Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#94. Religion "At Its Best"



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This post now contains all three parts which were originally published separately.

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"There's more to religion than it seems."

I've made that statement many times during my years as a teacher. And in the home-stretch reflections that I described in the previous post (#93) about my nearly five-year-long blog-writing effort, I discovered that what stands out most for me is the inadequacy I feel with regard to sharing my thoughts about that "more."


So in this post I'm going to try say, as well as I can, what I mean by "Religion 'At Its Best'."

The very fact that there is a "more"-- an inner core of wisdom at the depths of Western culture's Judeo-Christian tradition-- is difficult for many of us to realize. It's difficult because it's precisely that "best" that got lost.

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Religion's "best" was replaced by body-soul and matter-spirit dualism-- the basic outlook of patriarchal culture and classical philosophy-- which has dominated western culture and religion for many centuries.

I'm aware that I am more personally attuned than many, apparently, to that kind of depth awareness often called "right brain" or "intuitive" perception. But still I have to say that I'm continually amazed that the very fact that there is a "more" to religion-- more than the static dualism of rational empiricism-- remains for the most part unknown to the general public.

The "more" is still there. That inner core of wisdom is preserved in the rituals, customs, art and music, creeds, feasts and seasons of the Western religious tradition. But it's precisely the significance of such things that rational empiricism can't see because of its position at the bottom rung of the Great Ladder.

We need to move up the ladder. It's only when we make use of our intuitive rationality that we can recognize the "more" of the Judeo-Christian tradition and can enter into an experience of that inner core of wisdom which is our Western culture's religion "at its best."

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I have referred repeatedly in these posts to the four-fold way our minds work-- the fact that we don't just think sequentially and we don't just perceive our existence in terms of its surface details. We can, in fact, be aware of our connections with everything; and we can, in fact, see the whole picture-- the big picture of how the world works and how our lives fit into it.

Even though the Judeo-Christian tradition originally gave the world its evolutionary viewpoint, the dynamic and unitive perspective at the base of Western religion was gradually replaced by the static-dualistic outlook of classical philosophy. For many in our patriarchal culture, the word "religion" still means only that world-rejecting outlook of patriarchy's static dualism.

So if we are to get to the heart of our Western religious tradition, we need to move higher up the ladder; we need to see the world, and ourselves in it, from the dynamic and unitive perspectives.

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Everybody know what "dynamic" means in contrast to "static," but hardly anyone is comfortable with either "unitive" or its opposite, "dualistic."

Nowadays, our world is changing so fast that no one any longer thinks that "there's nothing new under the sun." Indeed, we know now that the world has never not been undergoing great changes. We know from science that over billions of years galaxies, planets and the stars have evolved; that on Earth living matter has emerged from the dust of the stars; and that we ourselves have developed from those earlier life forms.

But it's still a surprise to many to learn that that dynamic (emergent, evolutionary) worldview comes originally from our Western religious tradition, and that we even have a biblical name for the "energy" or "power" of the cosmic process: dynamis in Greek, spiritus in Latin.
Spiritus also means wind, air and life-breath; the holy spiritus we understand to be empowering the evolution of the universe is the same dynamis which gives each of us our life and breath and personal self-awareness.

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This dynamic perspective-- that we are not separate from the matter of the physical cosmos, nor from the Earth's biological life-forms, nor from the holy spiritus which empowers the evolution of the universe-- also helps us to understand what's meant by "unitive."

For most of us, it's an unfamiliar word. As the opposite of "dualistic," "unitive" refers both to our union with the natural world and to our union with the world's creative source.

And while "Big History"-- the big picture of the universe we have from contemporary science-- makes clear that we are indeed part of the natural world, we don't yet have something analogous to "Big History" which we might call "Big Religion." The most explicit contemporary perspectives available about our non-duality with the divine come from the unitive views of the Asian religious traditions.

While the spiritualities of Asia have remained more open than have those of the West to the sense of divine-human unity which goes back to Paleolithic times, in Western culture the unitive view was smothered by the static dualism of patriarchy. So the non-Western religious traditions such as Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism can help us recover the human-divine aspect of the unitive worldview.

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I've mentioned in several posts the twentieth-century religious thinker and British monk Bede Griffith. He not only makes the point well that science is helping religion recover its "inner core"; he even left England and went to live in India "to find," he said, "the other half of my soul."

Bede's words may sound confusing, but the unitive view is in fact two-fold, and we need to be especially clear here in thinking about it: there is a human-cosmos unity and a human-divine unity. We need both, if we are to recover the non-dual vision of cosmic-human-divine unity at the heart of the Western tradition.

But while help for seeing the cosmic-human view comes from science, and while the divine-human perspective is clearer with the help of Eastern spiritualities, that's not enough. It's the convergence of these two perspectives-- the cosmic-human from science and the divine-human from Asian religions-- that provides the context for us to enter into and to experience the inner core of wisdom at the depths of our own Judeo-Christian tradition.

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You may be thinking, "All that is just the context? What, then, about the content?"

Well, I have three Greek words which, in addition to "evolution," seem to me to be needed to spell out what I'm calling the Judeo-Christian tradition "at its best." They are eschaton, eucharist and ecclesia.

In the previous post I mentioned that if I were sharing these thoughts in an article for an academic journal, the essay would have a title something like "Evolutionary Eschatology and Eucharistic Ecclesiology."

That's quite a mouthful, but those are the words I have to work with! 

"Eschatology" is a deep-level comprehensive view of the purpose of our evolving universe, "Eucharistic" refers to our human response to that understanding, and "Ecclesiology" is concerned with the nature of the community of those who respond.

What holds all these ideas together is, as I see it, the modern understanding of person-- which, remarkably, is honored both in Western secular culture and by Western religion. In what follows, I will use each of these ideas-- eschaton, eucharist, ecclesia and person, all in the context of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution-- to do my best to spell out my understanding of religion at its best.

If you've been feeling that this post has been heavy-going so far, you're right. But you've got through the worst of it. And while the rest is relatively easy, it's long. So if you're reading it at one sitting, this is a good place to take a break.

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ESCHATON. Eschaton is our understanding of the world's end-purpose. 

In the old static context, "the end of the world" meant its annihilation-- "when God will come to judge the world by fire," in the words of the hymn sung at Catholic funerals for a thousand years.

In the dynamic context, we're not talking about the world's "end" in the sense of its annihilation, nor in the sense of the coming of the "Rapture" repeatedly announced by religious fundamentalists. In unitive (non-dualistic) terms, the world's "end" is its purpose: why it exists-- and why, of course, we exist.

If we are to appreciate our Western religious tradition "at its best," we need to understand the end-purpose of the world in terms of the tradition's own dynamic-unitive insights.

I noted back in post #20 that even those who promote the New Cosmology seem to shy away from this aspect of the Western tradition. 

But as I see it, no matter what we may call the divine creative power-- the ultimate, the numinous, the great Mystery-- we have a profound need to understand-- in terms of the Western tradition's own evolutionary and unitive context-- the tradition's insights into the creative source's purpose.

And this is one area where the rational empiricism of science isn't of help. We simply can't see the "end" or "purpose" of anything-- let alone the purpose of everything-- from the bottom rung of the great ladder. 

Our Sensing function's focus on details just isn't good enough. We need to use our mind's Intuitive ability if we are to see the biggest of all Big Pictures: why there is anything, rather than nothing.

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In writing this blog over the last four-and-a-half years I've worked hard to spell out my understanding of modern Western culture's upward movement to this higher rung of the great ladder-- where we can, in fact, see the Big Picture.

I focused on that cultural transition especially in post #80, where I described the mid-20th-century efforts of the "two mavericks"-- depth psychologist C. G. Jung and atomic physicist Wolfgang Pauli-- to accept and express their understanding of our mind's intuitive capacity in the face of several centuries of its neglect and denial by Western science's empirical rationality.

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In the science of cultural anthropology, any social group's response to the basic human need to understand "our place in the vast scheme of things" is called its cosmology. The "New Cosmology" is new precisely because it replaces Western culture's previous static cosmology. And as 

I've mentioned frequently, in that older dualistic religious perspective we were told that our purpose was to escape from the world.

We can now see, however-- thanks to the evolutionary worldview of modern science-- that we do in fact have a place in the evolving cosmos. And it's this insight which allows us to recover the older inner core of wisdom-- that "more"-- that I've been calling the West's religious tradition "at its best."

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I've noted many times that the very idea of evolution comes originally from the Judeo-Christian tradition. And that to this day, the perspective of an on-going emergence of newness-- imaged traditionally in terms of Exodus, Passover and new life arising in Spring-- remains an essential aspect of its inner core of wisdom. When we think in terms of transformation, we can see that it's not an exaggeration to say that evolution is what Western religion is all about.

Christianity sees this transformation process at the heart of the cosmos as a manifestation and embodiment of the divine source. We even have familiar words for this understanding: "epiphany" and "incarnation." But it is precisely the deeper meaning of those terms which got lost when patriarchy's static dualism replaced the earlier dynamic perspective.

In that patriarchal context, the meaning of "incarnation" came to be limited to one time, one place and one person. As its broader meaning was lost over the centuries, that limited understanding came to be taken for granted and, eventually, it was presumed to be the very basis of Western religion.

But as we recover the earlier dynamic-unitive perspectives at the inner core of the tradition, the entire evolutionary process can once again be recognized as the incarnation of the creative source of the cosmos. We can see, in that evolutionary context, that the embodiment of divine creativity is happening always and everywhere-- and that it excludes nothing and no one.

Here are some examples of this understanding, from three profound 20th-century religious thinkers:

Karl Rahner says, "The Mystery is always and everywhere giving itself to us." It is "always and everywhere making itself known to us."

Sergius Bulgakov calls the cosmic process the "actualization of the divine potentialities."

Raimundo Panikkar-- in his demanding but significant language-- names what's being embodied "the cosmo-the-andric unity." The union of the cosmic (cosmos), the divine (theos), and the human (andros) is what's being manifest by the cosmic process.

Rahner was a German Catholic and Bulgakov was Russian Orthodox. Panikkar had a Spanish mother, an Asian Indian father, and he described himself as "Catholic when I'm in Rome, Hindu when I'm in India, Buddhist when I'm in China."

Each of these profound religious thinkers, with their highly varied cultural backgrounds, is expressing-- in the dynamic-unitive perspectives available to us from modern science-- the same inner core of wisdom at the heart of the tradition. And that is "religion at its best."

My whole point here is that the "more" isn't new. Rahner, Bulgakov and Panikkar are saying exactly what the New Testament's Second Epistle of Peter proclaims, for example, when the apostle says that we are called to be "partakers in the divine nature." That "more" is expressed even more dynamically in Paul's letter to the Ephesians where he describes the end-purpose of all things to be "the fullness of God in everything."

It is a great gift that, in our time, thanks to science, we can understand once again this dynamic and unitive understanding of eschaton as the embodiment of the divine-human-cosmic unity, "God all-in-all."

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EUCHARIST. Gratefulness is the normal response to anything we experience as a gift, and clearly this deep comprehension of the eschaton evokes in us a very deep response.

To this day, Jewish tradition preserves this fundamental human response to the dynamic world in words of thanks-giving over bread and wine. The early Christians continued this form of grateful response when they gathered in homes on the first day of the week in remembrance of Jesus; and this tradition, too, is still continued daily throughout the world.

But just as with the dynamic understanding of eschaton, the evolutionary meaning of eucharist was lost when the static-dualistic-- patriarchal-- view replaced the earlier Judeo-Christian perspective. But also as with eschaton, the shift in our day away from the static perspective to a recovery of the older dynamic understanding is happening with regard to eucharist as well.

I wrote about the recovery of the dynamic view of eucharist in two recent posts. In post #91 (Evolution and the Passover Seder), I described how the seder's central act of thanks-giving is an explicit response to the evolutionary worldview which originated in the historical Exodus from Egypt.

And I wrote about the unitive meaning of eucharist-- our cosmo-the-andric union with all things-- in post #92 (Evolution and Holy Communion).

I don't feel the need to repeat those thoughts here. But I do want to note just how different was the original dynamic understanding of the eucharist from its later static meaning. In the same way that eschaton in the dualistic worldview came to mean not the fulfillment but the annihilation of the world, so eucharist in the dualist context came to refer not to an activity by a group of persons, but to an object. A sacred object, surely, but an other-worldly sacred object.

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You may be expecting me to say that a similar process happened with regard to ecclesia, the third of the Greek terms needed for understanding Western religion at its best. You are right, again!

Of those three terms, ecclesia is by far the most difficult to understand from the dynamic-unitive perspective. This is not, however, because the meaning of ecclesia is difficult to understand in itself-- it isn't-- but because patriarchy continues to dominate the (essentially unconscious) perspectives of the Western religious tradition's own self-understanding.

That self-understanding is what the following section is all about. It's challenging material in that it requires time and effort to work through it well, so if you are reading this post in one sitting, you might want to take another break.

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ECCLESIA. We don't have a English equivalent for the Greek word eucharist, but the English equivalent of ecclesia is, of course, "church." 

It comes from an Old English word, kirk, which simply means "assembly" or "gathering"-- just as the Greek ecclesia does.

Probably the best contemporary translation of ecclesia is "community"-- not in the sense of a geographic or genetic group, but in the sense of a gathering of persons who intentionally get together for a specific purpose.

In the New Testament, eucharist was the name for an action, what the early Christians did when they gathered; ecclesia was their name for themselves when they got together to do it.

As the perspectives of static dualism took over, however, "church" lost its meaning as community and eventually acquired the patriarchal meaning it has today: a hierarchical institution or sociological establishment, often top-heavy with authority. And as it's commonly used nowadays, especially by journalists and media people, "the Church" has come to mean only those authorities.

This patriarchal, static and dualistic understanding of ecclesia obviously does not represent our religious tradition at its best.

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But just as with eucharist and eschaton, the modern evolutionary perspective helps us in recovering the original-- dynamic and unitive-- meaning of ecclesia. It does takes some effort, however.

We know from contemporary science-- and specifically from the study of complexity theory-- that the 14-billon-year evolutionary process has been continually characterized by the emergence of new levels of self-organization.

We know that stars can produce chemical elements, that some of those elements can combine to form living cells, and that some cells unite to form the kind of brain and nervous system which is needed for the emergence of our uniquely human self-reflective awareness.

That's a greatly simplified summary of the idea of emergence in the evolutionary process, but I think it's good enough to make fairly clear that the natural next step-- beyond atoms and molecules, life-forms and personal consciousness-- would be those groups and gatherings of persons we call "communities."

It's in this context of evolutionary emergence that we can better understand the ecclesia as a community rather than as a patriarchal and hierarchical institution.

In the Western religious tradition at its best, what characterizes the ecclesia is its self-understanding precisely as a community of those who gather to give thanks. Just as in the evolutionary context we can better understand the meaning eucharist in terms of eschaton, so in that came context we can better understand the meaning of ecclesia in terms of eucharist.

A fancy way to summarize these confusing-sounding thoughts is to say that "as eschatology is evolutionary, so ecclesiology is eucharistic." (That's where my imaginary academic title for this post-- "Evolutionary Eschatology and Eucharistic Ecclesiology"-- comes from.)

But those fancy words aren't helpful. In fact, they get in the way of our entering into the deeper meaning of the insights they are attempting to express.

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For me, the two religious thinkers who are most helpful for an understanding of the meanings of eschaton, eucharist and ecclesia in the context of evolution are Alexander Schmemann and Thomas Berry.

I quoted both of these profound religious thinkers in recent posts: #90 ("Returning" the World...) and #87 (Stardust's Imperative). If you haven't read those posts, I hope you will. Here's a very brief summary of some of their main thoughts.

Both Berry and Schmemann begin with the primary evolutionary insight that, in Berry's words, "persons are a cosmic phenomenon," and that it's this cosmic perspective-- that we are "the evolutionary process come to self-awareness"-- that allows us to see "our proper role in the universe."

Each describes "our place in the vast scheme of things" with quite different words, but with remarkably similar meanings.

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Alexander Schmemann speaks in a more traditional and liturgical language. "Our primary role in the cosmos is to be priest," he says. The "first, the basic definition of humanity, is that a person is a priest." And it is the "only natural reaction of humanity, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, to bless God in return."

Returning the world to God in thanks, says Schmemann, is "our common task." Because we are "the world become conscious of itself," we humans are its "spokespersons." We speak as the world and for the world. In Schmemann's words, "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 wonderfully Teilhardian sentence in summary of these thoughts he 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."

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Thomas Berry's words sound much less traditional, but his meanings are very much the same. Here too, we humans are understood to speak as the world and for the world. It's easy to overlook, but Berry even uses the word "return," just as Schmemann does, in describing our cosmic role. We are "to return the universe to itself and to its numinous origins," he says. And we "return" the world to its source by returning the world to itself.

Berry is especially strong in his emphasis on our need to recognize that "community" is the very goal and purpose of the cosmic process. Eschaton and ecclesia come together in Berry's words when he says, quite explicitly, that "the ultimate community is the whole universe together."

Understood in this way, we can see that ecclesia includes everything: no one and nothing is outside the cosmic process of divine incarnation. 

This-- obviously-- is an understanding of ecclesia utterly unlike the conventional understanding of "church" as an authoritarian patriarchal institution.

And when we do see ecclesia in this way-- as the ultimate community, the whole universe together-- then "church" is simply another way of expressing the meaning of eschaton, as God all-in-all and the fullness of God in everything.

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You may be thinking the meanings of these Greek words are starting to overlap. They are!

Our rational, right-brain, linear Thinking ability just isn't able to produce the words and concepts well enough to express these profound, deeper-than-rational, left-brain intuitions. The religious tradition itself offers an outstanding example of this fact about the limitation of our rational-only minds: since New Testament times, the underlying realities referred to by the words eucharist, ecclesia and eschaton have all been given one same name.

The eschaton as the embodied cosmic community of the fullness of God in everything, excluding nothing... the eucharist as humanity's deepest response of thanks-giving for the evolution of the universe as the manifestation of the divine-comic-unity... the ecclesia as the community gathered around bread and wine in thanks for this divine incarnation of God all-in-all, and for our participation in it-- all of these profound realities are traditionally called the Corpus Christi.

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These are deep thoughts. It's not easy to wrap our minds around them. 

And yet they are in fact what Western religion is all about "at its best."

For me, what holds them all together is the centrality of person. In the convergent perspective-- where eschaton, eucharist and ecclesia are understood within the context of cosmic-biological-cultural evolution-- what stands out most for me is our personal uniqueness.

We are unique from the moment of our conception. The chance that anyone else might have the exact same DNA is said to be one in 10, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000.

We not only have our own inner world from the first moment of our existence, however. Our personal self-awareness is continually being modified by every life-experience. And once we reach the stage of self-reflective maturity, we add to it ourselves by our personal relationships and free choices.

And all of this-- the mystery that we are-- becomes our unique contribution to the Corpus Christi.

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So that's the "more" as I see it. In the simplest words I'm able to come up with: Each of us makes a difference with regard to the ultimate end of the world.

In my previous post about reviewing my almost five-year-long blog effort (#93, The Home Stretch), I said that what stood out most for me was the feeling of inadequacy I had with regard to doing a good-enough job in expressing my thoughts about the depths of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I think I've probably done as well in this present post as I'm going to be able to do. It's my best in sharing my thoughts about religion at its best. My thanks to you for staying with me through all these efforts!

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Your feedback is welcome.

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 them to me. Thanks.

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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sam, your phrase-- ongoing emergence of newness-- captures perfectly the whole idea of this evolutionary religious perspective. The Mystery always revealing itself to us -- contrary to the old adage: "There's nothing new under the sun." There is always something new. And we are part of it just by participating in life.

Kathleen

Anonymous said...

Vous avez de bons points il, c'est pourquoi j'aime toujours verifier votre blog, Il semble que vous etes un expert dans ce domaine. maintenir le bon travail, Mon ami recommander votre site.

Mon francais n'est pas tres bon, je suis de l'Allemagne.

Mon blog:
regroupement de credit et sos Rachat de Credit

Sam said...

A friend translated the recent French comment for me:

You have some good insights here, which is why I always look forward to reading your blog. It seems that you are an expert in this field. Keep up the good work. A friend recommended your site. My French isn't very good, because I am German.

A Mother of Identical Twins said...

There is one group that shares the same DNA -- identical twins. Because only one egg is fertilized and splits shortly after conception, they both end up with the same DNA.

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.