A week ago I was immersed in a restful Pre-Advent retreat with two other clergy-women friends. The three of us decided we really needed some time away, time to rest and just be together. We brought in my Spiritual Director who offered us some gentle yet thought provoking reflections on Adventy-themes: emptiness, anticipation, vulnerability, waiting, fullness, birth. We went to a retreat center about two hours away, spent two nights there, appreciated someone else cooking the meals and cleaning up afterward. We drank tea, colored mandalas, prayed, walked, talked, enjoyed a glass of wine together.
Of course, as usual, the return was full – each of us launched back into church life and family life and pre-holiday plans. I have barely been able to catch my breath. So it is, the life of a parish priest.
I’m slowly getting back to the book on philosophy (Philosophy:Something to Believe In by Richard Paul Janaro, Glencoe Press,1975). I am determined to read the entire book and have a better sense of this discipline.
Chapter two delves into the starting point for philosophy, according to Janaro: “Ultimate Substance.” This refers to that which underlies or forms the basis for all existence (page 21).
“It is that beyond which the philosopher cannot go in (her or) his thinking. Beyond it there is nothing. Before it there is nothing. To venture a specific explanation, a definition of what substance actually is, means making a major commitment of one’s thought in a certain direction. If one believes, for example, that God is ultimate substance and that God is spiritual or nonmaterial in nature, then one is really saying that matter and the laws governing matter will never help us to understand what existence is all about.”
In contrast one can also believe that all of life is made up of matter or energy and therefore the ultimate substance of life can be determined, along with how it started and where it came from. Janaro then reflects on the relationship between and the influence of science and philosophy on the thousand-plus years discussion of Ultimate Substance. Janaro thinks that engaging the idea of Ultimate Substance and pondering our ability to understand, or not, the point at which reality truly began, is the greatest concern of philosophy.
Philosophers such as Socrates and his student Plato pondered the concept of Ultimate Substance and wanted to know whether all things in nature re reducible to one original material. And if so, how did the diversity of things come about? Is there a “fundamental law” governing all of life – or is change accidental, random, and hit or miss? Or perhaps change is part of an orderly process directed by something inherent in the original material from which everything else arose? Is the Ultimate Substance “divine” or “intelligent”- and if neither of these is true, then how could there be an observable order to creation such as night and day, the seasons, etc.?
Philosophical thought moves from Socrates and Plato to Thales, who attempted to answer the question: “What is the world made of?” Thales believed that water was the ultimate substance from which all of life and the world derived. Anaximander, a pupil of Thales thought that it was just as likely that any of the four basic materials – water, earth, air, fire – could each be considered the ultimate, in which case none of them were. He posited the idea that fire, earth, water, and air came from something he called the “Indefinite.” The Indefinite was infinite because it did not come from anything but it contained the seeds for the four basic materials.
Heraclitus, born around 430 BCE in Ephesus, was the first philosopher to seek an Ultimate Substance that was not material, but instead was a principle. Heraclitus called this the “logos” and defined it as the “formula or element of arrangement common to all things.” (page 28). The “logos” as a non-material Ultimate Substance could be exempt from characteristics of other known substances – it could be alive or generate its own life and be responsible for all other things – AND – it could be exempt from the fundamental law of cause and effect – it could be conceived as always having been in existence – where as everything else must have an origin from some preceding cause. This is the Judeo-Christian concept of God – that which has always existed, was not created, but from which everything else has been created. Heraclitus further developed his idea by stating that when logos, since it could do anything – embodied itself in form – then the earth was created. Christians have adapted this idea to explain the Incarnation – that the logos further embodied itself and took on human form.
Janaro considers many other philosophers and in their pursuit of the Ultimate Substance: Pythagoras (mathematician who tried to link mass and numbers to describe a stable system with a universal common denominator), Parmenides (Eastern thought that describes “reality” as the ultimate substance – there is either Being or non-being); Zeno, Anaxagoras, and David Hume are others discussed in this portion of the chapter. He then moves on to Aristotle, Aquinas and Spinoza and concludes with Einstein and Whitehead.
Aristotle developed the concept of a “system” model – the Ultimate Substance and what comes from it co-exist, without beginning or end. For Aristotle the ultimate is no less than the entire system of nature working as it must. (page 39). Aristotle did not need to explain “how” order came into the universe because the universe “was” order. Thomas Aquinas adapted Aristotle’s beliefs into Christian terms, but instead of the system being the ultimate substance for Aquinas, God is the ultimate and God brought the system into being. Augustine first described God as creating the world out of nothing, Nothing because that then did not impose limitations on God as creator – anything was possible. Aquinas builds off of Augustines idea and expands it – since God is distinct from the universe and since humanity is made in God’s image, human beings are also distinct from, apart from, the system (nature).
Janaro, seems to care deeply about the environment and the impact of human life on the world. He describes the philosophical implications of this line of thought – that humans, because we are made in God’s image and there for distinct and separate from creation – have “dominion over” the world, are causing irresponsible destruction of the environment. (page 41). Remember, this book was published in 1975. And now, almost 38 years later we are suffering from mega-storms that truly seem to be the result of global warming.
Spinoza develops the idea that God and creation are less the idea of a “source with part”s but rather that creation is the “way” God expresses God’s self. God’s primary mode of expression is in thought and extension – Spinoza wanted to acknowledge that thought is a form of God’s expression as well as creation.
Janaro’s section on Einstein and the importance of physics in pushing philosophical thought deeper is interesting. Also interesting is the section on Whitehead – who developed the concept of “process” – that parts interact but ultimately the interaction has limitations. Janaro summarizes that we can no more explain the limitations articulated by Whitehead anymore than Einstein could explain how the universe is curved. (the curve idea from Einstein suggests that if we were to head out into space for all eternity we would eventually return to our starting point because the universe is curved – at least I think that’s what Einstein said).
Ultimate Substance Do you think that all that is comes from a single source, an original material? Do you call this source, substance, origin – God? Divine? Creator? Universe? – or something else?