Wednesday, December 10, 2008

#49. Evolutionary Spirituality

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Everyone who is familiar with Jungian thought knows the story of Jung's visit to Native Americans in the American Southwest in 1925. Jung's conversation with a Taos Pueblo tribal elder, Mountain Lake, is recorded in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It was a significant turning point in Jung's understanding of the human psyche.

Jung was talking with Mountain Lake about the tribal religion. Mountain Lake told him that the Pueblo people keep the sun going. "If we didn't practice our religion, in a few years the sun would no longer shine. It would be the end of the human race," he said.

Scientific rationalists and religious fundamentalists scoff.

But Jung saw that this perspective provided the Pueblo people with a sense of belonging to the world and having an active role to play in it. And he recognized that that this was precisely what was lacking to the people of modern western culture.

In our day, this sense of belonging is precisely what the New Cosmology provides.


The New Cosmology is a "cosmology" in the sense that the term is used both in astro-physics-- a picture of the physical cosmos-- and as it's used in the human sciences-- a cultural group's understanding of its place in the universe.

What's unique about the New Cosmology is that it belongs to all the people of the Earth. The evolutionary worldview of modern science is a gift to all humanity.

The essence of the New Cosmology is the understanding that we not only belong to the evolutionary world but are also active participants in its development. It is in the greatest contrast to the static worldview of religious dualism which sees humanity as alienated from the physical universe and the goal of life our escape from the world.


My main reason for starting this blog (almost two years ago, now!) was to state as clearly as I was able to say it that the evolutionary perspectives of modern science and the core perspectives of western religion converge in their common and shared dynamic worldview.

I have devoted many posts to the idea that the dynamic perspective originated in western religion-- specifically in the Exodus experience of the Hebrews and in the subsequent reflection on it by the Hebrew sages which is found in the Bible's wisdom literature. And I have repeatedly emphasized that although it was lost to western religion for a number of centuries it has been recovered by both western science and western religion in our day.

From the science side, the dynamic worldview allows us to see ourselves as the result of billions of years of evolution: we see that each of us is not only an utterly unique expression of the universe become conscious of itself but that we are also responsible participants in the evolutionary process at the level of human cultural development.

From the religion side, the dynamic worldview of the Bible's wisdom literature allows us to see that war, violence and injustice are distortions of the cosmic process: they prevent individuals from making their unique personal contribution to the evolution of the universe.

Both worldviews converge in their understanding that all of us together are called to contribute our efforts toward global ecology, gender equality, peace and justice.


In the New Cosmology, where science and religion converge, the question is: How should we live? How should we live so that we can move beyond the violence and injustices of patriarchal attitudes and thus allow everyone to make their personal contribution to the cosmic process? How should we live so that we are properly aligned with the evolution of the universe?

Science doesn't have a name for "how we should live," but religion does. The traditional name is, of course, "spirituality." That's the focus of this post: what "spiritual life" looks like in the evolutionary context of the New Cosmology.


It's important to recognize that "spirit" here does not refer-- as it does in a dualistic perspective-- to the inner life of a disembodied soul. It refers to "spirit" in the original sense of spiritus: that energy, dynamis, creative power which has been empowering the evolution of the universe from the beginning.

So, the main idea of a spiritual life is simple enough in an evolutionary perspective: it means "living in the spirit." To be "spiritual" means to live our lives in communion with the spiritus -- the pneuma, wind, air, breath-- which hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation and which, as the Hebrew sages recognized, has been guiding and directing the creative process on Earth and has, ever since, been inviting us to actively participate in it.

Evolutionary spirituality starts with this understanding. We need to keep in mind Claude Tresmontant's description of Hebrew Bible's evolutionary metaphysic that I noted in several previous posts: "It is the nature of being to continuously evolve." We also need to keep in mind Tresmontant's observation that it's the nabi, the prophet, who is the specific personality type who can discern the direction of the process: pax, peace, shalom.

So the question of an evolutionary spirituality comes down to living in accordance with the direction of the evolutionary process on Earth. It means allowing ourselves to be energized, empowered, by the spiritus.

This is what western religion is all about. It is what the Hebrew prophets and Jesus and the early communities of his followers were about. And it is what "life in the spiritus" means today.


An unlikely source for our understanding of evolutionary spirituality appeared in a recent New York Times article reporting the death (in October 2008 at age 99) of the famous French nun, Sister Emmanuelle. It provides a good brief summary of what spiritual life is about.

While relatively unknown in the United States, Sister Emmanuelle was a unconventional Catholic nun who favored priests being allowed to marry, was indifferent to homosexuality, and opposed the papal ban on birth control. Her "energetic candor" endeared her to the French, as the Times article says, and she was "revered for her work with the disenfranchised, especially among the garbage-scavengers of Cairo, and renowned for her television appearances in France as an advocate for the poor."

When she appeared on a popular television program in 1996, she was asked by the host to name her favorite word. She said it was "Yallah," an Arabic word that translates as “let’s go.” When she was asked for the word she most disliked, her answer was the English word “stop.”

That's "life in the spiritus." Not "Stop!" but "Let's go!" That's what being on the growing edge of the cosmic process means. It's the refusal to live in accordance with the norms of the patriarchal mentality, the refusal to follow patriarchy's will to power, the refusal to accept the patriarchal control of persons with its unending commands of "No," "Stop" and "You may not!"

And it's more than just taking a stand against patriarchy's "Stop!" As this "outspoken advocate for the rights of the poor" recognized, the essence of Judeo-Christian wisdom spirituality is accepting-- with an enthusiastic "Let's go"-- the invitation of cosmic Wisdom to join in the work of peace, pax, shalom.


The fact that a 99-year old French nun can provide us with insights into the nature of evolutionary spirituality reminds us that members of religious orders have had a central place in western culture for many centuries. They have been the "professionals" of spirituality in western religion, so we can't ignore them.

The various religious orders all have their roots in the earliest attempt at a radical spiritual life in western culture, the 3rd-century desert hermits.

While the desert fathers (and mothers, since there were plenty of women, too, who chose to live a hermit life) are not unique in the world's religious traditions-- there were Buddhist and Taoist monks long before the time of the Christian desert hermits-- those desert hermits were a unique cultural phenomenon.

There were once many thousands of them, and their movement to the desert was precisely a refusal of patriarchal control. It was a radical separation from what can be characterized by words such as "empire" and "Caesar." It was the first protestant movement in the western world, the first refusal on a cultural level to take seriously the patriarchal voices that said "Stop!"

The early desert hermits eventually evolved into monastic communities and, after the Middle Ages, into service groups-- taking care of hospitals, protecting travelers, teaching-- while living according to the traditional religious vows still familiar to us today.

Over the centuries, the dynamic perspectives of the wisdom spirituality on which the religious orders were founded got lost. Their traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were reinterpreted to fit the static perspectives of the patriarchal mindset. The vows took on negative meanings, so that in a static worldview they seem much more like "Stop" than Sister Emmanuelle's "Let's go."


To most of us today, "poverty, chastity and obedience" sounds like "no money, no sex, no freedom," and we wonder why on earth anyone would want to take such vows.

But a significant aspect of the Great Turning-- the Immense Transition happening today in our world-- is that many who are focused on a spiritual life have been redefining the traditional vows as positive commitments which are both quite appropriate to the modern evolutionary worldview and totally in keeping with the wisdom spirituality at the base of western religion.

This new consciousness and practice of spiritual life flows from a fuller appreciation of the interdependence and wholeness-- the inter-connectedness-- of all creation. The intention of these modern vows is not an escape from the Earth but the effort to function harmoniously with the created world.

The vows are being understood again in our day as commitments to challenge the destructive, exploitive structures of patriarchy and to once again move in the direction of the cosmic process which the Hebrew nabi discerns as "peace, pax, shalom."


This redefining of the traditional basis for western spirituality has been going on for more than a generation. Persons as diverse as the Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams have contributed to it.

A new religious group, celebrating its first anniversary in November 2008, provides an excellent contemporary example. It is made up primarily of married Catholic priests and their families and calls itself the Community of John XXIII.

In their understanding, chastity is understood far beyond its former narrow sexualized interpretation. It's seen as a call to authentic relationships at every level of creation, as a love and reverence toward the whole of creation. It's described as a "witness which presents a challenge to all political, consumerist or socially oppressive practices which exploit the sacred creation." They name this mutual respect for all things "Commitment to Relatedness."

Poverty, in this evolutionary perspective, is understood as the right use of material things. It is named "Commitment to Justice-making"-- with a strong emphasis on what's known as distributive justice, "where everybody has enough (not mere charity)." This sense of justice-making is also understood especially as a call to relate to each other and our society as a "discipleship of equals." It is "egalitarian rather than hierarchical," and stands in opposition to all patriarchal, hierarchical and institutional injustice.

Even the traditional vow of obedience is understood in a positive and dynamic-evolutionary sense, as "a call to work together to build a consensual and collegial approach to religious and social structures." Renamed "Mutual Collaboration," it is the refusal of any kind of slavery to falsehood or illusion-- a commitment to "not relying on institutional patriarchy as in the past but being open to the Spirit of creativity, which prompts us toward new possibilities."

These commitments to relatedness, justice-making and mutual collaboration are excellent examples of what life-in-the-spiritus looks like in the New Cosmology. Understood as the refusal to conform to patriarchal values and a commitment to participate in the dynamic movement of human culture toward "peace, pax, shalom," they clearly define "how we should live" when we are empowered by the spiritus of the cosmic process.


There is one more aspect of evolutionary spirituality that we need to be aware of. It too has its roots in the protests by the desert hermits against patriarchal values; it is, in fact, the very basis for the contemporary commitments to healthy relationships, the right use of things and mutual collaboration for justice-making. But it's not a vow that is familiar to us today.

Everyone knows of persons like Francis of Assisi and Benedict of Nursia, the founders of those religious orders which evolved out of the early movement to the desert. But few of us are familiar with people like Paul the First Hermit, Anthony of the Desert, Mary of Egypt, John Cassian or Pachomius of Thebes-- the western world's earliest professionals of spiritual life.

What's especially important for evolutionary spirituality is an understanding of what it was that drove them into the desert in the first place, what it was that was the very essence of their need to move beyond the influences of patriarchal culture. It was the same inner need each of us experiences at a deep level within ourselves, in whatever cultural context we find ourselves: the drive or urge or need to become the person we feel we are meant to be.

I like to think of it as a "cosmic imperative," similar to both Biogenetic Structuralism's "cognitive imperative" (which I've described in a number of posts) and to what I called (in the previous post) the "expectation imperative." It's the drive we find in ourselves, as the evolutionary process become conscious of itself, to personal authenticity.

And while none of the early hermits-- neither western nor Asian-- had any knowledge of the modern evolutionary worldview, all of them experienced this dynamic inner drive for the realization of their own personal uniqueness.

From the evolutionary perspectives we can see that this effort to be one's self-- and not to be who-or-what the conventional patriarchal perspectives of the times insist on-- is precisely the effort to live in accordance with the dynamic energy of the universe.


The Christian hermits saw it as a response to the question Jesus asks in the gospels: "What good does it do you to gain the whole world if you lose your true self?"

As unlikely as it may seem, this cosmic imperative to personal authenticity has persisted in the monastic world to this day. While everyone is familiar with the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, few of us are familiar with this unique monastic vow.

It's so old that scholars aren't even certain of its original name.

It is usually called conversio morum, which is translated into English as "conversion of morals" or "conversion of manners." But neither of those phrases is especially helpful in understanding what it's all about. Sometimes it's expressed more clearly as "conversion of life."

However it's named, this ancient vow is understood to be a commitment to transformation, to continuously develop and mature into the person the individual feels called to be.

Today we can see that it's a commitment to strive to live in accordance with the dynamic movement of the universe: a commitment to become, in the gospel's words, "one's true self."

If the desert hermits were somehow able to be informed about what Biogenetic Structuralists call "ontogenetic development," and what Brad Blanton calls "radical honesty," and what Jungians call the "individuation process," I think they would say, "Yes, that's what we're about."

And I think those early monks would have no trouble accepting the findings of the contemporary neurosciences with regard to the workings of the brain and nervous system: that we are indeed "the universe become conscious of it."

In a recent book on the spiritual life of men, Matthew Fox sums up his understanding of evolutionary spirituality in just a few words. He says it means "giving life your all."

Certainly Sister Emmanuelle would agree. And so, probably, would Mountain Lake's people at Taos Pueblo. It fits perfectly with the perspectives of the New Cosmology.


I mentioned that the original name of the ancient monastic vow may not be conversio morum. Scholars think that "conversio" is possibly a "typo" or a misunderstanding by an early scribe, and that the original term was conversatio.

In that sense it's a vow to strive for personal transformation in conversation. It's the direct opposite of religious dualism's desire to escape from the world.

And in that sense it is exactly what's meant by being committed to Relatedness, Justice-making and Mutual Collaboration. Those commitments depend on nothing less than the personal integrity of each of us.


This post is being published on the 40th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, surely the most famous monk of modern times.

Merton understood the ancient monastic vow in the sense of "conversation." He saw conversatio morum as a vow to grow and develop-- to continually work at becoming himself-- precisely in conversation with all the world.

I don't think we could find a better description of what "spiritual life" means in the dynamic evolutionary worldview given to us by modern science.

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.