Saturday, April 2, 2011

#90. "Returning" the World...

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This post is a bit longer than most, and a lot deeper, so I've put it into three parts. They follow one another sequentially but can be read separately. Much to think about!

Part 1. "Your recent blog is great," says reader Mary Coelho. "It is a most important topic and very well written. I can't say I quite get [Thomas Berry's comment] that our common task is 'to return the universe to itself and to its numinous origins'."

Mary's comment on post #87 (Stardust's Imperative: Reinterpretation) was echoed by other readers, so in this post I want to share my thoughts about what Berry means by "returning" the world. It's not only an important concept in itself. The distinction Berry makes between returning the world to its numinous source and to itself is also especially helpful in clarifying the nature of the "new mode of religious understanding" we have today thanks to the evolutionary world view of modern science.


What Berry means by "returning the world" makes sense to me because one of my all-time favorite religious thinkers, Alexander Schmemann, says something very similar. It's in the opening chapter of his popular and influential book on Christian faith understood from a liturgical perspective, For the Life of the World, Sacraments and Orthodoxy.

His book was originally prepared as a study guide for the National Student Christian Federation in 1963. It has been translated into eleven languages and even had an anonymous version published by the underground samizdat in the Soviet Union.

Because in the last 50 years we have become highly sensitive to the use of "man" for human and "He" for God, I've edited Schmemann's words slightly; it's important that what's now seen as sexist language doesn't get in the way of what Schmemann has to say about our "common task." I think it provides us with a very clear understanding of what Berry is saying.


Schmemann begins by talking about the story in the first book of the Bible where God gives Adam the job of naming the animals. "To name a thing," say Schmemann, "is to manifest the meaning and value God gave it, to know it as coming from God and to know its place and function within the cosmos created by God."

"To name a thing," he continues, "is to bless God for it and in it." He emphasizes that in the biblical view, "to bless God is not a 'religious' or a 'cultic' act, but the very way of life."

Because "God blessed the world, blessed humanity, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and made all this 'very good,' the "only natural (and not 'supernatural') reaction of humanity, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank God, to see the world as God sees it and-- in this act of gratitude and adoration-- to know, name and possess the world."

Schmemann also notes that "this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes humanity's life" is what distinguishes human persons from other creatures, so that the "first, the basic definition of humanity is that a person is a priest."


Fifty years ago Schmemann's readers would not have been as uncomfortable with his word "priest" as many would be today. It has become a patriarchal term-- distinguishing privileged males (for the most part) from the rest of us. But as I see it, describing person as priest is a way of saying that we are to be the world's "spokesperson." 

We speak as the world and for the world. We "return" the world to its source by returning the world to itself.

Here's how Schmemann puts it: "We stand in the center of the world and unify it in our act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God." And "by filling the world with this eucharist," he adds, "we transform our life."

In a phase that might well have been written by Teilhard de Chardin, Schmemann says, "The world was created as the 'matter,' the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and humanity was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament."


Here are Thomas Berry's words again: "Persons are a cosmic phenomenon-- both a part of the process and also the process itself come to self-awareness." And it's in this cosmic perspective, says Berry, that we can see our proper role in the universe; it allows us to see what persons are "for." We can see that our role (our job, our common task) is "to return the universe to itself and to its numinous origins."

It's only in light of the stages of the emergent evolutionary process that we can recognize ourselves as living matter become conscious and self-reflectively aware. And it's by this self-awareness, this knowing and experiencing ourselves as "the universe become conscious of itself," that we thereby "return" the world to itself.

And as the universe become conscious of itself, we are also the cosmos become conscious of its origins. That awareness isn't merely logical but relational: we are aware via both our Thinking and our Feeling functions of the world's numinous source, so that we can't help but express an appreciation and gratefulness. And, as Schmemann emphasizes, our gratitude is not a "religious" or a "cultic" act but a fundamentally human response to reality.


Part 2. There's an interesting parallel between Berry's words about "returning world to its itself and its source" and the two types of intense religious experience described by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg in his new book Principles of Neurotheology.

Newberg is currently Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia; he recently moved there to devote full time to his work on the neurological understanding religious experience.

In his book's Chapter 7, “Physiological and Phenomenological Correlates of Spiritual Practices,” Newberg notes that with regard to especially intense religious experiences, there is already considerable agreement by scholars on five of their seven main characteristics.

When studied "cross culturally" (in numerous individuals and spiritual traditions), the universally accepted characteristics of "peak" religious experiences include a sense of being in touch with the deepest aspects of objective reality-- although, paradoxically, the experience can't be put into words easily or at all. And they are usually described as being experiences of the "holy" and "sacred" which are accompanied by feelings of "blessedness" and "peace." Intense religious experiences everywhere have these common characteristics.

But, says Newberg, there also are two commonly observed characteristics which have different forms. To greatly over-simplify, one form is more abstract and introvert-like: the experience of a non-temporal and non-spatial pure consciousness. It is often referred to in the various spiritual traditions as "the One" or "the Void." The other type is more grounded and extravert-like: a "more concrete apprehension of the One in all things," says Newberg, "a unifying vision of the unity of all things."

While Newberg is interested in understanding the significant difference between these two types of religious experience in terms of the workings of the human brain, my concern here is understanding the difference in terms of its connection with Thomas Berry's words about our human task of returning the world to itself and its source.


In a happy coincidence, a friend recently passed on to me an extensive article from the periodical Spiritus (Fall, 2005) by priest-theologian John McGuckin about the 10th-century Byzantine saint, Symeon the New Theologian. (I mentioned St. Symeon briefly in posts #56 & #57.)

The article has a formidable title: “Symeon the New Theologian’s Hymns of Divine Eros: A Neglected Masterpiece of the Christian Mystical Tradition.” But to my delight, I found the same distinction contemporary scholars make about the two different forms of intense religious experience was also made by Symeon the New Theologian a thousand years ago.

John McGuckin says that it is only in the 20th century that it can be seen just how remarkable Symeon's vision is: "His combination of a stress on the light-filled radiance of the divine vision, with a need for the conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit, marks him out as synthesizer of two great currents of spiritual thought."

The first of these two great currents are described by McGuckin as "the spirituality of light flowing from the school of Origen," while the other comes "from the Syrian school which emphasized the sensibility of the Spirit in the heart."

McGuckin also notes that, in his distinction between the Vision of Light and the Action of the Holy Spirit, Symeon surpassed his teachers and his sources "as only a man who speaks directly from experience can manage to do."


Those who know me know that a major aspect of my own personality type is to continually look for patterns. It seems to me that the two types of intense religious experience distinguished by neuroscientist Newberg and other authors-- and "confirmed," so to speak, by Symeon the New Theologian, as well-- can also be understood as expressions of 

Thomas Berry's distinction between returning the world to itself and returning the world to its numinous source.

It seems to me that this action of "returning the world to God" would come from the kind of peak experience which has to do with experiencing the world's numinous source as the Ultimate, the One, Pure Consciousness-- Symeon's Vision of Light.

In contrast, "returning the world to itself" is related to the experience of what Symeon calls the "action of the Holy Spirit" operating within us. 

And this second kind of religious experience seems to me to be especially appropriate to the dynamic world view of the new, evolutionary, cosmology.


I realize, of course, that just as many today would not be comfortable with having their cosmic role described as that of "priest," so, too, many today-- even persons who might often use the name "Holy Spirit" in prayers-- would not be comfortable with the thought that talking about the Holy Spirit operating within us is a good way of understanding the energizing force behind the evolutionary process.

And yet that is exactly what "Holy Spirit" means. In the very first verses of the Bible it is this divine spiritus which is said to move across the face of the waters and bring the world into being. Words like "Cosmic Spiritus" and "Evolutionary Spirit" are accurate names for the Divine Energy, the Dynamis of God, that is the driving force of the evolutionary process. In the static context of the pre-evolutionary world view, it's just not so obvious.

So it's the second type of peak experience-- the one Newberg describes as a "more concrete apprehension of the One in everything, a unifying vision of the unity of all things," and in which the numinous source is experienced not as being outside time and space but as operating within the material and living world, including our own minds and hearts-- which seems to be especially appropriate for our new evolutionary cosmology.
Part 3. In a nutshell, "returning the world to itself" simply wasn't part of Western religion's dualistic perspective. The focus of dualism is escape from the world.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition at its best, however, the emphasis definitely has been on what in Berry's terms we call "returning the world to its source" and in Schmemann's terms "blessing God." "It is right to give God thanks and praise," say all the ancient churches' liturgical texts at the start of their central prayer which they still called "the Thanks-giving."

We know, too, that the early Christians saw themselves as spokespersons for the whole of humanity. But without the evolutionary perspectives of modern science they could not have seen themselves, any more than anyone else could have 2,000 years ago, as spokespersons for the entire universe. Even what they would have meant by "universe" was a static world, billions of times smaller and far younger than the dynamic cosmos we know today.

It's only with the 19th- and 20th-century advances in astronomy, geology, biology-- and especially in the human sciences of anthropology and neurology-- that we can know ourselves as the evolutionary cosmos-become-conscious-of-itself and thus as spokespersons-- priests, in Schmemann's words-- for the entire physical universe.


Today, we can be much more aware of the divine dynamis as the "unity within all things," as Newberg expresses it, and as the Spiritus operating within each of us, as St. Symeon describes it.

And with that awareness we can have a much better sense of our divinely-given task of "returning the world to itself." We do in fact have, as Berry says, "a new mode of religious experience," and it is, indeed, thanks to science.

It's thanks to science that our awareness has shifted from stasis to dynamis: from a static world view to a dynamic-- evolutionary-- understanding of the world. And it's also thanks to science that our religious perspective has shifted: it now includes returning the world to itself along with returning the world in thanks and praise to "to its numinous origins."


But how do we actually return the world to itself? How do we cooperate with the action of the holy spiritus in our minds and hearts? I think the word needed here-- the word we need to add to "thanks and praise"-- is service.

Obviously "service" isn't something new to the Western world's religions-- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Nor is it new to any other of the Earth's spiritual traditions. But in the context of the New Cosmology "service" has, I think, a much more inclusive understanding than in the past.

Taking care of the world itself is a good example. Environmental concerns are understood today as no less significant from a religious perspective than were giving thanks and praise in earlier forms of spiritual practice. And to a great extent, the change has already happened.

But where does it come from?

Obviously it comes from the hearts and minds of persons attuned to the world's dynamic flow. While many, perhaps most individuals would not identify that dynamic flow in Judeo-Christian terms as St. Symeon's "action of the Holy Spirit within us," by whatever name that dynamic perspective is a major aspect of our new mode of religious understanding.


I have a good example, from an unexpected source. I often attend the monthly meetings of a special interest group on Spirituality, Religion and Health at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The recent speaker was the Rev. Daijaku Judith Kinst, a Buddhist priest in the Soto Zen tradition and a member of the core faculty of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA.

Her topic was "Educating Buddhist Chaplains and Teaching Chaplains About Buddhism." In her talk she noted that while Buddhism has been in the Western world for more than a century, it has especially grown and flourished in the last thirty to forty years.

During that time many thousands of Americans have taken the spiritual practices of Buddhism with great seriousness. And it's out of those decades of intense practice and spiritual experience that a movement has arisen among Buddhist practitioners to become hospital chaplains.
When persons practice meditation regularly over a period of time, the practice generates a strong desire (a need, thrust, urge-- Quakers would call it a "leading") to be of service. The Buddha himself taught that to alleviate suffering is a primary goal of spiritual life.

The path these Buddhist chaplains follow leads them to minister to Buddhist patients, of course, but more generally to be of help to anyone caught in human suffering and misery.


Daijaku Kinst also noted in her talk that it is one of the basic views of Buddhism that "everything is related." A physicist in the audience contributed this significant fact: "In physics," he said, "we call that 'quantum entanglement'."

My point in offering this example is that it would seem that in any tradition, the intense religious experience of the unity of all things can attune us to the dynamic energy of the cosmic process, and that the normal result of such sustained spiritual practice is to personally experience the inner drive to be of service.

"Redemptive sacrifice," in Thomas Berry's words, is how the universe works; so we can expect to experience the 'drive' to give ourselves in service, to help alleviate human misery.


To put these thoughts in the context I began this post with, the second form of "peak experience"-- Newberg's "experience of the unity of all things" and Symeon's "awareness of the action of the Holy Spirit in the heart"-- shows itself in our need to participate in the evolution of the universe by way of service.

In New Cosmology language, we return the universe to itself by incarnating-- embodying in the here and now-- what the universe is all about. And just as the more abstract experience of the Ultimate Mystery spills over in praise and thanks, so the more down-to-earth experience of the ultimate Unity of all things spills over into the desire to serve.

While that first kind of experience was common in pre-scientific times, the second seems to be, if not something new, at least something which is more obvious and clear in our day.


The Christian tradition preserves a wonderful expression of this cosmic drive to serve as something added to the natural desire to offer thanks and praise.

In the gospel stories of the Last Supper, the first three Gospels include the familiar words about Jesus giving thanks over bread and wine. But the fourth gospel leaves out that familiar scene and replaces it with a story of service:

While they were eating, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer garments, and wrapped a towel around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of his disciples.

John's Gospel was the last of the four to be written, and according to biblical scholars it seems to be especially concerned with the actual issues of the church-and-synagogue debate that was taking place at the time when that Gospel was written (about 90 CE).

As I see it, the substitution of the washing-of-the-feet story in John's gospel for the familiar blessing-over-bread-and-wine story found in the earlier gospels may in fact be an expression of an awareness into which the somewhat later Christian community had grown.

In any case, while Jesus' blessing of bread and wine is ritually re-enacted thousands of times daily all over our planet, a foot-washing ceremony is rare. I know some of the very early Protestant groups practiced it. And it's "on the books" of the liturgical churches for the Holy Thursday commemoration of the Lord's Supper-- at least of those denominations which follow the Roman traditions. But except in monasteries, it was ignored for centuries.

As we better understand (thanks to thinkers such as Andrew Newberg, Symeon the New Theologian, John McGuckin, Daijaku Judith Kinst and Alexander Schmemann) Thomas Berry's words about "returning the world to itself" as well as "returning to the world to its numinous origins," we might look for a recovery of the washing-of-the feet ritual.

Isn't that a delightful thought-- foot-washing as a ritual expression of our understanding of how we participate in the evolution of the universe!

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Anonymous said...

I don't comment often, but today I just have to say that imho this is your best blog post ever. You've gathered the ideas and themes you've been presenting in the previous entries into a coherent whole, helping me see the connections and make sense of it all. Much to ponder here....

Mary Coelho said...

Hi Sam: I have read "Returning" the World... " very carefully a couple of times. It is excellent and carefully and well thought out. Most impressive; congratulations. You have done a great deal of valuable work. I like all that you have put together. It occurred to me that you should consider submitting it as a stand-alone article to some journal. I like the care with which you develop both returning the world to its source and to itself.

I don't have much to add or to question except to ask if it would be the case that Trinitarian thought was an attempt to hold together the two types of experiences.

Sam said...

As usual, Mary has added a thought-provoking question!

A.P. said...

Sam-- Just a rambling, repetitious reaction to the richly provocative suggestion you made in the latest post, which triggered all sorts of Christian associations from past preaching.

Perhaps you hinted at the following connection by carefully suggesting the concept of "substitution" in John's Gospel, but I would be so bold as to claim explicitly that the foot washing episode is actually itself [meant to be?] Eucharistic, an image or example illustrating how a truly Eucharistic awareness would result in seeing, celebrating, and serving the divinity manifested in all matter (pan-en-theism; Spirit-bearing matter is the usual Orthodox formulation), but most obviously apparent in living matter, above all in humanity. Thus the imperative of Mt. 25 (Parable of the Last Judgment) becomes even more intelligible. The Eucharistic communal ritual simultaneously nourishes us with divinity to grow into, and reveals our own selves to be manifestations of "individuated divinity," becoming who we are.

The sacred meal can itself be regarded as pointing "pars pro toto": part--food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood--standing for the sacrificial and serving nature of the whole of reality, divine and therefore human, because we are images of divinity. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8), represented by the bread and wine, refers to divinity necessarily concealing itself in matter (kenosis) so that creation could take place (Kabalistic [Isaac Luria] and Sufi thought).

Eucharist is Thanksgiving for manifold blessings, among which is knowledge, awareness, or recognition of the divine presence dwelling and working in all persons and things. And the Eucharistic offering can be seen as an intimate "practice" or "rehearsal" for how we should regard and treat all of created reality: "returning" or uncovering or restoring it, by our "born again" perception and therefore actions, to the Kingdom of God, which in turn is gradually unfolding or revealing the divine presence within all individually (Lk. 17:21), and slowly "emerging" in matter through the evolutionary process. If we can perceive the divine as dwelling inherently even in food, in inanimate bread and wine, how much more should we perceive the divinity in each other (the latter seems to be the message of John's Last Supper foot washing narrative and Farewell Discourse, especially Jn. 17.). This realization, I believe, is what constitutes the radical, unitive, mystical vision in Alexander Schmemann's understanding of how the Eucharistic Liturgy can be a reflective foretaste, or, depending on one's degree of illumination--and sanctity--even the full realization of the Kingdom of God in this world and all of creation.

Sam said...

Several readers sent notes about foot-washing on Holy Thursday in parish churches. Here is one about the rite in a Jesuit university church in CA:

After the readings of the Mass, the President of the University and about 4 more Jesuits, remove their vestments down to the plain white albs, collect bowls and towels and dip water from a pool set up to the side. Everyone and anyone who wants of the congregation file to one of the 5 stations. Of the 250 or 300 present about 3/4s go up to get their feet washed. Since we sit on the steps to put shoes/socks back on, you can imagine how long that takes. People in line begin to chat quietly or sing with the choir who continued softly throughout. The atmosphere is like a long party. The priests bend or kneel while each person sits in a chair: many dirty feet cleaned, lots of smiling, Little is said other than the gospel story read beforehand & the invitation to come forward and remove shoes.

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.