How I Got Religion

Not, “how I became religious,” but “how I came to understand religion.”

It is extremely difficult for most moderns to negotiate the passage to the fundamentally spiritual perspective that all humans shared before the Enlightenment. At least, I found it so, for the longest time. Despite a number of spiritual experiences that I could nowise gainsay, I could make no philosophical sense of spiritual realities using the intellectual tool kit my Modern education had provided me. I got a lot of training in how to think about the physical, but I didn’t know how to think about the spiritual (or, for that matter, anything not physical). That made the spiritual somewhat incredible, and indeed somewhat scandalous. And this made it quite difficult to be wholeheartedly religious – to worship or say the Credo without invoking a string of philosophical hedges and equivocations that rather emptied the whole liturgical procedure of its numinous, compelling quality, and thus of its point.

Having no way to comprehend spiritual realities, I could not even understand quite exactly what the articles of the Credo properly mean, or what I was meant to be doing in worship. I now realize that I often encounter that same incapacity in atheist interlocutors. They don’t seem to have a way of understanding what it is that theists are talking about. So their arguments often miss the point entirely, and when theists point this out to them they simply can’t see that they are fundamentally misunderstanding the terms of the dialogue.

Modernity’s inadequacy to spiritual realities is echoed in its incomprehension of consciousness, agency, meaning, value, morality, and in the limit truth, beauty, and virtue – or their antipodes. Under its own terms, Modernism cannot account for these things, and must if it is to discuss them at all resort to unprincipled exceptions. This renders it incapable of coherent treatment of any of the basic aspects of life as it is actually lived and experienced. It is, in a word, unable to understand minds, or therefore persons, or a fortiori their lives.

Modernity does however comprehend bodies, better by an order of magnitude than any previous age. So naturally, and like any other successful weltanschauung, it wants to interpret everything under its own terms. It wants to make bodies basic, and reduce all experience to motions of bodies.

Modernism takes bodies to be utterly dead. It wants to say that everything is motions of those dead objects. But as is obvious to the most cursory consideration, the life of the mind is not a congeries of dead things, or of their lifeless collisions. It is an active, lively process. It is a series of happenings, a temporal assemblage of occasions, each of which – whether conscious or not – is in some degree alive to its past and intends some future.

[Of such lively intensions implemented in actual transactions among entities is the causal nexus that connects and relates disparate events constituted as a coherent integral world system.]

It is furthermore transparently obvious that no configuration of dead things can be alive. Only what is alive can be alive.

As incoherent, then, the Modern project of reducing life to motions of dead bodies is, not just doomed to failure, not just impossible, but strictly meaningless, ergo unthinkable: not even wrong.

The problem is that moderns take corporeality to be metaphysically basic, and suppose the supernatural – and the mental – to be (if even real) something invisibly superfluous thereto. Then, believing they have a pretty good handle on the corporeal, and per contra no notion of how the spiritual or the mental might work upon the corporeal, they reject them altogether, and categorically – or else, shove them into an intellectual compartment hermetically sealed off both from quotidian praxis and from the rest of thought (which, when push comes to shove, amounts to the same thing). Gould’s notion that scientific and religious discourse constitute Non-Overlapping Magisteria is an exemplar of this latter strategy. It cannot be carried into practice – i.e., one cannot participate any one such magisterium – except by an implicit rejection of any others; for, a precept of one magisterium that is not true in the domains of some other can’t itself be really true, unless those other magisteria be false.

In the Episcopal Church of my youth, the transition from the profane worldly magisterium that everyone nowadays believes to be true to the sacred otherworldly magisterium that none of them seemed quite able to credit without cavil was called by presbyters and laymen alike “checking your mind in the vestibule.” They didn’t like to do it. Who would? Who would not rather worship with a clean heart and a clear mind? But they couldn’t. Almost none of them had ever been taught how to think about religion. Just like me!

To a man, they doubted. Seeing no way out of it, they counted doubt a virtue, rather than a defect.

It’s an honest mistake. Usually.

To be religious with a clear philosophical conscience, or do theology, or think coherently about minds or, therefore, anything else at all – and so, then, to live a fully human life, a good, rational and intelligible life, that has then a shot at meaning and significance – one must invert the Modern perspective: one must take the spiritual to be basic, and the corporeal to be something added visibly atop it – not superfluously, but superveniently. To the metaphysically competent religious mind, corporeality is like a scrim or veil draped over and taking its shape from a much more substantial – albeit invisible and intangible – spiritual aspect of reality.

Quite a few religious people manage this inversion in their guts, and sporadically. Few manage it with their heart, mind, soul and body, so that it can be maintained more or less continuously.

The objective of this post is to explain how I learned to think about spiritual realities in a way that did no violence to my intuitions about corporeality, or to what I had learned about it from my Modern education, so that I could begin to worship with my whole being, and without worrying about this or that difficulty.

The skeleton key for me was Alfred North Whitehead’s analysis of becoming. It is the crux of his massive contribution to metaphysics in the realist Platonico-Aristotelian tradition [Whitehead understood his work (and indeed all Western philosophy) as footnotes to Plato; it has always seemed to me rather more like a coda that restates the original motif and ushers it home, integrating the important historical variations on its basic theme in a triumphant synthetic cadence].

Most of his predecessors had taken the perdurant atom or monad to be the basic component of reality. Whitehead’s great insight was that the career of a perdurant atom or monad is in fact composed of many diverse occasions or events – or, to use the term that emerged in physics contemporaneously with his philosophical opus, “quanta of action.” Each such quantum differs slightly from all others – including those in the monadic career of which it is a part – if only in respect to its historical locus, its node in the causal nexus. The different moments of a life have somewhat different properties; otherwise, they would not be different in the first place. Under Leibniz’ Identity of Indiscernibles, discernibles are ontologically disparate; so each quantum is an atom in its own right, sharing many properties – but not all – with its fellows. As it attains completion – as it takes the final form and character that define it as itself, and no other – each such quantum thereby takes its place as a node in the causal nexus. That nexus is the world as we know it, the spatio-temporal continuum, or, as Whitehead called it in a nod to Descartes, the “extensive continuum.”

Whitehead employed several terms for these irreducibly basic quanta of action: actual occasions, actual entities, actual events. In using the word “actual,” Whitehead agreed with Aristotle’s insight that being is acting. Actual occasions are not static, but dynamic; not dead, but alive. They are all furthermore intensional, are about things other than themselves: namely, first, their causal inputs, obtained from their past by their feeling or grasping – their “prehension” – of the moral and aesthetic character of that past; and second, of their consequences, the states of affairs that typically arise from such occasions as they have decided to be (these intensions being what Aristotle called the final causes of things, and what we might call their meanings, intentions, or purposes). As feeling in and for themselves the aesthetic character of their causal inputs, comparing and evaluating them, and differentially emphasizing and integrating the properties of those inputs in their own constitutions, actual occasions are “concrescences” of the forms present already in their predecessors; they are then all, and throughout, aesthetic and moral operations. Thus Whitehead called the completion of each quantal process of becoming the final “satisfaction” of its original and originating nisus toward its own realization of aesthetic and moral goodness.

That nisus toward the Good, inherent more or less in all things essentially and radically, they derive from all their forebears, who share in it, but most and in the first instance from their palmary incipient prehension, which is of, and indeed from, God, who as First of all things is first in every instance of becoming. Whitehead called it the “initial aim.” In the process by which each occasion of being forms itself, then, the first and most important causal datum is Plato’s Form of the Good.

Whitehead analyzed concrescence into several phases – these being, he emphasized, disparable in thought only, and not really, given the atomic nature of the actual occasion – but only two concern us here: the process of becoming, and its completion in the state of having become. Call the former “act” and the latter “fact.” It is just here, with the distinction between the process of an act of becoming and its completion, that we arrive at a way to reconcile the spiritual and the mental with the corporeal – and, thereby, to correct and complete, and thus redeem the Modern understanding of corporeality by reintegrating its discoveries with the perennial, fundamentally spiritual philosophy common to all prior eras. It is simply this: the spiritual and the mental, and indeed the vital, characterize the act of becoming, while the corporeal characterizes the fact. The corporeal, then – and, more broadly, the actual – are the end products of processes of becoming. Facts are as it were the fossils of acts.

Until an act is completed in fact, it can play no part in the causal nexus; cannot be in a world. For, the world of a thing is an aspect thereof, and until that thing is itself actual, none of its relations to other things can be yet definite, or therefore real. Worlds are constituted of related facts; their constitution is effected by acts. Acts then are not so much constrained by their worlds as vice versa. Of such is creaturely freedom.

How does all this help us think about spiritual realities – about supramundane, immaterial influence upon mundane life? A concrescing event, that as incompletely actual is not yet integral with its actual world, is therefore not limited to causal inputs arising from that world. It can prehend forms that were never yet apparent in its mundane history, but rather only in God, and then implement them in its own constitution, thus introducing them as suggestive data to its historical successors. This is no more than to say that new things can happen. A truism, surely. But if it is indeed true that novelty occurs, as obviously it is, it can come to pass only in virtue of some influence upon the becoming of this world – some literal influx – from without it. For anything to happen other than exactly what has already happened, never yet apparent forms must somehow make their appearance in history. Creaturely acts are the means of creative ingression to the world of the Divine Ideas. Creaturely agreements with the Divine Lure Providentially given them at their inception – such as they are, and despite their defects – are the effects and creative instruments of the Divine Act.

The startling implication: the spiritual, the mental, the vital – this moment of life that you are now experiencing – is supramundane. It is prior to the world in which you find yourself. That world is not your prison, but your raw material; and as you work with it to decide what and how you shall now be, you have at your creative disposal all the resources of God and his angels.

The spiritual is prior to the corporeal; and your life is spiritual first, and corporeal second.

Once grasp this principle, and all the Modern difficulties with the notions of religious life vanish.

Whitehead’s account of becoming blesses materialism. It allows the materialist account of corporeality to stand – preserving its magisterium – while providing it a metaphysical basis in the process of becoming, and bringing it to agreement with our experience and with tradition. This is to rescue it. As being the medium of all our devices, our own experience of becoming is after all more basic than any theory we might devise. And it is ineluctable. Theory that disagrees with it – that under its own terms rules out or fails to comprehend any of its aspects – must be false. A theory that rules out religion rules out man. To rule out man is to rule out theory.

Our experience is the only evidence we can possibly have about what it is like to become. To treat that experience as indicative, then, is the acme of epistemological prudence and humility. And adequacy to quotidian life is the fundamental epistemological threshold of verisimilitude.

30 thoughts on “How I Got Religion

  1. Every molecule and every arrangement of molecules and every movement that a molecule makes can be every bit as necessary for a living being as every scientist says it is, but that still doesn’t mean that you can reduce that living being to those things.

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  4. The implications for the social sciences (which, on strictly materialist grounds, cannot account for the existence of socio-cultural phenomena without resort to the logical dead-end of reductionism) are nothing less than epochal. Why am I only hearing about it now? I could kick myself for not having found out about it sooner. This post may be the greatest thing I’ve read in the past twenty years. Seriously!

    • Well, that’s encouraging. As I read over the post just before publishing, I thought, “No one will be interested in this Whitehead stuff.” I’m glad you found it edifying!

      Apart from certain thinkers in the overlapping magisteria of quantum physics, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and theology, Whitehead is little known, and less well understood (indeed, I find in reading scholars of those disciplines who are interested in his thought that even they often struggle to understand him – as do I, in respect to a few areas of his theology). That’s because his magnum opus, in which he formally presents his metaphysics – Process and Reality – is famously difficult. To understand it, one must already have understood it, if that makes any sense.

      We should not be surprised that materialism cannot account for social and cultural phenomena. After all, materialism cannot account even for matter.

      • Kristor: Anyone who appreciates Wordsworth, as I do, is bound to appreciate Whitehead, as I do. Process and Reality really is tough going, but Adventures of Ideas (1933) is intended for a lay audience and is quite readable; it makes available most of the basic content of Process and Reality.

        Your argument, incidentally, has pedagogical implications. My students cannot grasp the import of poetry because their notion of letters is only that of marks on a page; they are stuck in the denotative meaning of every word and they treat every word as a separate entity without much of a relation to any of the other words adjacent to it or before it or after it. Reading for them seems to be a kind of “counting pebbles.” By an irony, many of my colleagues, although they read more fluently than my students, are just as stuck in the realm of denotation. They miss the metaphors (because they have convinced themselves that there is nothing to which the metaphors might point) and they “interpret” words on a literal-minded this-for-that basis in which this and that are always “oppression” or “unfairness,” or whatever the buzzwords of the week might be. It’s an automatic process; the interpreter is hardly necessary. Indeed: He is not necessary.

        Being alienated from connotation is a sign of our time, which cannot be read by people who are of the same time. Getting connotation is something like getting religion.

      • Is this the difference between reading the lines and reading between the lines? So far as reading the lines, I could read just about anything I would ever be able to read by my mid-twenties (when I ran aground on Heidegger). Then I began to see that most of the meaning in anything worth reading is between the lines, and that the meaning between the lines becomes legible only after one knows a good deal of literature and philology. Of course, once this power of reading between the lines is awakened, one notices how much writing has nothing between the lines but virgin paper. Such writing is, as you put it, purely denotative. Your student’s literal-mindedness may result partly from ignorance of literature and philology, but also from a steady diet of crude denotative writing.

      • I read Adventures of Ideas after I had already finished two deep readings of Process and Reality, and while it was a useful polish on my understanding of Whitehead’s thought (the pages are dense with my marginalia), I can remember thinking as I read that if I had encountered it first I would have interpreted it (as best I could) under the terms of the corporealist metaphysic from which Process and Reality had ushered me forth. And that would have been a misinterpretation.

        Process and Reality cannot be read and understood except in virtue of the transformation in metaphysical understanding that the book itself urges, and explains. It *forces* a change in the reader, for it is otherwise impenetrable. It seemed to me that Adventures of Ideas might not, especially for clever readers already educated in philosophy.

        Modernist metaphysics does indeed vitiate metaphorical competence. The operation of the metaphorical imagination depends upon an apprehension of the typical and the archetypical, and thus by implication of an ontological depth in things that, if hunted back to its ultimate limit, discloses their complete integration in the Alpha and Omega. Modernism can’t know anything of all that; or rather, won’t. Under a modern nominalist metaphysic, this is just this and that is just that, and nothing (including man) has any inherent meaning or significance (of which we might in our significations truly conceive) and so there can be no veridical apprehensions of the ontological depths that assimilate or dissimilate them.

        It seems like that might be no big deal. So what if modern young people are deaf to poetry and blind to philosophy? Who cares, other than a few old fuddy duddies? Life goes on, right?

        But it is a big deal. Losing the apprehension of the ontological deeps entails an incapacity properly to distinguish one thing from another, to compare and contrast, as our high school essay exams once asked us to do. And this results in an incapacity to abstract, to analyze, to synthesize, to think. All that is left is sensation, desire, will. Men then become cattle.

        Many would argue that turning men into chattels is just what Babel has been intending for the last few centuries.

    • Dale, I ordered this book and have it in my possession, but I will likely not be able to read it until I have closed out the semester.

    • A good question, which I had not considered. I found no jot of disagreement between Hart’s recent The Experience of God and Whitehead’s thought, but Beauty of the Infinite lies deeper in my past, and I shall have to dive into it again – a welcome prospect – in order to ask myself the question as I go. Will get back to you re this.

  5. Thank you for the recommendations (both of you).

    It occurred to me that the concept of mechanical parts not equaling a spiritual whole could be an interesting take on the subject of artificial intelligence. I have heard more than one scientist speculate that we will reach a technological singularity in terms of artificial intelligence learning how to improve upon itself by the year 2030. I wonder what sort of impact a fully replicated, artificial “human” mind or even a mind that surpasses the human mind might have.

    • Artificial intelligence is, basically, a learning operation within given parameters. To simulate the complexity of a human brain, you would basically need to use the whole electricity consumption of a Western nation of 8 million people to run the computations. Only then you would know if a consciousness or a mind can ever rise out of material complexity. That is if you don’t believe in the thought excercises that already answer in the negative.

      The point of such excercise would be to build a mind that can find and create meanings on its own. You can teach a computer to compute something and then decide that such and such result has the meaning of anger or sadness. You can even program the computer to factor self-preservation into something. But it would still be only a number instead of an understanding of any kind of “self” or “preservation” or ways to “implement self-preservation” or to determine when to and when not to and why should it.

      Before starting to write this, an idea dawned on me. It is that even humans don’t create meanings. Instead, we only have what is already given and then build variations upon it and move within the parameters that are available to us. Then it is simply logical, that just as everything is being given and has been given to us, we need to give, i.e. program into computers whatever we ever expect them to have. Or “say” or “think” or “intend”.

      To expect that we could create a mechanism that makes meanings somehow spontaneously erupt out of nowhere or out of some combination of zeroes and ones or any analog voltages, amounts to giving our own creation such powers that we ourselves really don’t have. Or, better yet, powers that a fallen man mistakenly imagines he has. It is one thing to mistake ourselves for gods. It is doubly whatever so to mistake ourselves for something that can build gods.

      • That’s a lot of words but really we don’t know what will happen once AI reaches a certain level. I’d like to think there is a line that material life cannot cross into biological life but I just don’t know and neither do you.

      • The point is not whether we know or don’t. The point is if there is such a level at all. What are your reasons to think that there is? And what do you even mean by level? I know a computer can be programmed to handle language in such a way that it can detect and parse innuendo and double entendres. It still does not create meaning or rules out of nothing. Question is, has AI ever, even once, reached a level, any level, in the sense that you talk about it?

        You are trying to suggest an unknown and make it appear feasible based purely on its unknowness. What I gather, AI aficionados are looking forward to some kind of “birth” that they call “singularity”. Some kind of a moment when the AI would say “hello” to them. A moment when it would 1) start learning by experimenting and 2) have a discernible self that 3) “grows” in selfhood and 4) “understand” its “past” and reflect upon its “existence”. But especially they would like it to 5) experience “meaning” or “purpose” that is not taught or given to it.

        I don’t know or care what would I like or not like, except to consider all possibilities. But to consider any possibility, to discern if it is true or false, possible or impossible, it is necessary to know first what is the thing you want to know about, think about or talk about. You don’t know. You have no way of knowing what I do know.

  6. The Good…

    Is Perfect… Conceivably derived from Perfection.

    This is “our” corporeal pre-face.

    First there was Perfection.

    This is high IQ white Christian’s FIRST PRINCIPLE

    SO that Perfect Good is to Good what Absolute Truth is to Relativism… Singularity is to Redudancy (equality)… Traditon is to Modern.

    Clearly, in the West, those high IQ “white” males who have conceptualized “radical autonomy” to near totalitarian proportion have done so in relation to those white Christians who fail to impress a metaphysical Perfection upon the corporeal collective body.

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  8. “…The spiritual, the mental, the vital – this moment of life that you are now experiencing – is supramundane. It is prior to the world in which you find yourself. That world is not your prison, but your raw material; and as you work with it to decide what and how you shall now be, you have at your creative disposal all the resources of God and his angels….”

    That’s some good eatin’, there.

    • It is indeed thrilling Good News. All we need to do is complete the inversion I have outlined above and make of it a full conversion: to turn, to convert our minds, and then to taste and see, and then to seek, to ask, to knock. Under the inversion, it becomes transparently clear that we shall then find our answer: shall find all things opened to us, unto their uttermost fathomless deeps and highest heights.

      The inversion initiates an immense – i.e., a boundless – expansion of perspective. Eckhart called it spatiosissimus.

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  10. If I will get ever get religion, it will be through Gnon. This is a term used in NRx circles, means the God of Nature or Nature, and the idea is a constructive compromise between the religious and atheist, based on the idea that there is just one reality and one truth, so regardless of whether you look at things from the viewpoint of theology or natural science, you should arrive to the same truth (albeit different faces of it). Good theology will not contradict Darwin, nor will Darwinism contradict good theology or philosophy.

    While this was merely a metaphor, “Gnon theology” is getting more and more serious, because somehow it is an weirdly convenient way to express things. See It’s not that the laws of nature and history look intelligently designed in the usual sense of the term. But still weirdly consistent. “Gnon’s will” is merely a metaphor, yet the laws of nature and history are so consistent that even when we don’t know about something we can fill in the gap by figuring it out based on the general direction of similar things – not quite intent, not quite will, but still something like telos…

  11. Well I feel a bit like a piglet in the zoo staring up at giraffe feeder. I understand some of the words but many are (monad? nisus? not intention but intension?) a myster to me. Can’t really make head and tail of it. But what I gleaned was that Whitehead was thinking in processes, events, changing stuff, not things that stay fixed.

    Well, that is close to the Buddhist view: processes arise from their causes and conditions, play around, and then cease to exist, like waves in the ocean. One intuitive way for that is to speed up time, if you would look at 100 years in 1 minute, you would see a tree growing from a seed, keep growing and changing, turned into a furniture etc. it is a process, not a fixed thing. It has no fixed essence.

    While Christian thinkers tend to be essentialist, tend to think in fixed, unchanging objects, categories.

    Well, maybe the main difference is that for a Buddhist thinker like Nagarjuna things have no telos, because all things co-cause, co-determine each other, thus while things exist in the practical sense, being dependent on everything else, they have no own-nature, own-existence or essence, hence they exist in an “empty” way. Waves on the ocean are a good parallel. Waves are real but have no own-existence, they are just part of the ocean. Nor do they seem to have an obvious telos. To quote Nagarjuna:

    “To say “it exists” is to grasp for permanence. To say “it is exist” is to adopt the view of nihilism. Therefore a wise person does not say “exists” or “does not exist”. ”

    Now I think Nagarjuna had a point there, a point that Whitehead would accept. To say that something exists is woefully inadequate, as that statement does not capture that that thing does not last forever, nor does it exist in an unchanging state but in fact keeps changing, like that tree example. As Nagarjuna does not see a telos, he says we cannot simply say things exist, yet we also cannot say they do not exist, we have to find a middle way between falsely asserting permanent and unchanging things and between nihilism, and this middle way is saying things exist in an “empty” way. I think Whitehead would accept that there is a point in it, but would say the essence of things comes from their telos, not their current and ever-changing properties?

    Christians do believe in telos, and maybe for Christian thinkers it is not the current and ever-changing properties of a thing that determine its fixed essence or category, but its telos.

    Maybe that is the root difference. And I definitely see teleology in the world, at least in living beings, in the unliving maybe not, so in this I lean towards more the Christian than the Buddhist interpretation.

    • Thanks, Dividualist. I’ll translate the terms that you mention; for the others, I suggest you simply look them up. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good, authoritative source.

      A monad is an atom of being; a nisus is an urge or desire or tendency; the intension of a thing is what it is about. That last term warrants some fleshing out. The intension of this sentence is the meaning of this sentence. The intension of your intention to go to the store is the state of having what it is that you mean to buy there. The intension of the hammer is to pound nails. The intension of the hammer factory is hammers. And so forth.

      … Whitehead was thinking in processes, events, changing stuff, not things that stay fixed.

      He was thinking of both. The completion of a process of becoming is a permanent, definite, concrete, actual thing, that is definitely what it is and is not something different; so that it is formed. As formed, its form may be parsed into its essential and accidental properties.

      Whitehead called actualities Immortal Objects. They pass into the past, but do not pass away. If they passed away into nothingness as they passed into the past, there would be nothing out there for novel occasions of becoming to experience as they themselves proceeded to become; no facts. There would in that case be no such thing as a past.

      … you would see a tree growing from a seed, keep growing and changing, turned into furniture, etc. It is a process, not a fixed thing. It has no fixed essence.

      Whitehead thought trees and furniture are compositions across space and time of atomic quanta of action, each of which, having completed its process of becoming, is indeed thenceforth a definite, fixed thing, with a fixed essence.

      … would [Whitehead] say the essence of things comes from their telos, not their current and ever-changing properties?

      He would say that the telos of a thing is an expression and outworking and manifestation and integration of its formal properties; which is to say, of its essence. The telos of a thing as it begins its process of becoming is its initial aim; its telos as it completes its process of becoming is its final satisfaction (which for creatures generally differs somewhat from its initial aim); its telos as completed and thus as a proposal for the formation of other beings is its superject; its telos as object of the prehension of other occasions of becoming is its superjective effect upon them, or what Aristotle called its final cause, the sort of thing that it tends to generate (as, e.g., oaks generate acorns).

      I’m familiar with GNON. If you search on “GNON” using Google, my article on the topic is the third link provided as of this writing. GNON is a modern way of indicating what the Chinese meant by Tao and the Stoics meant by Lógos. In the following passage, the term Lógos used in the original is translated into the English “Word:”

      In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
      John 1:1-3

      It is indeed spooky that things hang together so intelligibly. There is a cosmos. Why?


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