Tuesday, November 3, 2009

#58. Even Religion Evolves


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Some people still have trouble accepting biological evolution as a scientific fact. For them, but also for many others as well, the idea that "even religion evolves" is just about incomprehensible. So I want to share some thoughts about that in this post.

It's complicated to talk about the fact that "religion evolves" because both words ("religion" and "evolves") have several common meanings. Those meanings are related, of course, but we need to sort them out if we are to be clear about what it means to say "even religion evolves."

"Religion," for example, has two basic meanings. It can refer to the great world religions-- those several-thousand-year-old traditions like Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. But it can also refer to something far older-- that personal religious consciousness which, as a normal part of human nature, is shared by all of us and is the basis for the world religions.

When people today say that they are "spiritual but not religious," it's that basic religious consciousness that they are referring to.

The various religious traditions of the world are communal expressions of that personal religious consciousness which is common to all of us. Their differences are due to a great extent to the fact that they have been conditioned by both the cultural and physical environment in which they began.

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The word "evolution" is a bit more complicated. Originally "evolution" had the same meaning as "revolution" (as in, "a planet revolves around a star").

But in its most basic sense today, "evolution" simply means that things change over time; things become different.

Even the most unreflective fundamentalists acknowledge "evolution" in this sense, although they don't call it that, of course. And they tend to see any change as something negative-- clocks wind down, things fall apart, people grow old.

For some, any kind of change is experienced as negative-- a betrayal of the past.

I've described this attitude in several previous posts: #29, #31, #33, #35 and #44, for example. It comes from an unbalanced dependence on that activity of our minds which Jungians call the mind's Feeling function and the Native American Medicine Wheel pictures as the Green Mouse of the South.

Our Green Mouse-Feeling function is a kind of "pack rat" which collects everything and, because it's so small, can't see very far. It has a limited vision of the world.

In our present cultural situation, there's growing awareness that we need to balance the various ways we have of being conscious. The conservative attitude of the Green Mouse, hoarding memories and holding tight to the things of the past, is only one aspect of our four-fold minds.

In the more balanced dynamic worldview beginning to dawn on us, it's clear that evolutionary change isn't something negative.

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Another complication with the word "evolution" is that what's popularly meant by it has itself changed over the last few decades.

Fifty years ago, for example, "evolution" was understood to refer to the original emergence of life on Earth and to the emergence of human life-- both things together, even though they occurred several billion years apart.

The fact that on the popular level people didn't make much of a distinction between the emergence of simple life forms and of human life is a good example of what's meant by an "anthropocentric" attitude; it shows our alienation from nature.

Today, hardly anyone-- even unreflective religious fundamentalists-- bothers denying that simple life-forms emerged on our planet out of pre-existing materials; the evidence is clear enough to anyone willing to look at it.

More recently, the word "evolution" on the popular level has come to refer specifically to the emergence of human life from those earlier life forms. And here, too, the evidence is clear, for those open to it. (One of our newly discovered primate ancestors, "Ardi," for Ardipithecus ramidus, has been in the news recently.)

Of course we also know that we're different from our primate relatives.

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In the past, that difference was expressed in terms of the presence of an immortal soul placed in each human embryo as it was conceived. And in a static worldview, that way of understanding the origin of human persons makes good sense.

But in a dynamic-evolutionary perspective we can see that it has some significant disadvantages. For one thing, it's the origin of anthropocentrism; it separates humans from the physical universe and makes us aliens on our own planet.

It's also the basis for that religious dualism which has undermined western religion for a thousand years. It even distances the creator from the creative process; it makes God an alien, too.

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So we need a bigger picture.

We need to include in our term "evolution" the development of the created world before human consciousness appeared, not just before biological life emerged on Earth but even before there was a solar system and Earth.

Here it is important to keep in mind that, while human life is several million years and pre-human life on Earth is several billion years old, the whole universe is ten times older still. Our term "evolution" needs to include all that came before us.

But we also need to include in our bigger picture those evolutionary developments which come after humans first appeared on Earth. This includes not only the growth and development of each individual person, but also-- and especially-- the on-going development of human communities and cultural groups.

From my teaching experience over the years, I've found that this idea-- that human communities and cultures are part of the evolutionary process-- is especially difficult for many to accept. It just doesn't "click." It's too unfamiliar-- too new.

But that's what's needed if we are to understand that "even religion evolves."

Only when we have that big picture-- of the evolutionary process continuing after the emergence of humans on Earth-- can we appreciate that changes in religious consciousness are no less positive than the original emergence of human life itself.

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What can help us most in seeing religion awareness as part of the big picture is to keep in mind a detail about evolutionary change that's so obvious that we can easily overlook it. It's the fact that in the dynamic growth and development of everything-- from planets and stars to life on Earth and human communities-- something new emerges.

Not just change, but newness, is the essence of "evolution."

I've mentioned this central idea of the emergence of new things in many previous posts. I think they are worth listing, just to show how important the idea is: #11, #14, #17, #22, #23, #24, #25, #33, #35, #44, #46, #47, #50, #54 and #57.

Probably the best example of the emergence of newness is something I haven't talked about previously but is familiar to each of us-- our own personal experience of passing through puberty.

At puberty we experience a newness at the deepest and most intimate level. It's a physical newness, of course-- anatomical and hormonal. But it's also psychological: a new awareness of belonging and a new interest in relationships.

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In the media, puberty is usually presented as a time of unpleasant awkwardness.

I think that's because journalists, for the most part, are simply reflecting American society which is still stuck in a static worldview. We miss the obvious fact that the psychological newness each of us experiences at puberty is the foundation of our families, our communities and of human culture.

It may only be in the dynamic worldview that we can recognize puberty itself as a part of the cosmic process. Nothing else comes close to this profoundly personal new understanding of "our place in the vast scheme of things."

It's thanks to puberty that each of us can see ourselves as part of the biggest cosmic process.

It's thanks to puberty we can see that we not only are made of stardust and have primate ancestors, but that that same evolutionary process is continuing in each of us as we grow and develop, make friends and start families.

And it's thanks to puberty that we can recognize that cosmic evolution is continuing in the historical development of the whole human community on the Earth.

When we have that bigger picture, we can easily see that even religion evolves. But we're just coming to recognize it.

As Dr. Heather Eaton says in her essay, This Sacred Earth, "we are at a new religious moment in the history of the world." (I've referred to Dr. Eaton's work in four recent posts: #52, #54, #55 and #56. They are worth checking if her name is new to you.)

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I said above that "religion" can mean both religious consciousness and its cultural expressions in the various religious traditions such as Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

It's those cultural expressions that we usually think of in connection with specific beliefs and creeds. In western culture, we also call them "institutional religions" to distinguish them from our personal religious-spiritual consciousness.

C. G. Jung notes that while the specific beliefs and creeds of institutional religions can be restrictive if they are based only on external authority rather than personal experience, spiritual awareness is in contrast a fundamental "attitude toward life."

My main point in this post is that whether we are referring to specific beliefs or to our fundamental attitude toward life, we can see in either case that as part of the cosmic process something new emerges-- that "even religion evolves."

Dr. Eaton expresses this nicely: "Seeing earth history as a decisive framework allows us to perceive that religious consciousness is itself an emerging process within the larger evolutionary processes of the earth."

And she also notes that "It is a great challenge to situate our religious traditions-- the myriad expressions and rituals mediating the sacred, the moral core and codes-- within the evolutionary processes of the earth."

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A great challenge, indeed!

I think dealing with it may the ultimate human issue of our time.
It determines whether we prefer to remain in the static worldview of the past or we choose to become co-creative participants in the world's evolutionary development.

Do we belong to the universe? Or are we alien to the cosmic process?

In our day, each of us-- and each of our religious traditions-- has to make that choice.

The very fact that-- at this "new religious moment in the history of the world"-- we have to make the choice is the best example I can offer that "even religion evolves."


PS. (Added 4 Nov): A friend sent this fun flowchart "for determining what religion you should follow." It wouldn't even have been possible 20 years ago.

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ARCHIVE TECHNICAL PROBLEM: Since I started this new series of posts (with post #51), each time I publish new post, an earlier one vanishes from my Archives list; they're still there, just not visible. Until tech support can deal with this, I'm putting links to those "missing" posts here.
#6. Tai Chi

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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.