Monday, November 23, 2009

#59. Evolution and Religious Ritual

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Ever since I began this blog about the convergence of science and religion back in December 2006, I have mentioned often that I would like to share some thoughts about the connections between cosmic evolution and ritual. With this post, I'm finally doing it.

The very idea that there might be a connection between religious ritual and the evolution of the universe no doubt sounds strange to many readers. But offering some thoughts about how evolution and ritual are linked is especially important to me, since both have been major interests throughout in my life.

One indication of my central concern is that the word "ritual" appears in no fewer than 42 of the 58 posts I've published so far. That's more than 70%. (The word "evolution" appears in all of them!)


The main thing I want to say about the connection between evolution and ritual is straightforward enough: religious ritual is how we humans plug into the energy of the cosmic process.

It's a simple statement-- that ritual is the means by which we get empowered to participate in the evolution of the universe-- but it needs an awful lot of explaining.

One problem is that most of us, still, are not used to thinking in terms of evolution-- about things in general, let alone about religion, and especially not about ritual.

Another problem is that most of the words we have available to talk about ritual only have meanings left over from the static worldview. So it's quite a challenge.

It's tough enough to claim that science and religion are convergent, which is the main idea I've been struggling to express in this blog for almost three years now. So saying that there's a profound and essential connection between humanity's age-old practice of religious ritual and the evolution of the universe is even more difficult.

For some, I know, it's an outrageous idea. For others it may just seem a bit flakey.

But as I see it, it's a central idea on the growing edge of humanity's cultural development, and spelling it out is what I hope to be doing in the next few posts.


I need to say something first about my personal interest in religious ritual. As far as I can remember, there was never a time when I wasn't interested in sacred rites. (And, right off, that puts me out on the fringe of things!)

My Catholic background gave me access to rituals going back to pre-Christian times. The Catholic mass is essentially a synagogue service connected with a family meal, so candles, food and incense-- common to many of the world's religious rites-- were a part of my early religious experience.

At the same time, from a fairly early age I was aware that Catholics in general weren't especially interested in such things. I've told the story often of my first exposure to what is nowadays called the Easter Vigil.

In those days, the Easter ceremonies-- considered to be the central rites of the year-- were held on Saturday morning, a full 24 hours before the dawn of Easter Day. And the churches were empty.

When I was about eight years old I heard that there was be a blessing of fire and water at the church early in the morning on the day before Easter. When I told my parents I wanted to go to see it they said, "Sure, if you want to get up that early."

I did. When I got to the church, there was a priest, a server, and me. I was the whole congregation!

But it was an experience of magic and transformation-- with light, fire and water at the center of it-- for which, as an eight-year old, I had no words. (And for which, as a 72-year-old, I still struggle to find good words.)


A major part of my life's energies since then have gone into understanding rites and ceremonies and, later, helping others to do them in an empowering way.

I didn't limit myself to Roman Catholic rites. I was equally attracted to the rituals in other churches and other religious cultures.

Protestant churches didn't seem to offer much by way of sacred ceremonies, but Eastern Christian churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, were rich in ritual. So were Jewish, Buddhist and Native American events.

I quickly learned that ritual-- whatever it is, and however it works-- is something much deeper than the cultural differences we see in the way it is expressed.

Over the years I've been present at numerous ritual events in synagogues, churches, and monasteries (Catholic, Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist), and also at New Age, Native American and Wiccan gatherings. I have witnessed, taken part in and tried to understand religious rites and ceremonies wherever they were available.

Eventually I worked at liturgical renewal efforts in several schools and churches, founded and edited a magazine dealing with family ritual, and published a small "how-to" booklet entitled Passover Seder for Christian Families. I have made three vision quests, participated in Native American sweat lodge rites and I continue to smoke the sacred pipe daily. I've also taken part in rites for men's groups and other small groups-- including a drumming group now in its 23rd year.

While I have personally led sweat lodge ceremonies and even conducted a few funerals for family members and friends, leading such events is not my thing.

My role seems to be more along the lines of what some Native Americans call the "Road Man." It's someone who works mostly behind the scenes or off to the side to help keep things moving along nicely, rather than one who-- like a typical Christian preacher or priest-- is at the center of the activities.

What all this means, for the next few posts, is that I've been dealing with ritual and evolution for quite a while-- roughly six and a half decades now-- and that I've learned, I hope, some valuable things to share with others.

Of course it took a while before I began to understand how religious ritual fits into the evolutionary perspective. And it's my thoughts about those connections which I want to share with readers in the next few posts.


Here's a one-sentence summary of the main points I'd like to make with regard to connections between ritual and evolution: While science is about how the world works, and religion is about how we humans fit into it, ritual is the age-old means we have for being empowered to play our part in the world's evolution.

The work of Dr. Jakob Wolf, which I discussed in post #53 (Bridging the Gap), is especially helpful for understanding science as the study of cause and effect in the workings of cosmic evolution.

I've described the world's workings specifically in terms of the emergence of the conscious mind-and-brain in several earlier posts-- especially those dealing with Biogenetic Structuralist insights. Probably the best example is post #12 (The Cognitive Extension of Prehension).

I've also talked in many posts about religion specifically in terms of our understanding of how we fit into the world. In cultural anthropology, "how we fit in" is called "cosmology" and I've mentioned that word almost as frequently as I've mentioned "evolution." My best description of "cosmology" is in post #17 (What Is the Universe Doing?).

Post #17 begins with a zen-like quote: "Always remember that you're unique. Just like everyone else." I noted there that "if we ask, in a neurologically-informed evolutionary context, 'What is the universe doing?' the answer seems to be fairly clear: it's making persons." The universe is making utterly unique human beings.

By "neurologically-informed" I mean that in order to make sense of "what the universe is doing" we need an understanding of the human brain and mind as the product of cosmic and biological evolution. This neurological perspective is needed if we are to see that the essence of the cosmic process is the universe-- via persons-- "manifesting itself in innumerable unique ways."


I've mentioned in many posts the immense transition-- from a static to a dynamic worldview-- which world culture is experiencing. The new dynamic worldview makes all the difference in our understanding of religious ritual as the means by which we are empowered to participate in the cosmic process of divine epiphany.

In the static world view, we can't talk about the evolution of anything, let alone of ritual. And we don't "fit in" either. There, our one task is to escape from the world (and not, we hope, end up in an even worse place).

It's only in the dynamic perspective that we can see ourselves as belonging to the universe and can recognize ourselves as having a role to play in it.

And it's only there that we can understand the significance of ritual as the age-old means by which we Earthlings tune in to and become empowered to play our part in the cosmic process and so become unique manifestations of the divine mystery.

I hope to share some thoughts about that-- in the next few posts.


In talking about the connections between evolution and ritual, the biggest problem I have, as usual, is language. We just don't yet have the words we need for many of the thoughts and perspectives I'd like to share.

The available words are mostly terms from the static world view. And, as I've said, it's the shift from the static to the dynamic worldview that makes all the difference.

So where do I start? (If I think about it too much, the project feels overwhelming and I will decide not to start!)


It seems the best place to start is just to list those terms which are most helpful for making sense of religious ritual in an evolutionary context. I want to do more than that, of course, but simply listing those words is a good beginning.

I have a half a dozen of them; they fall into two groups. The first group includes three words that are often connected with religion: myth, symbol and meaning.

Those first two-- "myth" and "symbol"-- have meanings in the static worldview that are not at all the deeper richer meanings they can have in a dynamic perspective. In the static world view, they have, in fact, just the opposite of those rich meanings.

"Myth" is used in everyday life, for example, to refer to a statement or story which isn't true. It may be popularly believed to be true, but it isn't literal or factually correct. People use "myth" in this sense when they say, for example-- and despite the findings of scientific research-- that "global warming is a myth."

Adding to the difficulties is the fact that "myth" is often used in this negative sense specifically with regard to both "evolution" and "religion"-- but with exactly opposite purposes.

Some people say that "Religious beliefs are nothing but myths," while others-- religious fundamentalists-- say that "Evolution is a myth."

And here I am in the middle!

I want to say something different from both those views: that neither religion nor evolution are myths in the negative sense, and both are myths in a positive sense.

Maybe instead of being in the middle, this puts me out in left field-- or even out of the ball park. I would like to think, however, that it puts me on the growing edge.

And that's where that second group of terms needed to talk about ritual comes in: cosmology, creativity and wisdom.

Those three words-- rarely used either in the media or everyday life-- are essential for a growing-edge understanding of the link between ritual and cosmic evolution.


Of the six terms I see we need to connect ritual with evolution, the most difficult to deal with is the word "meaning." We know what "meaning" means, of course. At least we feel that we do. But putting it into words is quite a challenge.

It's amazing that we have such a difficult time saying what we mean by "meaning."

It's even more difficult to understand what we mean when we ask about the meaning of specific things, especially when we ask heavy questions like "What is the meaning of life?" Most challenging of all is "What is the meaning of my life?"


For a teacher, the situation is a nightmare!

So, while I would like to talk about the links between ritual and evolution, I obviously can't just plunge into it. I need to do a lot of sorting out first.

I need to do the same kind of sorting I did in the previous post with regard to the many popular meanings of "evolution."

So that's what I'm going to deal with in the next few posts-- spelling out what's meant in a non-static worldview by the words myth, symbol and meaning in one post and, in another, the meanings of the words cosmology, creativity and wisdom.

Only with all that clear can I feel comfortable talking about the place of ritual in evolution.

That's my project for the next few posts. Wish me luck! I'll need it. And I need your support and encouragement.


One more thing. I want to assign some homework. (Teacher instincts die hard!)

I want to ask you to think about how you would describe "meaning" to, for example, an intelligent high school student. And-- if you're willing-- to share your thoughts with me and our readers.

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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

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.