Friday, March 19, 2010

#65. Ritual's Cosmic Roots

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This is the seventh in a series of posts about the connections between religious ritual and evolution; it's also my third dealing with ritual's psychological, biological and cosmic roots.


The cosmic roots of ritual are considerably more difficult to describe than ritual's biological and psychological roots.

One reason is that understanding ritual's cosmic roots involves the biggest "big picture" contemporary science gives us. It includes not just the evolution of life on Earth but the evolution of the physical universe before the Earth existed and the emergence of human consciousness and culture after life emerged on Earth.

Another reason is that even though modern science's evolutionary worldview came to maturity in the 20th century, our general population still remains for the most part uninformed about it.

Most Americans, for example-- polls say it's between two-thirds and 75%-- claim to not accept the idea of biological evolution. And their awareness of evolution at the level of atoms and stars, on one hand, and of human culture, on the other, is zero.

There are even deeper reasons for this resistance to the big picture contemporary science gives us. Besides becoming aware that the world is not only a lot older and bigger than people used to think it was, we have also become aware that the world is always changing.

And the biggest change 20th-century science has made us aware of is our understanding of change itself.

There's still more. The world is not only constantly changing; the on-going change has a direction-- toward ever-increasing material complexity.

And with the increase in complexity comes an increase in that self-organized "within" which we call the "life" of living things and which, at the human level, we call our "awareness of being aware."

And that reflective self-awareness also adds something new to the world: the evolutionary development of humanity's communities, societies and cultures.

It's a lot for us to take in.

But this idea of constantly appearing newness is the very essence of the New Cosmology. And it is the perspective we need if we are to have a good understanding of the cosmic roots of our religious ritual.


It's clear enough that ritual's cosmic roots are in both the matter of the cosmos and in the cosmic process by which matter evolves. 

But those roots only make sense when we understand the connections between ourselves and that on-going process of the physical evolution of matter.

We need to look closely at those connections and at some of the reasons why they are so difficult for many of us to understand. 

What follows may at first seem to not have much to do with ritual; bear with me.


I noted in post #52 ("Exciting Times") that what's "new" in the term "new cosmology" is precisely the fact that we are beginning to see the deep connection between ourselves and the evolving universe. Our new understanding of the physical cosmos has resulted in a totally new understanding of ourselves.

This new understanding-- of the cosmos and of ourselves-- is an immense transition, but our educational systems haven't been much help to us in making it.

For the last two generations, our primary educational system hasn't been schools but the media. And while the media constantly present us with economic, political and environmental problems, at the same time they do all they can to distract us from dealing with those problems in any serious or responsible way.

Most media journalists still see everything in a patriarchal framework-- in terms of competition rather than cooperation-- even though we know from the evolutionary perspective that cooperative activity is the very essence of the cosmic process at every level. Media editors and writers simply aren't helping us move beyond those patriarchal perspectives.

Our religious institutions aren't helping much either. The new understanding of the physical cosmos we have today not only results in a new understanding of ourselves, it also results in a new-- and more mature-- understanding of the world's creative source.

In the perspectives of the new scientific cosmology, the word "God" just doesn't mean what it used to in the old static worldview-- any more than the word "human" does.

Because the churches continue to protect themselves by holding on to the old views and rejecting those who work at updating them, the whole religious enterprise-- humanity's concern for spirituality-- has moved outside the institutional churches.

It's an interesting-- indeed, fascinating-- development. The result, in terms of both science and religion, is that the New Cosmology is a grass-roots activity.

Thanks to the internet, ordinary people are getting together to understand what's going on and are making major efforts to deal with humanity's needs. We recognize ourselves as partners in the cosmic process.

That's the real growing edge of our current situation. It's especially obvious in the concern for the environment-- for being "green"-- that is an essential aspect of any evolutionary spirituality.


I didn't forget about ritual....

I need to say a few words first about what I think is the most basic aspect of the spirituality of the New Cosmology. What it comes down to, at bottom, is an attitude toward reality which can be described best as trust.

While fear-- of other people, of the body, of the feminine, of the world itself-- is at the basis of the static worldview's religious dualism, the immense transition we're experiencing is an evolutionary movement beyond that attitude of fear.

The claim of patriarchal authorities that they can protect us from the worst aspects of our existence-- on condition that we follow their directives-- may have worked in the past. In the evolutionary perspective, it simply doesn't.

In the New Cosmology, the essence of the human stance is not trust in external authorities but trust in the evolutionary process itself. "Trust" seems to be the right word because, when we recognize that at the human level cosmic evolution is participatory, we also see that we are responsible for taking care of ourselves. And we trust that, in fact, we can take care of ourselves.

This is where ritual comes in. Ritual, as I've said a number of times since I started this series of posts about evolution and ritual with post #59, is the age-old means we humans have for consciously plugging ourselves into the on-going cosmic process-- for aligning ourselves with it.


But if we are to be conscious participants in that evolutionary process, we need to be clear about the direction in which it is moving. And to do that, we need to keep in mind that the process, as we experience it, has three main stages: "matter, life and mind." 

It's that third stage that we need to take a close look at here.
Even many people who accept the physical and biological stages of Earth's evolution find it difficult to see that humanity's communal and cultural development is also part of the evolution of the universe.

In the previous post (#64) I described some basic concepts available from the fields of neuro-science and ethology that help us to see that ritual, at the biological level, is about the communication of information for the sake of cooperative activity.

From those scientific studies of the brains and behavior of animals, we can see that the purpose of ritual in animal life is nothing less than life itself-- the survival and thrival of individuals and species.

Human ritual is no less rooted in neurology and ethology. It, too, is about cooperative activity for the survival and thrival of life.

The difference is that, at the human level, we focus on relationships and community.

In our highly individualistic society, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the cosmic process at the human level doesn't stop with the emergence of individual persons. It continues on, to what
I called in post #22 "The Other Half of 'Person'."

Community-- persons in communal relationships-- is the direction in which the cosmic process is moving at the human level.

Our individualistic streak keeps us from being open to the insights of the New Cosmology; our rugged individualism keeps us from recognizing community as the further direction in which cosmic evolution is proceeding.

Yet it is only that very biggest picture we have from the New Cosmology that allows us to understand community in the largest cosmic sense: the inter-connectedness of all things.

Western people can hardly handle the thought that all humans are related to one another-- let alone that we are related not only to animals and plants but to everything else that exists in the physical universe.

The New Cosmology helps us to see that we are, in fact, related to the totality of reality. And this is one place where our global religious traditions can also help; it's one place where science and religion converge explicitly.

There's no religious tradition on the Earth which doesn't teach some version of the golden rule: to be happy (content, complete, fulfilled-- indeed, to survive and thrive as human beings) we need to treat others as we want to be treated.

And every religion has some word for our relatedness to everything. In Greek, it's ekklesia. In Hebrew, qahal. In Sanskrit, sangha. They all mean "community" in the broadest sense. Native Americans say it most explicitly: "All things are our relations."


So for a good understanding of the cosmic roots of ritual, we need to see not only that ritual's roots are "in the cosmic process itself," but also that they are in the direction of that evolutionary movement-- toward community.

One way to express these thoughts is to say that we are genetically wired for communion with all other persons and things. And when we put it that way, we see immediately that war, violence, indifference and injustice are disruptions of that cosmic process operating within us.

We can also see that our religious rituals are the opposite of those disruptions-- that ritual empowers us to creative participation in the process which is moving in the direction of peace, justice and equality.


These are heavy thoughts. Helpful, I hope. To round them out, there's one more idea about the cosmic roots of ritual I want to share.

Besides understanding the connections between ourselves and the on-going cosmic process, we also need to be aware that ritual's cosmic roots are in matter itself-- in the very stuff of the cosmos which emerged in the primordial flaring forth of the Big Bang.

There's no ritual without that stuff.

There's no ritual without movement and sound. No ritual without physical activity. No ritual without drumming or dancing or singing. No ritual without food and drink.

Thanks to 20th-century science, we know that matter isn't the dead, life-less atoms and molecules that the rationalistic worldview of recent centuries presumed it was.

The elements of earth and air and fire and water are "sym-bols" in the old sense; they are things that "put us together." They unite us-- with ourselves, with the things of the world, and with the creative source of the world.

We can see today, better than ever in the past, that matter itself is unitive: the physical world, by its very nature, is sacred, symbolic, sacramental.

We need those traditional religious words like "unitive," "sacred," "symbolic," and "sacramental" to express the most basic of all humanity's religious insights, that each of us, at our deepest personal level, is not separate from the creative source of the world.


That sense of our personal union-- via matter-- with the dynamic source of the creative process is what's missing from the patriarchal worldview's religious dualism.

It's that absence which accounts for the fear that's at the base of the political perspectives of patriarchy; there, the evolutionary drive to survive and thrive is understood only in terms of competition rather than cooperation.

We don't need to be academic historians or theologians to recognize that absence.

We can see it every time we turn on the TV-- when we hear Americans saying with regard to other Americans: "We can't afford to take care of everybody-- they don't deserve it, anyway." And when we hear, with regard to people of other countries: "They are out to get us; we have to bomb them before they bomb us."

It would be nice if what I've just said was a caricature. But it's not. Those political attitudes are based on a fear of reality which is intrinsic to the dualistic worldview's sense of alienation from matter. They are the opposite of the evolutionary understanding of the material world as sacred, symbolic, sacramental.

And it's our understanding of the sacramental nature of matter that allows us to take care of ourselves, of one another and of our environment-- in trust.

In Greek, the sacramentality of the world is called the mysterion tou kosmou
It's that mysterion tou kosmou that is the ultimate root of all 


I started this post with the thought that the cosmic roots of ritual "are considerably more difficult to describe than ritual's biological and psychological roots." Now I'm thinking that maybe it's not just more difficult; maybe it's impossible to adequately describe ritual's cosmic roots.

Of all the 65 posts I've written, this one feels the most unsatisfactory. Not the whole thing; just the ending. I feel that I haven't said enough-- or that what I did say wasn't said well enough. I think I've reached the limits of my ability.

So the final thought I want to share here is simply that, even though I can't put into words what's needed, there's more.

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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.