Sunday, November 23, 2008

#48. Do We Have a Future?

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When I started this blog to share my thoughts about the convergence of science and religion, one of the first things I published was a report to my fellow high school graduates on the 50th anniversary of our graduation. It's in post #3.

The reunion planning committee had asked everyone, attending or not, to send notes about what they've been up to in recent years, to be published in an anniversary booklet and given to all who attended the reunion or sent in a report.

What I had been "up to" was an increasing awareness of the convergence of science and religion, specifically with regard to the question, “What is our place in the vast scheme of things?” I'd been thinking about that question for sixty years, and since my retirement in 2000 I’d given a good bit of time and energy to thinking through my understanding of it and how it might be expressed clearly for anyone else who might be interested.

I still continue to find fascinating what many of the front-running scientific thinkers, psychologists and religious writers have to say about "where we fit in." Although each uses very different words, they all seem to be saying something similar: that we humans are an integral part of the evolving universe and that we thrive in a dynamic relationship with the cosmic mystery.

I expressed it this way in post #3: "The Mystery behind the universe gives itself to us as the world and ourselves, guides and directs us, gathers us as individuals for all time and from the four corners of space into a wondrous Celtic knot and into a global community of diverse peoples, and promises our completion and fulfillment and the persistence of our relationships in the in-gathering of all beyond the passing away of things."

It's that last part of the statement that I want to explore in this post.

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Probably no aspect of western religion is more subject to ridicule than the idea that we have a future "beyond the passing away of things."

Because of the body-soul dualism inherited from Greek philosophy, western religion's idea of an after-life became such a mockery that people simply stopped thinking or talking about it. Many took an agnostic position, saying "I just don't know, and there doesn't seem to be any way any of us could know." But that's not very interesting. If you enjoy thinking about science and religion, agnosticism is simply no fun at all!

The dualistic view that comes from the static perspective of Greek philosophy is that persons have a permanent component that survives the decomposition of the body-- an immortal soul that persists after death because it was created to be immortal. In this view, escape from the world is the goal of human life.

Nineteenth-century scientific rationalism, with its reduction of the world to its material components, took the opposite view-- there is no soul, there is no immortality and only annihilation awaits us.

In a static worldview, either escape from the world into an after-life or our total annihilation seem to be the only possible responses.

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In dynamic worldview, things looks a bit different.

As Claude Tresmontant observes in his Study of Hebrew Thought (which I described in post #39), the "evolutionary metaphysics" of the Bible's wisdom tradition recognizes that "it is the nature of being to be continuously evolving." This dynamic view of the world is the basic understanding of the post-rationalist scientific view as well. Indeed, as I spelled out in post #38, the evolutionary worldview originally comes from the Hebrew experience of the Exodus.

In the evolutionary perspective, the question "Do we have a future?" becomes "Does the evolutionary process continue?"

The question isn't whether there is a direction to evolution. Direction seems clear enough; in the dynamic perspective, we easily see that the matter of the cosmos has evolved on Earth into biological life and eventually-- by way of mammalian and primate development-- into human beings, conscious persons.

We also see, although it's still a bit difficult in our individualistic society, that there is one more step in that sequence: beyond our individual development there is also our communal relationship with others. Science calls it "culture."

So, in the evolutionary perspective, the question is whether the dynamic sequence-- fourteen billion years of evolutionary development from stars to living things, persons and human communities-- is a dead-end in the long run.

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In its various forms, this is probably the most radical question we can ask. Is the universe meaningful? Or is it absurd? Do we have a future? Or is annihilation-- separately and together-- what's in store for us?

We know that once we did not exist and that we have come into existence out of apparent darkness and nothingness. Even dualistic religion and rationalist science agree on that.

But in the evolutionary perspectives of post-rationalist science, we can also see that we are part of that evolutionary process. We see that we have been gathered "from all time and the four corners of space" and that, out of the resulting complex chemical and biological components, our personal awareness and communal consciousness have emerged.

The question still remains, however, whether in the long run the process a dead-end. It's not a question science can answer. There's no empirical evidence.

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And yet almost every culture in the world has some understanding of our existence beyond death and of a reunion with those who have gone before us.

An in-gathering of some kind is imagined in almost every society: Abraham's Bosom, Happy Hunting Grounds, Heavenly Paradise Garden, a meeting with ancestors in the next world. Every culture envisions some kind of communal reality for humans after death.

C. G. Jung says that, in working with his older patients, he found that their unconscious psyche always acted as if it was to continue, even with persons who were expecting to die soon. He says that our deepest Self continues to presume and act as if it will persist. The psyche doesn't have any sense at all of an eventual annihilation.

Teilhard has an interesting comment about this. He says that if we didn't think we have a future we wouldn't even bother to answer the telephone. Today he'd probably say we wouldn't bother to check our e-mail!

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So, is there a way to make sense in our contemporary situation of the question "Do we have a future?"

I think the quaternary perspectives which I've spelled out in a number of previous posts can be of help.

I said in post #46 (Convergence?) that the best way I know to describe the distinction between science and religion is to say that science is about the anthropos-cosmos relationship, while religion is about the anthropos-theos relationship. And one way to state that difference is to use the imagery of the four directions on the Medicine Wheel which I spelled out in earlier posts: "Science is a primarily a Gold Eagle and White Buffalo expression of our conscious minds, while religion is primarily a Black Bear and Green Mouse activity."

In Jungian language we can say that science operates by way of the perception function called Sensation and the judgment function called Thinking, while religion, in contrast, operates by way of the perception function called Intuition and the judgment function called Feeling.

An easy way to summarize those concepts is to say that science looks at details and the sequential flow of things, while religion looks at the big picture and the inter-connections between everything.

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In four recent posts I used those quaternary perspectives to spell out the four-fold imagery of the anthropos-theos relationship contained in the Bible's wisdom literature. I called those posts Evening Wisdom (#42, Sophia as Architect), Morning Wisdom (#43, Sophia as Guide), Noonday Wisdom (#44, Sophia as Gatherer) and Midnight Wisdom (#45, Sophia as Provider).

I think the question of whether we have a future can be asked in terms of these wisdom perspectives, specifically in terms of the perspective I've called Midnight Wisdom.

As I spelled out in post #45, the sages among the Hebrew shepherds and farmers used agricultural imagery to describe this aspect of the anthropos-theos relationship. They pictured Sophia as vegetation (a tree, plant or vine) to describe Divine Wisdom as a source of food, shelter and protection, providing for the existence and life of the children of the Earth.

In that same post I mentioned that just as in the hunting culture of the Plains Indians the buffalo is understood to quite literally give itself for the life of the people, in these agricultural images Sophia is also understood to give herself so the people might live. She especially provides the food, shelter and protection needed in the dark of night and the cold of winter, the time and season specifically associated with North on the Medicine Wheel.

Like the North's White Buffalo, the mystery behind the universe provides us with what's needed for survival and the fullness of our lives. And as I said in post #45, "Contemporary scientists, cosmologists, theoretical physicists, psychotherapists; Orthodox and Catholic theologians; followers of ancient traditions such as Taoism and of teachings going back to Paleolithic times-- all are attempting to express the same insight."

There's one more aspect of Midnight Wisdom which needs to be mentioned here: the Sensation function's focus on details. Just as in the New Cosmology we see that it's a distortion of the cosmic process to exclude anyone or any thing from our care, so we can see that in terms of Sophia as Caretaker, nothing should to be overlooked in the long run, no one left out.

With all this in mind, we can re-word the question about whether we have a future in terms of Sophia as Protector, Provider and Caretaker: Will Divine Wisdom be consistent in the long run?

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In asking the question that way, it's important to keep in mind just what the long run looks like:

  1. The world is dynamic, not static. "Being is continuously evolving."
  2. The basic sequence of cosmic evolution is "matter, life, mind." In the big picture we see that human beings are "the world become conscious of itself." Persons are the matter of the world responding to itself by way of the structures and activities of the human brain.
  3. In the cosmic process there is also culture, what I called in previous posts "the other half of person." Personal relationships, human community and our union with all else are also part of the evolution of the universe.
  4. The Judeo-Christian tradition at the heart of western religion originally saw itself as the growing edge of that communal developmental process. In the context of the Bible's Wisdom perspectives, western religion saw the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and the communities of his followers as the growing edge of cultural evolution, the continuation on Earth of the communal and cosmic stage of the world's development.
Western culture and religion lost this dynamic perspective for nearly a thousand years, and because modern science came into existence during that time, science too lacked the dynamic perspective for a while. But in our day, the big picture of the cosmic process has been recovered once again by both religion and science.

Today, we can recognize not only that we are associated with the destiny of the universe, but that as individuals we each have a unique contribution to make to it, and that our communal work towards peace and justice, equality and environmental consciousness is an integral part of it. We can also see today, as never before, that precisely because war, injustice and environmental damage prevent human beings from making their unique contribution to the evolution of the world that those things are distortions of the development of God's creation.

So in asking if we have a future, we're asking not only whether the cosmic process continues but also whether we can look for something else as well-- nothing less than a healing of the fragmentation we experience in our individual and social lives.

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In Christian tradition, the word used to name this healing wholeness which our minds and hearts look for is "salvation." It comes from the Latin word "salve," a word we still use for healing/medical ointments. In Greek, the word used is soterion, from soteria (desirable things), the opposite of phobia (things we fear). The basic idea in this understanding of salvation is that, as participants in the cosmic process, we can look for the healing and wholeness of all things, that in the long run we don't need to be afraid.

So in the evolutionary context, the question of whether we have a future comes down to whether we can count on the cosmic process for that healing and wholeness in the long run.

As I said earlier, there's no evidence. Nothing from the Thinking function. And if we do have a future, we have no information about the details. Nothing from the Sensation function, either.

But while the patriarchal mentality of static dualism writes off the other two functions of our four-fold consciousness as irrelevant or even as non-existent, it is via our Black Bear Intuition that we desire "our completion and fulfillment" and it's via our Green Mouse Feeling that we hope for "the persistence of our relationships beyond the passing away of things."

These two aspects of our consciousness also come from the cosmic process, no less than do our Gold Eagle Thinking and White Buffalo Sensation functions. It is via us that the universe expects to be "salved." And we experience that expectation in ourselves as a promise. It is a cosmic imperative much like what researchers in the human sciences call the "cognitive imperative." I originally described the "cognitive imperative" back in post #10 (Overview of Biogenetic Structuralism).
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The word "imperative" generally means an urge or impetus, an inner drive, something which is unavoidably necessary, like the pull of gravity. Here it refers to how the universe is ordered, and "cognitive imperative" refers to the fact that "cognition," human consciousness, results from the way the universe works.

This is such an important idea, with regard to the question of a future, that I want to offer some examples of the "cognitive imperative" at different levels of human development.

Months before we are born, the cosmic process is active in the embryological development of our brain and nervous system. Biogenetic structuralist scientists describe it this way: "The initial development of each nerve cell (in the brain) is motivated by a cosmic imperative to be active and 'reach out,' to contact and communicate with certain other cells."

At a later stage in our personal development, the same cognitive imperative is described as "the uniquely human, hardwired instinct to link cause with effect that gave us a vital evolutionary advantage over other animal species." That sounds complicated, but it simply refers to the fact that our minds look for explanations of things. When we hear a loud noise, for example, we automatically (instinctively) ask, "What was that?" The point is that it's not only a unique aspect of human consciousness to look for reasons for things but that the source of that cognitive imperative in us is the evolutionary process itself.

A third example comes from our understanding of adult psychological development; it has to do with the inner drive we experience to bring together the many aspects of our conscious awareness. In Jungian language it's described as our need to unify the various aspects of our conscious and unconscious (the Jungian "complexes") into a whole. Jungians would say that we experience within ourselves "a strong drive toward individuation." The biogenetic structuralists put it this way: "The wholistic imperative of the cosmic life-force also wants the psyche to integrate into consciousness those until now previously excluded complexes."

The point of these examples of the cognitive imperative-- this "primal urge to know," as biogenetic structuralists also call it-- is that this cosmic life-force, this "primordial cosmic dynamis," is both the way the world works and the way our hearts and minds work. It's not just the cosmic process working in us, but-- because we are the world become conscious of itself-- the cognitive imperative is nothing less than the "primordial cosmic dynamis" working as us.

So, when we look at the question of a future in this context, we can see that just as there is a cognitive imperative, there is also what might be called an "expectation imperative." We humans-- as the universe become conscious of itself-- find in ourselves a desire for completion, an instinct for fulfillment. We're hard-wired for it.

But it's not just our own expectation-- it is the expectation of the universe itself. Via us, the created world is expecting to have a future.

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Since I started this blog two years ago to share my thoughts about the convergence of science and religion I have pointed out many times that the evolutionary understanding of the world which characterizes modern science has its roots in the Western religious tradition.

Here I want also to point out that, as unlikely as it may seem to many, even this idea that the universe itself expects to have a future has been part of the Western religious tradition from the very beginning of Christianity. Although in the context of static dualism we miss it completely, the earliest Christian writer, Paul, makes the point explicitly in his letter to the Romans.

Paul says as clearly as possible that creation itself-- the whole universe, all of nature-- is "groaning as if in labor pains in expectation of its fulfillment." The many translations are fascinating. You might like to check Romans 8:22 on Bible Gateway. I especially like the version known as "The Message." In that translation Paul simply says, "The universe is pregnant."

So, just as there is a "cognitive imperative" recognized by western science, there is also what might be called an "expectation imperative" recognized by western religion.

The universe is expecting!

And it's that expectation which we experience in ourselves, via our Green Mouse and Black Bear functions, as the promise of a future. When we look at the big picture, in terms of the "Wisdom from on high who orders all things mightily," there doesn't seem to be any reason to mistrust it.

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.