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Human Evolution

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.

 

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Our Quest for Oneness

Despite the fact that so much of religion tends to divide and antagonize (including terrorize), I’ve been exploring its essential function as a unifying force in human culture. We take as our starting point the root meaning of the word “religion” itself, deriving from the Latin religare, to link back or reconnect. Whatever distortions or corruptions it has taken on over the centuries, it seems to me that we should check these against the deeper or original intention of religion before we simply reject it out of hand as obsolete, oppressive, and dangerous.

As with everything cultural, religion emerged and evolved over time according to the developmental needs, crises, and opportunities of our species. Stone Age religion certainly looked different from anything we can observe today, though perhaps some strong family resemblance continues in present-day aboriginal societies that still live in close communion with “wild” nature. I’ve promoted a theory which interprets this development of religion as correlated with three centers of consciousness (or mental locations) that open up in sequence and steadily add to our general picture of what is real and what really matters.

Triune 1The names of these three centers of consciousness employ familiar terms (body, ego, soul), but with important adjustments from the way they are popularly understood. A primary polarity is represented in body and soul, which simply identify the two directional orientations of human awareness: outward to the sensory-physical realm (body) and inward to the intuitive-mystical realm (soul). These are not “parts of the self” but rather mental locations that open awareness to distinct dimensions of experience.

A popular confusion draws an equation between soul and ego, my third mental location. But in fact ego and soul are not two names for the same thing. Soul, once again, refers to our inward orientation and deep inner life, while ego is our socially constructed center of identity. While I admit that an established center of identity (ego = I) is what makes our primary split in orientation possible in the first place, ego actually inhabits its own realm: the socio-moral arena of life in our tribe.

In the above illustration, the primary polarity of body and soul is indicated by a green connector while ego sits on its own. This makes the point that ego is a construct of culture, both a product and symptom of society, which makes it the wild card in our evolutionary adventure. More on that below.Triune 2

Religion is thus designed to coordinate these three centers of consciousness (body, soul, ego) and their corresponding realms. Together these centers comprise the animal, spiritual, and personal aspects of a human being. Our development, as individuals and a species, advances sequentially through stages beginning in the body, moving through an ego-dominant period, and deepening all the while into a more inwardly grounded mode of being.

I have designated these general stages of religion as animistic (body-centered), theistic (ego-centered), and post-theistic (soul-centered). Just because development has advanced beyond a stage doesn’t mean that the experiences and concerns peculiar to that stage are no longer relevant. On the contrary, those experiences and concerns are taken up and incorporated into the next stage and updated according to its emergent paradigm of meaning.

As the wild card in the set, ego represents a strong element of risk against the eventual fulfillment of this project. In previous posts I have tried to describe the factors that tend to compromise what psychology rightly names “ego strength” – the well-centered self confidence that develops as our needs for safety, love, power and worth are adequately met.

In the best of all possible worlds, we grow up in a family environment where these needs are fulfilled and our personal identity (ego) is securely established. Of course, we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds and our caretakers are not perfect. As a consequence, the ego adapts and compensates for the insecurity by defending itself, pretending to be what it’s not, and insisting on being the center of reality. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly, theism – as the model of religion that co-evolves with the ego – often portrays its principal deity in corresponding ways, as craving glory, jealous of rivals, and prone to violence in his campaign for supremacy.

Since in previous posts I’ve deconstructed the perverse influence of ego insecurity on the otherwise respectable and developmentally necessary stage of theism, I want to move now in a completely opposite direction with my analysis. It’s easy to commit the mistake of effectively dismissing theism as only a transitional stage (more like a phase) along our way to something better. From my comments on the ego, about the inevitable and worldwide neuroses that pull theism into various dangerous corruptions (sectarianism, exclusionary membership, extremism, and redemptive violence), you might assume I have nothing good to say about either one of them.

On the contrary.

Triune FullThe diagram above shows where theism fits into the evolutionary scheme of religion. Our animal nature of the body connects us (religare) outwardly to the sensory-physical Universe, while our spiritual nature (or what I prefer to call our higher self) links us inwardly to the intuitive-mystical Ground. Both “Universe” and “Ground” are synonyms of sort, each communicating the idea of oneness: Universe as the nuance of totality (the All), and Ground as essence. As I said earlier, this body-soul axis forms the primary polarity in which human beings live. Ego (our wild card variable) tugs development in a horizontal direction, where we find a third nuance of oneness, encountered as the Other.

This, I would say, is the real genius in theism: regarding the present mystery of reality in its specific incarnation as one who stands opposite of me, in a space of absolute difference insofar as the other is deep-down unique and truly an individual (from individuum, the indivisible). In the process of ego development, identity is shaped and challenged in relationship with others who come out to meet us from the dark recess of otherness. We’re not talking about the role-plays of social performance that govern so much of our daily interaction, but about the direct encounter between one self and another.

To conceive of God as Other in this sense, as a transcendent and absolute self who comes out to meet us or calls us out of our selves to an encounter, considers the present mystery of reality in terms of a one-to-one relationship. As the Jewish writer Martin Buber explained in his seminal book I and Thou, this faith in reality as arising out of the primal relationship of self and Other frames our whole existence in the dynamics of mutuality, dialogue, estrangement, and reconciliation.

This might encourage us to re-read our Bible as a mythological exploration (of quest, encounter, and response) into reality as the reciprocal adventure of humanity’s longing for God and God’s outreach to humanity. To simply take the Bible literally and make God into a literal being (i.e., a god) only serves to strip out its internal complexity, leaving nothing more than supposedly factual reports of supernatural events and once-upon-a-time miracles. When this happens, the Bible becomes, in the words of Francis Bacon, “an idol of the tribe.” It stops speaking and becomes only words.

What if instead we engaged the Bible as a literary portrait – really a collection of portraits – of the human being as formed in relationship with Holy Otherness, as falling out of union and trying to hide our nakedness from The Gaze, as distracting ourselves in mediocrity or striving for superiority, and at last hearing the call to an awakened life and returning to intimacy with The One who never left us? That would be a very different Bible from the one pumped from most pulpits today, would it not?

As I said at the beginning, our developmental advance from one mental location (and one stage of religion) to the next doesn’t mean that we grow up and get past those deeper needs and concerns. Just as theism doesn’t (or shouldn’t) seek to discredit the animist vision of reality as it sets out to expand on the dynamics of relationship, neither does (or should) post-theism dismiss the genuine insight of I and Thou at the heart of theism as it cultivates a more contemplative engagement with the grounding mystery of Being itself.

Our quest for oneness at each stage turns out to be a chapter (and ongoing theme) in the longer human journey to communion. Whether we celebrate our place in the living Universe, reach out with care to the holy Other, or sink inward to the nameless Ground of our being, we are fulfilling a most enduring and sacred of human quests.

 

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Soul and Reality

In my last post, I introduced the idea of body, ego, and soul as “standpoints in reality” – not as pieces of a human being, but rather as different mental locations where we can take a perspective on things. Body is organismic and biological, providing us a standpoint in the physical realm. Ego is tribal and personal, giving us a standpoint in the social realm. And soul is psychological (from the Greek psyche, soul) and spiritual, offering us a place in the presence of mystery, in the present mystery of reality.

Instead of breaking these aspects of the self into separate and warring opposites – ego against body, body versus soul – seeing them as distinct access points in our experience of reality can help us transcend the arguments over which one is “the real self” and contemplate instead human being in its wholeness. Rather than identifying ego with the soul, and then dissociating both from the body so “I” can elude the finality of death and live forever, we can appreciate how each contributes to the marvel of what it is to be human.

I reflected on how ego develops out of a simple identification with the internal state of the body. “I am happy” or “I am sad” are among the first ways a young child is taught how to declare him- or herself to the world. This affect (pronounced with the accent on the ‘a’) is where a child’s experience of the world is registered: “The dark closet makes me afraid”; “You are making me angry.” Behavior is then the output channel of this affect, in the way it motivates the youngster to run and hide, or push and pout.

Many people get stuck at this level of development. They remain in the I-am-angry-and-can’t-help-but-push-you-down mode of life. A significant number of them seek out professional help because they are hostages to affect and can’t stop doing things that are counterproductive to happiness. A truly helpful counselor will teach the client how to reflect on these powerful affect states. Instead of simply acting out the affect in behavior and only making things worse, the client can learn how to separate identity (ego) from emotion (affect→behavior) and use this freedom to choose more desirable outcomes.

The “liberated ego” can thus become a springboard into still higher experiences, which the wisdom traditions around the planet have named Love, Communion, Being, and Bliss (among others). It’s important to understand that these are not merely synonyms for “happiness.” The ego wants to be happy, but the soul seeks after something much higher than personal happiness. To get there, ego (I, me, mine) must be transcended, gone beyond. If it stays in charge, the personal self (ego) will be in the way.

As I suggested last time, a shift from the standpoint of ego to that of soul opens the self up to a much greater experience. Engagement with reality at this higher level is not impersonal (as it is for the body) or personal (as it is for the ego), but transpersonal – again, beyond the personal. This is where affect differentiates into feeling and thought. These are the Yin and Yang, respectively, of the soul’s experience. Their “tension” is not combative but creative, like the tension in a string that produces a musical tone.

The wisdom traditions refer to these higher faculties of the soul as “heart” and “mind.” Once liberated from the urgencies of the body and the self-interest of the ego, heart and mind are free to contemplate the present mystery of reality. If I were to describe in one word what each of these faculties of soul contributes to the experience I would say that mind/thought represents reality and heart/feeling participates in reality. Let’s see how this plays out.

Ego, under the direction of the tribe, constructs a world, which is less a representation of reality than it is a projection of what is needed to help us feel safe, loved, capable and worthy. In its service as a faculty of the soul, mind represents reality apart from what I (ego) need it to be. Two favorite ways of representing reality across the wisdom traditions are as “ground” and “universe.”

Representations of Reality

Insofar as mind is dependent on language to name and describe something (the present mystery) that is ineffable, it has offered up these two metaphors for contemplation. Ground is the generative source and deep support that stands underneath all things. Existence – which literally means “to stand out” – properly refers to everything above the ground, so to speak.

The ground itself, then, does not exist in this sense. It is pure being, the internal essence of all things, the be to their ing, the creative power of being-itself. No words can describe it, because language can only qualify what exists and the ground is beneath all qualities. Even the name “ground” must finally be released. In contemplating the mystery as the ground of being, the mystics advise us to stop talking.

As a representation in thought of the real presence of mystery, ground inspires the heart to a certain exquisite kind of feeling. This is not crude emotion, where affect drives behavior. Rather, this feeling registers our participation in the mystery that cannot be named but only surrendered to in complete self-abandonment. In letting go of qualities and attachments, the self can sink into the “solvent” of being itself. The feeling of participation gives way to the bliss of unqualified union or oneness.

Another worldwide representation of reality is universe. This is not to be confused with a term such as “cosmos,” which is a more-or-less scientific name for the vast order of things (cosmos is Greek for order) that can be analyzed into galaxies, stars, planets, moons, minerals, elements, atoms and quarks. Universe is another metaphor, like ground, and not merely a designation of order. As metaphor, universe is a concept of pure thought, a representation by the mind of the mystery all around us.

Literally universe means “turned into one,” which is precisely what this concept does for the soul. It provides a way of contemplating the comprehensive unity of all things – inclusive, interdependent, balanced, turning as one. The soul seeks after wholeness, and the representation of reality as universe offers a simple – though admittedly infinitely complex – image for contemplation.

Notice how “ground” and “universe” stand at opposite ends of a vertical continuum. Ground is in and down; universe is out and up. Ground is beneath us, whereas universe is all around us. Ground is unqualified being, while universe is qualified to an infinite degree. Finally, ground cannot be said to exist, but the universe is the totality of existence.

Contemplating reality in the representation of universe inspires a different sort of experience for the heart. Participation here does not lead to a feeling of dissolving into pure being or oneness, but rather of being elevated into an expansive community. Whereas the former experience is that of sinking into no-thing, the latter is realizing your connection to everything.

In thought, then, the soul represents the present mystery of reality as ground and universe, as the underlying oneness and overarching all-ness of existence. Depending on which representation is the focus of contemplation, the feeling of participation will be distinct and complementary. This interplay of feeling and thought, of heart and mind, of Yin and Yang, is how the soul touches the mystery and finds salvation.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in The Creative Life

 

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