Tuesday, September 25, 2007

#19. Diversity: Our Service to God

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"God must love cockroaches. There are so many of them!"

That's not a religious statement, but a science statement in religious language. I heard it from a ecologist while I was helping with rain forest research in Borneo. His point was not just that there are a great number of cockroaches in the world but that there are more species of cockroaches than of any other kind of insect. "And there are a lot of species of insects!"

In religious language, the point of this blog posting is that "God loves diversity." Or, in more scientific terms: diversity is a cosmic value.

But it's not a value our society gives much attention to. Many still live to a great extent in a static worldview where diversity just isn't seen as having any significance. In the dynamic world of evolutionary science, however, it's clear that what the cosmic process is all about is diversity. At least diversity is one of the things that the cosmic process is all about. And that means that is has significant religious implications.

So it's worth a serious look. What follows is a brief overview of the cosmic evolutionary process, with an eye specifically to diversity as one of its major values.

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In the beginning, even before matter, there was energy. Energy in the form of light seems to be the one basic stuff of all the universe.

Matter appears later, as a kind of condensation of light-energy. It takes the form of three fundamental particles-- the proton, neutron and electron-- and atoms are made from these bits of matter-energy. In the hearts of stars, atoms are combined via thermonuclear reactions to make up the approximately one hundred chemical elements known to exist in the universe.

When the temperatures are cool enough, as on the fragments of stars we call planets, the hundred or so basic elements combine to form many thousands of chemical compounds.

And while the smallest bit of a compound (called a molecule) can be made up of as few as two or three atoms, many molecules contains dozens or even hundreds of atoms, and the most complex molecule we know (DNA) is made of millions of atoms.

Unlike all the smaller molecules, DNA has one very special property: it can replicate itself. DNA is at the border of the second level of complexity in the cosmic process, where matter becomes alive in the form of self-organizing systems. On Earth it takes innumerable forms as single-celled and multi-cellular plants and animals.

Over time, the Earth's living things grow more complex and some in the animal kingdom evolve simple nerve cells, cells which can reach out to one another via electrical impulses. More advanced animals evolve complex nervous systems and brains. The human brain, at the third level of cosmic complexity, contains billions of cells, all reaching out and connecting with one another in a structural complexity we can hardly imagine.

And it's there that, as a result of what Biogenetic Structuralist jargon refers to as the cognitive extension of prehension, personal consciousness emerges. And as we know from another important Biogenetic Structuralist concept, cognized environment, each personal consciousness which emerges constitutes its own unique inner world.

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Even from this brief and greatly simplified overview of the cosmic process, it's clear that diversity is indeed a fundamental value to the universe. In religious language, God loves diversity.

And so do we; the human mind and heart loves diversity. But because our contemporary culture so numbs us to the world around us, we need to remind ourselves just how fascinated we are by diversity. Two easy examples follow.

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In a recent novel by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Kabbalah: A Love Story, the central character is a rabbi-scholar who finds himself at an illustrated lecture at Columbia University on "Recent Images from the Orbital Chandra X-ray Observatory Telescope." "It was an exciting presentation," says the story-teller. "Now, right here on the screen in front of him, were some breathtaking images that effectively blurred most of the customary distinctions between mystical experience and scientific evidence."

We don't need to attend a lecture in Manhattan to see those breathtaking images. Thanks to the world-wide web, we have images from the Chandra X-ray Observatory Telescope-- along with many other wonderful illustrations of the diversity of stars, planets and galaxies in the cosmos-- available at our fingertips.

One of the best web-sites for them is Astronomy Picture of the Day.

It's just what its name says: a different picture of the cosmos offered each day. It's been operating for about a dozen years now, so there are many thousands of pictures available; just click on "Archives" at the bottom of today's picture. If you want a quick sample, try 26 November 2006: it's our nearest "sister" galaxy, M31, the Andromeda Galaxy.

This site is only one of many astronomy sites on the web, but it's an especially good one. And some of the pictures it offers are, indeed, as Rabbi Kushner says, "breathtaking images that effectively blurred most of the customary distinctions between mystical experience and scientific evidence."

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But with all their diversity, stars and galaxies are only at the first level of complexity in the cosmic process. And life on Earth-- diversity at the second level of complexity-- is even more fascinating.

There are many good web sites for bio-diversity, too. By far the most interesting is The Encyclopedia of Life . It's much newer than the Astronomy Picture of the Day site; it started on 9 May 2007 and is planned to be under construction for the next decade.

The New York Times carried an article about it on September 6, 2007, "That's Life," by the famous Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson.

Wilson says, "The Encyclopedia of Life will contain an infinitely expandable page for each species, with links as needed, providing whatever is known of the species from its DNA to its place in the environment and its importance to humanity. It will ensure that existing knowledge is freely available to anyone, everywhere, at any time."

It's exciting to be alive when such scientific work is going on!

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At the same time, because we can easily feel overwhelmed by the diversity of life on Earth, it's important to keep in mind our own place in it all. It's especially at the third (human) level of complexity in the evolution of the universe that diversity most stands out as a cosmic value.

As I've spelled out in recent postings, the structural organization of the human brain and nervous system-- out of which our personal awareness emerges-- is the result of our unique genetic material, and the possibility that anyone else has the same DNA we do is something like one chance in 1080.

And because of the Empirical Modification Cycle, which I've also spelled out in recent postings, our original in-born uniqueness is constantly being modified by our life-experiences, so that the chance of anyone else having the same inner world we do is something like one in (1080)80.

At the third level of cosmic complexity, every emergent consciousness is unique. And it's only when we see the context for it-- the diversity of galaxies and stars and, even more, the diversity of plants and animals on Earth-- that we can appreciate what a remarkable thing the diversity of persons is in our world.

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But there's something even more remarkable.

It's awesome to think of ourselves as being at the center of our own inner world, so that each of us is a unique epiphany of the cosmos, but it's far more awesome to think that we're called by the universe to cooperate with it in "doing its thing." We are called by the universe to "make ourselves" and thus to contribute our personal uniqueness to the cosmic process. Diversity is not only what the universe is all about; it's what our existence is all about, too.

This is why the evolutionary perspectives of the New Cosmology are so important. We can see from an objective scientific point of view what couldn't be seen as well in past times: the ultimate value of each unique human person's contribution to the whole universe.

An anonymous comment (signed K.P.), was sent in with regard to post #17, What Is the Universe Doing? K.P. says, "The profound realization of what the human person really is... could be the basis of one's entire spirituality."

Exactly! Diversity is an ultimate value to the cosmic process, and simply by living our lives of ever-increasing differentiation we are doing exactly what the universe is calling us to do. So an evolutionary spirituality isn't something separate from everyday life. It is everyday life.

In religious terms, our everyday life is our service to God. As St. Cyril of Alexandria expresses it, "The glory of God is a person fully alive." And I've mentioned several times in these blog entries, this is what Teilhard calls "our work of works."

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However, Cyril of Alexandria lived a long time ago, and an emphasis on personal aliveness or uniqueness-- or diversity in any sense-- hasn't been part of western spiritual consciousness in recent centuries. That "sapiential perspective"-- or wisdom tradition as it's called-- was lost to European culture following the Dark Ages.

But in our time of immense transition, it is being recovered. As I mentioned previously, it's one of the main things I hope to spell out in future postings.

Moving beyond a thousand years of religious dualism and centuries of scientific rationalism isn't easy, so here I want to offer just two examples, specifically with regard to diversity, of how the evolutionary perspectives of contemporary science converge with the best of the older, sapiential, religious tradition.

One example comes from the Russian Orthodox Sophiologist, Sergius Bulgakov, who died towards the end of the Second World War. The other is from the writings of a little-known 17th century French Catholic saint, Louis de Montfort.

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Bulgakov is considered by many to be the greatest Eastern Church thinker of the 20th century; he was the principal spokesperson for the recovery of the wisdom tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy.

He noted, among other things, that Sophiology is especially concerned with anthropology and cosmology-- precisely the focus of the new story of the universe being uncovered for us by contemporary science.

Here, I want to note just one thing which Bulgakov says from his sophiological perspective about the relationship between God and the world, the anthropos-theos relationship, as I like to call it. He says that the two greatest gifts of God to the world are communion and diversity.

It's easy to pass over that thought with a quick nod. "OK," we may say; we know that communion, in the sense of our union with God and others, has always been a major concern of religious thinking.

But note what Bulgakov is saying. Diversity-- not just of stars and galaxies and plants and animals, but our own unique personal consciousness-- is no less important. Diversity is no less "a gift of God," than is our unity with all things.

That's not something we hear in dualistic religious contexts, but it's a major point of agreement between the cosmological and anthropological insights of contemporary science and the wisdom perspectives at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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Although he lived much earlier, Louis de Montfort was also in touch with those same perspectives. And while he may be familiar to older Catholics because of his promotion of devotion to the Virgin Mary, they are unlikely to be familiar with his writings about wisdom; even his on line biography in the link above doesn't mention them.

I learned about them a few years ago when a friend, knowing of my interest in the sapiential recovery, passed on to me a privately published translation and commentary of Montfort's book, The Love of Eternal Wisdom.

He lived a century and a half before the evolutionary worldview was formulated, but he was aware of what today we could call the dynamic perspective because of his study of the sapiential literature in the Bible. He often quotes the author of the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, which was written about a century before New Testament times.

Montfort himself was a young and enthusiastic missionary priest when he wrote The Love of Eternal Wisdom, so the resulting text is filled with the breezy slang of a youthful but charismatic leader trying to speak in a hip style to an even more youthful audience. And his archaic thought patterns are set within the context of what has been called "the baroque piety of 17th century France." So why bother with it?

Because no one had done anything like it in western Christianity since the time of the early church fathers. And it would be another hundred and fifty years before the first Sophiologists appeared in Russian Orthodoxy.

He has some significant thoughts about how we are to respond to our calling by the universe, and I mention them here as a good example of the importance of diversity within the sapiential perspective.

His name for the divine energies which pervade the universe and address each of us personally is Eternal Wisdom. It's the same "Wisdom from all high, who orders all things mightily" which we know from the old Advent carol, Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Montfort says Divine Wisdom needs us. He describes it almost like a stalker, always pursuing us: "Divine Wisdom inspires us to do everything, to go everywhere, to try every new thing, to leave nothing unexplored. That we should become all that we can be. That’s what the Wisdom of God wants from us!"

So here's yet another voice tuned in to the wisdom tradition, this one from three centuries ago, telling us "God loves diversity." In contemporary language: diversity is a cosmic value.

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From a single form of energy in the cosmos to three fundamental particles... from a hundred chemical elements to many thousands of chemical compounds... from millions of atoms in our DNA to billions of cells in our brain... the pattern of the cosmic process seems clear enough.

It's a single over-all design of ever-increasing complexity and diversity, which we are called to participate in by living our everyday lives creatively, by becoming "all that we can be."

I had a tough time deciding what to call this blog entry. The ideas are difficult to deal with easily and giving them an appropriate label was even tougher. I talked myself out of it, but I'm still thinking that the best title would be "God loves cockroaches."

Maybe you have a suggestion?

sam@macspeno.com

1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.