meaning and purpose. Such a narrative is echoed by some of today’s New Atheists, such as Dennett and Dawkins. The only point of departure is Erasmus’ invocation of an ontically exiled Creator, who set the immutable laws responsible for the generation of life into motion. The origin of being is no longer transcendent, but strictly immanent. Erasmus advanced the same narrative in his famous book, Zoonomia, which was “a massive medical treatise arguing a straightforward evolutionary hypothesis” (Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition 121). Arguably, both Zoonomia and Temple attempt to systematize a purely biological process by which divinity is distributed “in the whole of nature.” That process is evolutionary.
At this juncture, it is important to define the term “evolution” as it is invoked by both Erasmus and Charles Darwin. Clarity of definitions is especially important in the evolution debate. Some proponents of Darwinism have deliberately promoted terminological confusion concerning evolution so as to allow themselves an expedient degree of interpretative elasticity with the term. If the term is invoked to denote a process by which ontologically immutable species adapt to their respective environments, then that definition seems reasonable enough. However, such is not the case with Darwinism. Darwinism is a variety of transformism that challenges the ontological fixity of species by advancing a process in which simple life-forms metamorphose into complex life-forms through random mutations. In addition to the fact that no mutation has ever given rise to advantageous adaptations, this grand narrative descends further into incoherence by proposing that such an irreducibly teleological system is driven by dysteleological forces. Supposedly, the telos (i.e., end) of this system is a perfected species.
Yet, despite its ostensibly high hopes for man, evolutionism expresses a profound anthropological pessimism not unlike that of Gnosticism. The transfiguration to which the evolutionist aspires stems from a tacit dissatisfaction with humanity in particular and the created order in general. Hence, the appeal of some variety of transformism to the evolutionist. Transformism’s portrayal of an inherently mutable man affirms the evolutionist’s aspiration to see the eventual transcendence of biology and the Nietzschean abolition of humanity. Upholding this anthropological pessimism, Darwinism presents a bloody and pragmatic struggle for survival through which man will eventually be transfigured. Because that transfiguration is strictly biological and divorced from a transcendent, personal Creator, the end of this secular theodicy is the apotheosis of the organism. Not surprisingly, evolutionary theory became the centerpiece of a comprehensive religious outlook for Erasmus Darwin. James A. Herrick reiterates:
Erasmus Darwin believed that life evolves toward higher levels of complexity and happiness, a commitment that became for him a virtual religion. As one biographer notes, Darwin “weaves his evolutionary ideas into a wider philosophy of organic happiness.” Thus, “evolution was no casual speculation’ for Erasmus Darwin, “but a belief he lived with for thirty years and one which moulded his whole philosophy of life.” (The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition 121)
A perusal of certain excerpts from Zoonomia will help to define the contours of Erasmus’ “philosophy of organic happiness.” While it is a separate literary piece from The Temple of Nature, Zoonomia arguably qualifies as a companion to that work. Thematically, both works intimate a pantheistic outlook, which attains the semblance of scientific legitimacy through the concepts of spontaneous generation and progressive biological development. That which Temple expresses poetically, Zoonomia distills theoretically. According to James A. Herrick, both books promote the concept of fluid materialism, which holds that all animate nature, including plants, possess complex emotions and sensibility (The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition 121). Erasmus believed that this sensibility originated from a purely material source, namely an obscure ether or fluid within the body and nerves (The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition 121). One case in point is the following excerpt:
From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo both before and after their nativity; and by considering in how minute a portion of time many of the changes of animals above described have been produced; would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all the warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation of its posterity, world without end? (397)
Again, Erasmus correctly cites God as the First Cause, but immediately places Him at an ontic distance from His creation. This deistic disjunction provides the premises for the apotheosis of matter. Endowed with a transformative faculty, the first cell possesses the ability to procure new components and “improve by its own inherent activity.” These improvements are transmitted through heredity, the chief mechanism of transcendence within the new immortality narrative of scientific materialism. While this new definition of transcendence is invoked within a philosophical framework that is inimical to any formulation of substance dualism, it nonetheless echoes the Gnostic frustration with the limitations of time and space. Moreover, it bespeaks an aspiration to overcome finitude without any divine assistance, thereby upholding the Promethean hubris that man can eventually facilitate his own transfiguration into superman and affirming the profoundly juvenile desire to enjoy eternity on one’s own terms.
Erasmus’ invocation of heredity as an imperishable agent of immortality presages Dawkins’ bold proclamation that “genes are forever.” In fact, Erasmus concludes his synopsis of this new immortality narrative with a conspicuous allusion to Ephesians 3:21. Within the context of Erasmus’ narrative, the Biblical phrase “world without end” no longer refers to a divinely redeemed world that is no longer susceptible to Entropy. Instead, Erasmus reinterprets the phrase as a reference to a self-sufficient immanent order. Once more, the material world is hypostatized and contingent agencies are imbued with causative powers reserved for the Divine. Reiterating this portrait of a self-sufficient immanent order, Erasmus writes:
The late Mr. Hume, in his posthumous works, places the power of generation much above those of our boasted reason; and adds, that reason can only make a machine, as a clock or a ship, but the power of generation makes the maker of a machine; and probably from having observed, that the greatest part of the earth has been formed out of organic recrements; as the immense beds of limestone, chalk, marble, from the shells of fish; and the extensive provinces of clay, sandstone, ironstone, coals, from decomposed vegetables; all which have been first produced by generation, rather than created; that it, it might have been gradually produced from very small beginnings, increasing by the activity of its inherent principles, rather than by a sudden evolution of the whole by Almighty fiat–What a magnificent idea of the infinite power of THE GREAT ARCHITECT! THE CAUSE OF CAUSES! PARENT OF PARENTS! ENS ENTIUM! (400-401)
Erasmus’ citation of Hume is quite appropriate, especially in light of the late Enlightenment theoretician’s pantheistic conclusions. In hopes of avoiding any overtly teleological terminology, Erasmus eschews the verb “create” in favor of “generation.” Yet, the evolutionary process posited by Erasmus is irreducibly teleological. Its telos is the collective apotheosis of all organisms, whose respective evolutionary ascents are comparable to the sort of transfiguration posited by Gnosticism. Where the ancient Gnostics contended that man rediscovers his own intrinsic divinity through gnosis, the evolutionists contend that the cosmos rediscovers its intrinsic divinity through the perfection of all species. The point of departure is evolutionary pantheism’s elevation of the immanent to the detriment of the transcendent. Such an ontological disparity would be inimical to Classic Gnosticism, which promoted a docetistic attitude towards the material world. This disparity notwithstanding, evolutionary pantheism and Classic Gnosticism share a common telos: apotheosis.
By assigning virtually omnipotent causative powers to the immanent order, Erasmus merely reiterates Hume’s pantheistic contention that the material world encompasses the “principle of its order within itself” and, therefore, qualifies as God. His cheap semantic gymnastics notwithstanding, Erasmus actually advances an immanent creatology. Within the framework of Erasmus’ incoherent cosmology, evolution is the process by which a strictly immanent divinity channels and expresses itself throughout the ontological confines of the physical universe. As the receptacles of that immanent divinity, each individual species ascends an evolutionary hierarchy towards perfection. Thus, the eschaton of history arrives when the totality of living organisms populating the immanent cosmos reach the final tier of their evolution.
Of especial significance in the preceding excerpt is Erasmus’ conspicuous reference to the “Great Architect.” As atheist Conrad Goeringer previously stated, the “Great Architect of the Universe” symbolized the ontically detached god of deism within the Masonic lodges (“The Enlightenment, Freemasonry, and the Illuminati”). This absentee landlord stood in stark contrast to the “god of Christian superstition” (ibid). In light of his previously established Masonic pedigree, there can be little doubt that Erasmus’ invocation of the “Great Architect” is an allusion to the very same deity. Again, this deistic conception of God provides the premises for the apotheosis of matter. Spontaneous generation, the mechanism by which the self-sufficient immanent order supposedly perpetuates itself, affirms the monistic contention that reality comprises a single substance that is ontologically equivalent with the Divine. Such an immanent deity is posited by various formulations of pantheism.
At this juncture, it is important to recall Wagner’s claims concerning the spiritual trek of Masons and the ultimate conception of God that is promoted within the higher degrees: “The Masonic view of the revelation of God, in the lower degrees, is deistic, but in the higher degrees it becomes pantheistic” (309). In Zoonomia, Erasmus leads readers to the same conclusion. Erasmus posits God as the First Cause, but subsequently situates Him at an ontic distance from His creation. With God rendered impotent by this ontic exile, Erasmus dignifies the pantheistic contention that nature is ontologically equivalent with the Divine. Erasmus’ progression from deism to pantheism reflects the very same spiritual migration made by the Mason from the lower degrees to the higher degrees. Arguably, Erasmus’ Masonic heritage informed his views of God.
Yet, with whom does Erasmus’ evolutionary ideas originate? Are they his own or do they, like his pantheistic spirituality, also originate with the Brotherhood? The answer may lie with another theoretician whose work probably captured Erasmus’ attention. In The Temple of Nature, Erasmus makes a passing reference to the ideas of Lord Monboddo, a Scottish judge and deistic philosopher. More specifically, Erasmus mentions Monboddo’s work in the area of linguistic evolution (11). Concerned with the origins and development of language, this field tends to dignify an evolutionary conception of man. According to Denslow, Monboddo “brought man into affinity with orangutans and traced elevation of man to a social state as a natural process” in an exhaustive linguistic study entitled The Order and Progress of Language (10,000 Famous Freemasons Volume 2, E-J).
Monboddo also affirms the evolutionary conception of man in Antient Metaphysics, the Scottish judge’s attempt at a comprehensive anthropological history. In this somewhat obscure tome, Monboddo comments:
Therefore, I know, many, who will think this progress of man, from a quadruped and an Ourang Outang to men such as we see them now a days, very disgraceful to the species. But they should consider their own progress as an individual. In the womb, man is no better than a vegetable; and, when born, he is first more imperfect, I believe, than any other animal in the same state, wanting almost altogether that comparative faculty, which the brutes, young and old, possess. If, therefore, there be such a progress in the individual, it is not to be wondered that there should be a progress also in the species, from the mere animal up to the intellectual creature… (32)
While Monboddo’s anthropology does not entirely remove the demarcations between man and animal, it does blur them considerably. By asserting that the “mere animal” might be capable of developing into an “intellectual creature,” Monboddo implicitly undermines the uniqueness of humanity. In so doing, Monboddo anticipates Darwin’s anthropological demolition of the Biblical doctrine of imago Dei. Additionally, Monboddo makes several appeals to “progress,” a mythic construct that Darwin would project upon biology. Given his work’s anticipation of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, it comes as little surprise that Monboddo’s successor on the high court of Scotland, Lord Neaves, would pen the following poetic lament in a compilation entitled Songs and Verses:
Though Darwin now proclaims the law
And spreads it far abroad, O!
The man that first the secret saw
Was honest old Monboddo.
The architect precedence takes
Of him that bears the hod, O!
So up and at them, Land of Cakes,
We’ll vindicate Monboddo. (5)
Evidently, Neaves felt very strongly that neither Erasmus Darwin or Charles Darwin were owed any praise for glimpsing the “secret” of man’s alleged evolutionary origins. That distinction, he argues, belongs to Monboddo. In turn, the influence of Monboddo underscores the ever-persuasive Masonic role in the inspiration of the Darwin family’s evolutionary outlook. According to Denslow, the Bulletin of the International Masonic Congress (1917) lists Monboddo as a Freemason (10,000 Famous Freemasons Volume 2, E-J). It is Monboddo’s Masonic heritage that probably inspired his evolutionary conception of man. In The Meaning of Masonry, Masonic scholar. W.L. Wilmshurst contends that an evolutionary outlook underpinned the spiritual aspirations of not only the ancient Mysteries, but the “science” of the Lodge:
This – the evolution of man into superman – was always the purpose of the ancient Mysteries, and the real purpose of modern Masonry is not the social and charitable purposes to which so much attention is paid, but the expediting of the spiritual evolution of those who aspire to perfect their own nature and transform it into a more god-like quality. And this is a definite science, a royal art, which it is possible for each of us to put into practice; whilst to join the Craft for any other purpose than to study and pursue this science is to misunderstand its meaning. (Wilmshurst 47; emphasis added)
As it is invoked by Wilmshurst, the term “evolution” seems to denote a transformative process not unlike the one posited by Monboddo, the Darwins, and other closely aligned theoreticians. It is a developmental process that challenges the ontological fixity of humanity. The only point of departure is the context within which Wilmshurst situates that process. For Wilmshurst, evolution transpires in a spiritual context. Nevertheless, the telos of the process remains the same: the transfiguration of man into divine. Thus, one could reasonably argue that Monboddo, the Darwins, and other evolutionists merely biologicized the process by which that transfiguration is realized. In other words, they recontextualized the evolutionary process, couching it strictly in biology. Suddenly, a doctrine of occult Masonry became a scientific dogma.
Yet, while he depicts the evolutionary process as a spiritual one, Wilmshurst does dignify the anthropology advanced by the proponents of biological evolution. More specifically, Wilmshurst acknowledges the Darwinian contention that man arose from the animal kingdom. As a product of that kingdom, man can make no claim to the lofty status of imago Dei. Instead, he is a mutable organism who has arrived at a pivotal juncture in his transformative journey. From the developmental tier he presently occupies, man can either stagnate or unify his consciousness with the Divine. Wilmshurst states:
Man who has sprung from earth and developed through the lower kingdoms of nature to his present rational state, has yet to complete his evolution by becoming a god-like being and unifying his consciousness with the Omniscient – to promote which is and always has been the sole aim and purpose of all Initiation. (94; emphasis added)
In contradistinction to Orthodox Christianity’s doctrine of theosis, the union being described by Wilmshurst is accompanied by fusion. Fusion is a monistic concept that is foreign to Orthodoxy. In theosis, man’s union with God is intimate, but not ontological. Man partakes of God’s divine nature, but he remains fundamentally human. This union is analogous to iron assuming the properties of fire while remaining fundamentally iron. Such is not the case with fusion, which entails man’s assumption of ontological divinity. Man’s transfiguration into a “god-like being,” as Wilmshurst puts it, entails union with fusion. Early theories of evolution, which were exposited by Charles Darwin’s theoretical antecedents, merely represented attempts to systematize the process by which the alleged unification of man’s consciousness with the Omniscient occurs. Whether the context of that unification is spiritual or biological, the telos of the process remains the same: apotheosis.
As Dennett previously observed, Darwinism dignified pantheism’s distribution of divinity “in the whole of nature.” In turn, pantheism pervaded the Masonic milieu in which the precursors of Charles Darwin were steeped. This pantheistic conception of the Divine provides the premises for a religious faith in innate human divinity. Herrick reiterates:
Without that personal, sovereign divine identity as ultimate moral guide and judge, that is, without a God active in the universe and yet separate from it, human beings are in the cosmic driver’s seat as minor deities… Pantheism leads repeatedly to the notion of human divinity. (The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition 269)
In the shadow of Kantian metaphysics, which was the bequest of the Gnostic revival of the Enlightenment, modernity exiled the noumenal world to the mists of epistemic incertitude. This relegation presaged the outright rejection of all things noumenal and the descent into atheism, which, ironically, qualifies as a form of epistemic certitude. This epistemic certitude is demonstrable in atheism’s dogmatic affirmation of a negative (“There is no God”) in the absolute. Ironically, this affirmation provides the conceptual and philosophical segue for the apotheosis of the claimant. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias explains:
[Atheism] is not saying, “I do not think there is a God.” It is not even saying, “I do not believe there is a God.” It is affirming the nonexistence of God. It affirms a negative. It affirms the nonexistence of God… anyone with an introductory course in philosophy recognizes that it is a logical contradiction. How can you affirm a negative in the absolute? It would be like me saying to you, “There is no such thing as a white stone with black dots anywhere in all of the galaxies of this universe.” The only way I can affirm that is if I have unlimited knowledge of this universe. So, to affirm an absolute negative is self-defeating because what you are saying is, “I have infinite knowledge in order to say to you, ‘There is nobody with infinite knowledge.'” (“Why I am Not an Atheist, Part one,” Let My People Think)
This deification by Essence stands in contrast to the Orthodox Christian concept of theosis, which posits deification by Energy. That atheism should provide the segue for apotheosis is not at all surprising considering the outlook’s synonymy with pantheism. This synonymy is exemplified by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who consistently reverence the god of Spinoza. Through this pantheistic optic, man is viewed as an evolutionary outgrowth of this immanent divinity and, as such, can be apotheosized through his continued biological development.
The religious faith in Darwin’s updated pantheism is exemplified by James Boster, a Professor of Anthropology at University of Connecticut. On April 22, 2014, Boster interrupted a campus Gospel presentation with proclamations of man’s alleged evolutionary origins (Clark, “‘Praise Darwin!’ UConn Professor Goes Ape During Campus Preaching”). While such proclamations are certainly nothing new, it was the religious character of Boster’s message that was especially elucidating. Heather Clark recounts some of the “gems” of Boster’s fiery sermon:
“He started to address the students as ‘My brothers and sisters of Darwin,’” he recalled.
“I want you to join me in saying, ‘Praise Darwin!’” Boster declared, as the students echoed his refrain. “Amen!” he proclaimed.
Boster then instructed the students to “feel your spiritual kinship not just with other humans, but also with your fellow mammals.”
“We are all bonded together in that great spiritual web,” he stated. “The divine saturates nature the way that gravy saturates cornbread.” (Clark, “‘Praise Darwin!’ UConn Professor Goes Ape During Campus Preaching”)
Boster’s proclamation that the “divine saturates nature the way that gravy saturates cornbread” reiterates the pantheist contention that the natural world and its attendant species collectively constitute God. After reading Origin of Species while imprisoned in Odessa, Trotsky declared: “Darwin stood for me like a mighty doorkeeper at the entrance to the temple of the universe” (Eastman 117). Likewise, modernity has entered that temple and its adherents faintly echo an ancient utterance: “…ye shall be as gods.”
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About the Author
Phillip D. Collins acted as the editor for The Hidden Face of Terrorism and co-authored the book The Ascendancy of the Scientific Dictatorship with his brother Paul Collins. Both books are available at www.amazon.com. Phillip has also written articles for News With Views, Conspiracy Archive, and the Vexilla Regis Journal.
In 1999, Phillip earned an Associate degree of Arts and Science from Clark State Community College. In 2006, he earned a bachelor’s degree with majors in communication studies and liberal studies along with a minor in philosophy from Wright State University.
Phillip worked as a staff writer for a weekly news publication, the Vandalia Drummer, between late 2007 and 2011. During his tenure with the paper, he earned several accolades.
In 2011, he was inducted into the Media Honor Roll by the Ohio School Board Association for his extensive coverage of the Vandalia-Butler School District. That very same year, the Ohio Newspaper Association bestowed an Osman C. Hooper Newspaper Award upon Phillip for Best Photo. In addition, the City of Vandalia officially proclaimed that November 7, 2011 would be known as “Phillip Collins Day.” This honor was bestowed upon Phillip for his tireless coverage of the City and community.
Shortly after bringing his journalism career to a close, Phillip received another Osman C. Hooper Newspaper Award in the category of In-depth Reporting. This award was given to Phillip for his investigative work over the death of U.S. Marine Maria Lauterbach and the resultant Department of Defense reforms concerning sexual assault and rape. The case drew national attention and received TV coverage by major media organs.
Phillip currently works for the Wyoming Department of Corrections, where he earned the distinction of Employee of the Quarter for the third quarter of 2013. Phillip still works as a freelance journalist and is currently collaborating with his brother on a follow-up to The Ascendancy of the Scientific Dictatorship.