Monday, May 16, 2011

#92. Evolution & Holy Communion


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You are probably thinking the words "Evolution" and "Holy Communion" don't go together. I think they do, of course. In fact, I think that they go together better than any other two words I know. But I admit it's not obvious. So once again I ask for your patience. Thanks!



We know that the religions of the Western world-- Judaism and its two offshoots, Christianity and Islam-- greatly value human persons. The gospels specifically stress that offering the smallest bit of help to any human being is equivalent to directly serving the ultimate cause of the universe.

But what about Western science? As I see it, with its understanding of the place of the human community in the evolution of life on Earth, Western science greatly enhances Western religion's respect for persons.

But because of our culture's emphasis on "soul" as the essence of a human person, Western religion at times degenerated into a disdain for the human body. Following Greek philosophy, the people of the Western world envisioned the soul as something separate from the body-- and along with that disdain for the body came a disdain for the world of nature as well.

In the process-- and this is the first of the two main thoughts I want to share in this post-- the Christian tradition unfortunately lost a major perspective on its own central rite of thanksgiving.

It was unfortunate because the basic Judeo-Christian response to reality isn't disdain for the world but thanksgiving for it and for our lives in it.

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The second main thought I want to share is that the evolutionary worldview of the New Cosmology is helping us to recover that profound attitude of thanksgiving which is at the heart of our Western world's religious traditions.

A point easy to miss is that the Judeo-Christian rite of blessing God is not a thanksgiving for a static world-- as the creation was seen to be in the patriarchal perspective. The ritual blessing at the heart of Western religion is a giving thanks for the created world understood as an on-going dynamic process-- exactly the way modern science sees it.

And a key aspect of this dynamic perspective is that we humans now know ourselves to be expressions of the world evolved to the complex level of personal consciousness. We now recognize that we are one with all things and conscious participants in the cosmic process.

So the central Judeo-Christian rite of thanksgiving is not just a blessing of God for the world; it's also a giving thanks for our participation in the creative processes of the dynamic world.

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I think it's especially important to note that this recovery of humanity's awareness of its communion with the physical universe-- "its recognition of the divine presence dwelling and working in all persons and things," as a reader says in a comment on post #90-- parallels Western culture's present movement away from the patriarchal perspectives of past centuries.

It's clear enough that thanksgiving for our existence in the world and respect for human persons are not characteristics of patriarchal manhood. Indeed, we know that it is precisely the attitudes of patriarchy which are responsible for a great deal of contemporary damage to the environment and for the on-going exploitation of the Earth's people.

In contrast to the dualistic and destructive perspectives of static patriarchy, Hebrew thought, as it is expressed especially in the Wisdom tradition of the Bible, is dynamic and creative.

And the very idea of evolution-- the central idea of contemporary science-- comes originally from the experience of the early Hebrews in their Great Escape from Egypt. I described its annual celebration at the Passover seder in the previous post (#91).

In the evolutionary context of modern science we can see that the New Testament is in total continuity with that powerful biblical vision of an ongoing transfigured cosmos. We know that Jesus and his earliest followers were part of the Wisdom tradition and so were no less characterized by the dynamic view of creation still in process.

With their expectation of what Jesus called "the coming of the Kingdom," the early Christians met weekly in anticipation of the Reign of God and in thanksgiving for their participation in that ongoing renewal of creation.

My point here is that those weekly gatherings in memory of Jesus have remained a constant in the Christian tradition for two thousand years, although their evolutionary perspective was lost along the way.

And as strange as it may seem to some, modern science is helping us recover that dynamic religious worldview. As I see it, this recovery is a major aspect of the contemporary convergence of science and religion.

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One of the reasons why talk about the "convergence" of science and religion still sounds odd is that, especially in American society, religion is usually identified with behavior: how we act-- or how others think we should act. For many, "religion" means either private morality at the individual level or political and social ethics at the academic level.

But religion isn't about behavior, it's about experience.

Specifically, religion is about that kind of experience of the numinous in the natural world which Thomas Berry describes as "coming from so deep within us that it seems to come from outside us." As I noted in post #90, Berry emphasizes that this was the experience of our earliest human ancestors and that the capacity for it is still in our genes today.

We know that in all the world's spiritual traditions, the emphasis is first of all on experience, not morality. Ethical behavior, both personal and communal, follows, rather than precedes, religious experience. 

Matthew Fox expresses this understanding nicely in a recent interview. Religious experience, he says, "finds its full expression in service and work of justice-making and compassion."

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So why do the patriarchal religions of the West put so much emphasis on private behavior?

By definition, patriarchy wants-- and indeed, needs-- to be in control. 

And what easier way to control people than by making them feel guilty about their behavior? Especially by telling them that the purpose of their lives is to escape from body and world.

In contrast to patriarchal dualism, the dynamic religious perspective understands the purpose of our lives to be our conscious participation in the world's evolutionary development. And-- from astronomy and biology to neuro-science, depth psychology and cultural anthropology-- all the branches of contemporary science support that perspective.

Another way to say it is that religion, in the dynamic-evolutionary perspective, is first of all a response to the mystery of our own existence. I've quoted the words of Karl Rahner many times in this blog. He says that "the great question of our time is not whether God exists, but whether we willing to be sensitive and responsive to the mystery which is always and everywhere making itself known to us."
"Sensitive and responsive," says Rahner. Two things!

Modern science helps us to be sensitive. Thanks to the evolutionary perspective, we are more aware today than ever before of the dynamic cosmos from which we have emerged and with which we are so much a part that we recognize that "all things are our relations."

And religion helps us to be responsive. Our appreciation of the world and gratefulness for our existence in it is the very heart of the Judeo-Christian response to reality.

So, as strange as the name of this post may at first seem, I think "Evolution and Holy Communion" is exactly right for the thoughts I'm attempting to share here.

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When we think about it, making sense of the Christian Eucharist in an evolutionary worldview should be easy. In post #90 I described Thomas Berry's understanding of the cosmic task of humanity-- to "return the world to itself and to its numinous origins"-- and Alexander 

Schmemann's expression of that same idea-- that "our primary role in the cosmos is to be priest."

But the perspectives of the static-dualistic religious context get in the way of the deeper realities expressed by the ancient words like "communion" and "eucharist."

In that static worldview, the word "communion" referred not to an action but to an object. The Eucharist was the blessed bread which was "received" from the hands of others during a service but which otherwise was kept locked in a special container or sometimes displayed for adoration.

In contrast to that view of communion as something which was given to those who received it, in the evolutionary worldview-- which was that of the early Christians-- the Eucharist isn't a thing but an action. It is a communal activity, an action shared in common by the gathered community.

And as an action done by the whole community together, the Eucharist is a communal affirmation-- a saying "yes" to ourselves and to all things as expressions of the Mystery of God. It is especially a recognition of ourselves as empowered by the energy of the dynamic holy Spiritus to carry out our public work ("liturgia" in Greek) of co-creative participation in the cosmic process.

And it's here-- in our common task-- that morality and ethics come in. 

Although still understood conventionally in terms of patriarchal prohibitions ("don't do this, don't do that"), morality in fact is nothing less than our creative participation in the cosmic process at the human level. Compassion and justice-making, as Matthew Fox says, are the kinds of behavior that follow from the fact that we are in communion with all things.

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In past ages, this basic understanding of the Christian Eucharist as a cosmic thanksgiving and as a rite of communal empowerment for participation in global humanity's cultural development became "eclipsed," as some religious thinkers politely put it. It was lost.

But it's being recovered. And the story of its recovery is a fascinating part of Western culture's history. Historically, the recovery of the dynamic understanding of Eucharist first emerged in a few monasteries in Europe sometime in the late 1800s.

What's especially fascinating is that this was just around the same time that Darwin's Origin of Species was becoming known to the general public.

While today everyone knows the name of Charles Darwin, almost no one-- yet!-- recognizes the names of religious researchers such as Odo Casel among Catholics, Gregory Dix among Anglicans and Nicholas Afanassiev among Eastern Orthodox. All of these thinkers were early contributors to the recovery of the dynamic understanding of the Eucharist.

It's only because of my personal life-long interest in both science and religion-- and specifically, in cosmic evolution and religious ritual-- that I'm aware of those late 19th- and early 20th- century religious thinkers.

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But I don't think it's just a coincidence that this recovery of the dynamic understanding of the Eucharist began around the same time that humanity was becoming more conscious of the evolutionary worldview of modern science.

From a long-range point of view, we can see that the same dynamic energy of the evolutionary process operating at the cosmic and biological levels is also empowering the process at the level of humanity's cultural development.

And while Western religion saw the dynamic process first, and called it "passover" and "transfiguration" and "new creation"-- and understood it to be empowered by the holy spiritus-- in our day Western science converges with this in-depth religious understanding of our place in the cosmos.

This convergence doesn't seem at all to be a coincidence. It seems to me to be a perfectly clear example of the Evolutionary Spiritus at work in human self-awareness as part of the evolutionary process taking place on our planet at the level of human culture.

And to put these thoughts in a very big picture, I don't doubt that a similar process is taking place on other planets in the cosmos where personal awareness has emerged. We can expect that the same kind of cultural development is being called forth elsewhere by that same dynamic Energy (urge, impetus, drive, holy spiritus) which has been behind the unfolding of the universe for the last 14 billion years.

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One final thought. Nothing of the more conventional understanding of the Eucharist is negated by seeing those teachings in the broader perspectives we have today as a result of both scientific and theological research.

There are no contradictions. Indeed, there is much enrichment!

Just as what's meant in the evolutionary context by "Holy Spirit" is precisely the divine life-force, the energy empowering the cosmic process, so it's equally clear that what's meant by "Holy Communion" in the evolutionary context is our union with all things in the created world and with the ultimate mystery of which we and they together are the epiphany.

Our contemporary context of cosmic-biological-cultural evolution was unavailable to the early followers of Jesus. We can see more easily today that the main point of the weekly gathering (ekklesia) by those early Christians is conscious awareness of and thanksgiving (eucharist) for humanity's place and role in the world.

The view of the world as cosmic process-- the evolution of material complexity and the emergence of personal awareness-- is the essence of the scientific view of reality. And communal thanksgiving for that dynamic reality as it is now revealed to us by science is the essence of the Judeo-Christian response to it.

So, as I see it, Western science and Western religion converge not just 
in greatly valuing human persons but in their awareness as well of humanity's communion with all things.

And what else can that be called other than a holy communion?

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P.S. Our communion "with the divine presence dwelling and working in all persons and things of the physical universe" has nothing about it of the sentimentality associated, for example, with having children dressed up in white clothing for their first holy communion.

On the morning after the announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the prophetic Shalom Center in Philadelphia, whom I've mentioned in several previous posts (#47 and #51), sent a note which helps us to see just how challenging it is to understand Holy Communion in its own native-- evolutionary-- context.
Rabbi Arthur begins: "How do we address the death of a mass murderer?"

He observes that in the commentaries on the story of the Passover and its celebration at the Seder, the rabbinical tradition says that God did not rebuke Moses and the children of Israel for singing and dancing when Pharaoh and his soldiers were drowned in the sea. But when the angels began to dance and sing as well, God rebuked them: "These also are the work of My hands. We must not rejoice at their deaths!"

He also notes that at the Passover Seder "we spill wine from our cups as we mention each plague, lest we drink that wine to celebrate these disasters that befell our oppressors."

"The legend," says Rabbi Arthur, "is not addressed to angels but to our higher selves."

We see just how challenging is the Judeo-Christian understanding of thanksgiving and of our communion with all things when we understand that our higher selves-- our deeper, truer, more inclusive selves-- may not rejoice in the death of any creature.

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Special note: In dealing with 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.

Special request: I've completely lost the comments for posts #84 to #89. If you happen to have copied any of them, please send a copy back to me. Thanks.

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3 comments:

Mary Coelho said...

Hi Sam: Your linking of communion and evolution seems to me to be right on target. That link is a central revelation of the new story.

I like very much your quote from Thomas Berry about experience "coming from so deep within us that it seems to come from outside us." That is very important.

Kathleen said...

Once again you have deepened our understanding of an age-old concept-- this time of "communion." It has taken on some serious distortions along the way.

How good to be brought back to the simplest, most fundamental and enriching foundations of our (faith? no!) our REALITY. Thanks, Sam.

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.