In a post from long ago entitled Humanism in a New Key, I offered an interpretation of post-theism where the re-absorption of higher virtues formerly projected in the deities of religion opens up a new era in our evolving spirituality as a species. If the idea of an external god is understood in terms of an intentional object (i.e., as a construct of our mythopoetic imagination) rather than a metaphysical one (i.e., as a being existing outside and separate from us), this critical step can be welcomed and celebrated.
I don’t presume that all theists will embrace the notion, but for many (including myself as a former theist) it can mark the breakthrough to a liberated life.
I find it helpful to view this process in the time-frame of human evolution as it has unfolded over many millenniums. Our species itself emerged in Africa perhaps 200,000 years ago, a late product of the natural evolution of life on Earth. Upon arriving, we proceeded to evolve still further under the shaping influence of culture – a construct system of language, symbols, stories, and technologies that continues to lift us by our own bootstraps.
If the evolution of nature brought about our uniquely complex nervous system and social intelligence, this gear-shift of cultural evolution will lead either to our fulfillment as a species or to our self-destruction. Because human culture is a work in progress, which direction we go remains an open question.
When our theory lacks imagination and insight, the purpose of culture gets reduced to little more than managing nature – our own as well as the natural order around us. In this view, with all its clever innovations and sophisticated methods, culture is just a fancy, interesting, but problematic way of keeping us alive and making copies of our genes – like ‘putting lipstick on a pig’, as we say. Cultures rise and fall, come and go, but we can only fall and go once from the scene of nature to be gone for good. Religion and science fiction can muse over angels and androids and faraway realms, but our real business is survival on this third rock from the sun.
On the other hand, it could be that our fulfillment as a species depends on something original to culture, something not merely derived from or sublimated out of our nature as highly evolved animals. I call this original element community – or more specifically, genuine community – and I’ve tried to show in numerous posts how religion plays a key role in its formation. Genuine community is not merely a society of individuals who get along; something much more transformative is going on.
The larger trajectory towards fulfillment is still unfolding after these many thousands of years, and we today stand on a critical threshold where our next step will bring about a breakthrough or (almost just as likely) a breakdown.
There is a debate over whether human evolution will reach its fulfillment with genuine community (as I argue) or instead with the rise of extraordinary individuals who possess super-human powers and abilities. The ‘exceptionalists’ focus their hopes on such paranormal abilities as levitation, mind-reading, bending spoons, or turning water into wine. They talk of higher consciousness, perfected nature, and immortality, but their specimens are typically from another time and quarter, or else ‘presently unavailable’ for closer examination.
When serving as a Christian pastor, I was frequently taken by how believers’ regard for Jesus as just such an exception kept him safely at a distance and released them of any obligation to be like him. Maybe the possibility was there, but only for the spiritually gifted, not the rest of us.
By shifting our focus to the evolution of community, we don’t have the option of worshiping perfection from a distance. As I see it, our advancement as individuals and the formation of genuine community are deeply correlated. Community provides the supportive environment where identity is constructed and personal commitment to the health of the whole is empowered in the individual. The individual then adds his or her creative influence to the community, which continues to foster a still higher realization of wellbeing. Thus a provident community and personal commitment progressively co-elevate the project of human evolution.
My diagram gives an illustration of this laddering dynamic. Again, a provident community instills in the newborn and young child a deep sense that she belongs. As she matures, the youngster is encouraged to participate in the community as a contributing member. And eventually, if all goes well, the young adult will take a responsible role in creating the new reality of an even stronger, more provident community for all.
This would amount to little more than a redundant cycling of new generations taking their place in society, except for the fact that it has been evolving. And the direction of this evolution – despite occasional setbacks and derailments along the way – has been steadily toward what I call the human ideal, by which I mean the fully self-actualized human being.
Like all living things, we humans have a potential locked up in our genes, but also encoded in the memes (symbols, stories, and folk wisdom) of culture, that gradually opens and develops in the direction of our maturity and fulfillment.
Beyond our physical, emotional, and intellectual maturity as individuals, there are still higher aims that have to do with our life together in community. In a recent post I identified five ethical virtues in particular that are recognized across all cultures as representing this human ideal.
My diagram displays these five virtues at the apex of an ascending arrow, which makes the point that this ideal is always ‘above and ahead’ of us, igniting our aspirations as well as measuring our progress or lack of it.
Theistic religion early on took up the task of focusing human contemplation on the higher virtues of humility, compassion, kindness, generosity, and forgiveness, which it personified in metaphorical figures of deities – humanlike but more perfect, bending their providential powers in the interest of a cohesive community. In myths that were regularly recited and performed in ritual settings of worship, the gods ‘characterized’ how devotees were expected to behave. (As projections, they could also deify our cruder and more violent tendencies as well.)
First by obedience, and gradually more and more by way of aspiration and endeavoring to be ‘like god’, the community of believers began to demonstrate the virtues in their interactions and way of life. This inward activation of what had been externally represented marks the evolutionary threshold where theism transforms into post-theism, where god relocates, as it were, from heaven into the heart, becoming the sacred center of an awakened and liberated life.