Saturday, April 10, 2010

#66. Arlene's Questions


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"Arlene in Islamabad" sent an especially helpful comment on post #64 (Ritual's Biological Roots). It came in after #65 (Ritual's Cosmic Roots) had been published, so I added it to the comments for #65.



She said: "It’s exciting and wonderful to realize that our spirit doesn’t separate us from our animal relatives, and also that religious ritual, our own participation in the cosmic process, has its roots in their behavior. 

It’s such a new thought, so exciting and welcome, that it’s almost hard to believe. But the proof is there. This post is a gift; thanks very much."

Arlene has lived in Pakistan for many years, but she was in the first high school chemistry class I ever taught, back in Delran, New Jersey, more than 50 years ago. I sent her a note of thanks for the comment and asked if she might share more of her thoughts along those lines.

She did. In the note that follows she describes some of her personal experiences in Pakistan and asks some especially important questions about evolution and ritual.

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Sam: Much of what crossed my mind as I read post 64 is personal and of no interest to the readers of your blog, probably not 'along those lines' as you asked for. I still pass it along for your information, though I do hope to get answers to my some of my questions.

I have loved the concept of evolution since you taught it to us in high school. I live in a country that has the only five-hundred-million-year unbroken fossil record in the world. Before the current violence in Pakistan, scientists, professors and doctoral students from Europe and North America used to come here every winter to do research. I was lucky enough once to go along with them for a few days.

I tagged behind the scientists wherever they went, and found that I could follow nearly all their discussion. I held in my hands fossils of every sort, from a glistening black mammoth tooth to fossilized bovid feces. There were piles of discarded fossils everywhere, and I was allowed to take whatever I wanted from them. It was the most fun I have ever had in my life, and in the van on the way home I remembered a question of Dr. Bernie Siegel in his book, Love, Medicine and Miracles: "Do you want to live to be a hundred?" My answer then was a resounding yes, with no if’s, and’s or but’s.

You said, “…the evolutionary perspectives of the New Cosmology-- where the emphasis is on our creative participation in the cosmic process-- we need a clear understanding of ritual's biological roots. It is ritual that empowers our participation in that evolutionary process.”

Does this actually mean that we are creatively participating in evolution when we perform a ritual?

Exactly how are we being creative? And how is what we are doing part of evolution? Is this the same evolution I am talking about above? Am I taking evolution too literally, too physically? I somehow doubt it, because the post is about biological roots of ritual. I hope my questions aren’t from a different ballpark, but somehow fear I’ve missed something important. It’s like it’s exciting, but I can’t exactly wrap my mind around it; I want to know much more about this. Thanks again. -arlene

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Arlene has provided me with three nice sets of questions-- all dealing with ritual, evolution and our creative participation in it-- that I would like to respond to.

I want first to say, "No, Arlene, you're not out of the ballpark and you're not taking evolution too literally." Cosmic evolution has three main stages-- matter, life and mind-- and it's important that we not limit our understanding of it only to its biological phase.

When we take into account the big picture, it's clear that "evolution" refers to the entire history of the universe. It includes not just the formation of stars and planets at the earlier physical-cosmic stage, and the origin and development of life on Earth at its biological stage, but also the emergence of self-aware consciousness at the human stage.

And at that human stage-- the level of "mind"-- evolution includes both the personal growth and development of each individual human being and also-- and especially, here-- the communal and cultural development of global humanity.

Because we're so close to it and so much a part of it, that cultural stage is much more difficult to see clearly than the others. It includes early developments like the invention of language and the use of fire, the creation of stone tools in Paleolithic times and the development of farming in the more recent Neolithic-agricultural period.

But what's most important for us to see here is that the cultural phase continues in our day. Evolution is still going on in things like advances in medicine, the development of communications systems like the Internet which link every part of the Earth, and the increasing sensitivity on the part of the whole human family to social issues.

When we see that very big picture, it's easier to see that a concern for environmental sustainability and issues like racial and gender equality are no less a part of the evolution of the universe than was the emergence of multicellular life-forms on the Earth a billion years ago and the formation of galaxies many billions of years earlier.

It's all one process.

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I know from my teaching experience that the idea of seeing humanity's cultural development as part of the evolution of the universe is tough for many to accept. It's not that it's objectionable so much as that it's simply unfamiliar.

Our western culture has conditioned us-- because of many centuries of religious dualism and the rationalism of early science-- to see ourselves as separate from the rest of reality.

But it's precisely this new self-understanding-- this new sense of human participation in the many-billion-years of the evolutionary process-- that's the very essence of the new cosmology. And what makes it so exciting.

Arlene expresses well that fundamental excitement so many feel when they first see themselves as part of the evolution of the universe. "It’s such a new thought," she says, "so exciting and welcome, that it’s almost hard to believe."

She is describing what recently has been called the "awakening of the impulse to evolve" and what Michael Dowd, in his book Thank God For Evolution, puts more simply when he says that it's what happens when people "get it."

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For me, one of the most important aspects of this new scientific understanding of our place in the universe is that it frees us to pursue spiritual growth without going along with those dualistic religious perspectives which insist that we humans are alien on the Earth and that "our true home in heaven."

It allows those who like to call themselves "spiritual, but not religious" to once again give themselves wholeheartedly to "the inner search" and the development of their "interiority." And this is quite literally a new self-understanding-- new in the story of science and new to humanity's recent religious history.

So, a big "yes" to Arlene. We are indeed talking about the same evolutionary process that you experienced first hand in the fossil fields of Pakistan.

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Arlene's second set of questions has to do with "exactly how," as she puts it, our human activity is part of that creative evolutionary process.

Once it becomes clear that evolution is a single process-- of matter, life and mind, each phase emerging from the previous one-- it then becomes obvious that we humans who are alive today are also part of it.

From the big picture, we can see that our very existence goes back-- through the evolution of life on Earth and the formation of our planet and the sun and our Milky Way galaxy-- to the primordial flaring forth of the Big Bang billions of years ago.

Once we "get" that big picture, it also becomes clear that our participation on the personal and cultural level of the process is no less creative than was the emergence of multicellular animals or the development of photosynthesis by plants at an earlier stage of the process.

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That creativity, which simply means "making something new," is the very essence of the cosmic process at every level of matter, life and mind.

The world isn't static and unchanging, as our grandparents and great-grandparents, and many generations before them, thought it was. Today, we need words like "complexity" and "emergence" to be clear about this idea of creativity.

We also need to see that it's not just scientific discoveries or medical advances that are creative. And that creativity isn't limited, as was once thought, to literature or music. The "creative arts" include anything and everything we humans do to make the world better.

When we see that big picture, we can even get a better sense of what "better" means! By looking at the direction of the evolutionary process, we can see the kinds of goals it values.

From every observation of the real world by anyone willing to observe it, as well as from modern science, we can see that the cosmic process values persons. It values personal relationships and community-- indeed, the whole cosmic community of "all our relations."

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So, working for improved health care for everyone is a creative activity. 
So is saving a forest or an island in the river from urban development. So, too, are our everyday efforts at recycling: taking out the trash is a creative contribution to the evolution of the universe.

But our lives are creative every time we come up with a new way to do something.

Creativity is highly personal as well as communal: it can be a more efficient way to sweep the kitchen floor, a new way to grow marigolds, a better way catch a baseball. For me, it can be an improvement in how I express my appreciation for someone, my attempts to learn how to communicate by way of iPhone and Facebook as well as by e-mail, my efforts to share my thoughts about the convergence of science and religion in a blog.

Whenever we do anything that contributes to the goals of the evolutionary process... whenever we encourage the growth and development of a young person... whenever we promote relationships, community, ecological sustainability, racial equality and social justice... whenever we do anything to help make the world better, we are creatively participating in the evolution of the universe.

Perhaps most important, however, is the thought that we especially contribute to the creative process whenever we take personal delight in anything: whenever we give our unique and personal "yes" to the cosmic process and all that it has produced. No one else, ever-- in the fourteen-billion-year history of the universe's evolution-- can do that.

So in the long run, just being alive and self-aware is "exactly how" we contribute to the creative process: by simply trying to be ourselves by our efforts to be who-and-what the evolutionary process-- via our genes and cultural background-- calls us to be. Our unique creative contribution to the evolution of the universe is ourselves.

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Arlene's other big question has to do with the connections between creativity and ritual.

In my post on Ritual's Biological Roots (#64), I said that ritual is humanity's age-old means for being empowered to participate in the cosmic process. Arlene asks, "Does this actually mean that we are creatively participating in evolution when we perform a ritual?"

"Well, yes, but don't limit creativity to ritual activity," is my response. 

As I was saying above, everything we do can be creative participation in the world's evolution.

Where, then, does ritual come in? It's the means we have for being personally empowered to participate creatively in the evolution of the universe. We can personally attune ourselves to the cosmic process-- we can become personally aligned with it-- via ritual.

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Our participation in ritual does this is by letting us shift our awareness. It lets us move away from being conscious by only the rational function of the mind-- the one which the scientific rationalism of an earlier age mistakenly thought our minds are limited to.

As I've repeatedly described in these posts, the human psyche is quaternary. It can function in four distinctly different ways. Rational cause-and-effect thinking is only one of them.

(Readers who are new to these ideas might want to look at some of my earlier posts where I've described this quaternary perspective. I've used Native American and Wicca imagery, for example, as well as Jungian terminology, Karl Rahner's experiential descriptions, and the especially rich expression of them found in the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible.)

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By letting us shift gears away from the usual focus of our minds on details and cause-and-effect thinking, ritual allows us to enter into the experience of our openness and relatedness to all that is.

As I said in the post on Ritual's Psychological Roots (#65), "although each of us is the universe become conscious of itself, there is also much about which we remain unconscious. The unconscious psyche is the entire universe within us which has yet to become conscious as us."

It's something like dark matter. We don't have any direct experience of most of the material of the universe, but we know it must exist. Astrophysicists say it something like 96% of the physical-material universe! In the same way, we know from a scientific perspective that we are unconscious of most of the patterns by which the cosmic process operates.

In ritual we activate the mind's Intuition function, linking our consciousness and the unconscious psyche. It's the bridge between our personal awareness and all else. It gives us access to the archetypal patterns and rhythms of the cosmic process which are within us but about which we remain mostly unconscious.

Ritual allows us to shift our minds to those conscious functions other than sensing and reasoning, so that we can become more perceptive of the whole picture and more aware of our relatedness to all reality.

And it's this openness to the archetypal patterns of the cosmic process that empowers us to be creative. When we are aligned with the creative process, we can make new things and do old things in new ways precisely because that's what the universe does.

I think what makes ritual seem so odd from a rationalist perspective is that in ritual we do things that have no practical purpose, and yet we get great benefit from them. I hope to describe some of those "useless" 
activities in a future post.

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When Arlene says about all this that "It’s such a new thought, so exciting and welcome, that it’s almost hard to believe," she is expressing precisely the essence of the excitement the new cosmology generates when people "get it."

It's truly a world-transformation awareness. And more and more people daily are, in fact, "getting it." We really are on the verge of a new, different and better world. And our human drive-- our urge or inclination or impulse-- to religious ritual has a significant place in it.

My thanks to Arlene for asking such good questions!


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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.