Monday, May 5, 2008

#35. Aspects of the Immense Transition, Parts 1 & 2

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I've used the term "Immense Transition" many times in these postings. This seems to be a good time to share my understanding of it in some detail. I'm doing it in two parts because spelling it out in one post would be far too demanding of even the most good-willed readers.

It feels like a good time because, while there's a lot involved in trying to talk about the Immense Transition, I now have the tools to do a decent job with it. I'll make use of Karl Rahner's existential aspects of human experience which I described in post #34 (Talking about Us) and I'll draw on the Jungian functions of consciousness along with their Medicine Wheel images which I described in three recent posts: #29 (The Four-fold Mind), #30 (Ways Of Being Religious) and #31 (Integrating the Four Functions).

The main idea of the Immense Transition is that we-- global humanity, all the people of planet Earth-- are presently experiencing a change in our awareness of ourselves and the world which is as immense as anything which has occurred previously in all of human history.

As I've often noted, Teilhard de Chardin describes it as the biggest change in human consciousness since human consciousness first appeared on Earth several million years ago.

Although his church wrote him off, Teilhard knew what he was talking about. He envisioned the world-wide web many years before its technology became available. He called it the "noosphere,"  which he pictured as an interconnected thinking layer or web of consciousness surrounding the earth, just as there is a layer of water (the hydrosphere) and a layer of air (the atmosphere). "Noos" comes from gnosis, the Greek word for cognition or knowledge. (If we exchange the "g" and "k" we can easily see the identity of those words: gnowledge and knosis.)

A good way to summarize what the Immense Transition is all about is to say that it is the Earth's people's increasingly conscious awareness of the significance of conscious awareness. And the best example of that change in global consciousness is the internet. Even those who in earlier times simply took human consciousness for granted are nowadays becoming increasingly aware-- thanks to the web-- of the mystery of our existence as conscious persons.


In academic circles, the Immense Transition is referred to as the "Second Axial Period." The term "axial" comes from the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers, who was first to note that a major turning point in human culture occurred throughout the world around 500 BCE. He called the period between 800 and 200 BCE the Axial Age.

Jaspers observed that during those six centuries the philosophies behind the world's major religions came into existence. It happened in the various centers of civilization-- China, India and the Mediterranean world-- and it happened without any apparent or obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other.

This is a significant example of the fact that cultural evolution occurs as autonomously as does biological evolution. The cosmic process doesn't stop on Earth with the emergence of life or with the emergence of human consciousness. It is continuing at this moment as human culture.

The term "Second Axial Period" was first used, as far as I know, by Ewert Cousins, professor emeritus at Fordham University and general editor of the 25-volume series World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest. He is the author of many books and papers on global religious understanding; among them is his especially interesting essay, "Religions of the World: Teilhard and the Second Axial Turning." Also of interest is his brief but stimulating 1994 book, Christ of the 21st Century.

There are some excellent essays on the web from a Buddhist perspective by the New Cosmology writer Joanna Macy. She calls the transition we're in "a time of the Great Turning.

There's also a book with that same title: The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, by David C. Korten. It presents the Immense Transition from a political and economic viewpoint. As Korten notes in his prologue, however, "the Great Turning begins with a cultural and spiritual awakening." And that's where we are, right now.

I came up with the term "Immense Transition" because of my interest in the work of the famous University of Pennsylvania anthropologist and nature writer Loren Eiseley. His book, The Immense Journey, is an especially moving description of the development of human beings from our earliest primate ancestors.

Whatever we call it, it's clear that we are currently in a major turning point in the human story, one that is of far greater significance even than that of the first Axial Period. The evidence is at our fingertips. If you are reading this on a computer, you need only move your fingers an inch or so to have access to knosis or gnowledge about almost anything in the world. The communication network of humanity's wisdom and knowledge surrounds the Earth.


In what follows I offer some thoughts about the Immense Transition using the quaternary perspectives of both Jungian concepts and Native American imagery, while focusing on Karl Rahner's existential analysis of human experience that I spell out in the previous post.

This post (#35) deals with the Immense Transition in terms of Rahner's existentials of "self-awareness" and "self-transcendence"; the next post (#36) deals with it in terms of his existentials of "freedom" and "grace."

Just as is true in discussions of Jung's four consciousness functions, none of Rahner's existentials is considered more important or valuable than the others. Even the sequence in which they are discussed varies considerably; since most discussions start with what he calls "self-presence" and end with what he calls "grace," I'll follow that same pattern.


1. The Immense Transition and Our Experience of Self-awareness.
In the history of western religious thinking, after the Dark Ages the surviving biblical-liturgical perspectives of the Patristic period were thought to be less and less meaningful and they were eventually replaced to a great extent by the rational mode of thinking we call Scholasticism. But with the development of experimental science, that metaphysical focus too was seen to be of less value, and with the coming of the modern scientific concern for the world of nature, scientists like Copernicus in astronomy and Darwin in biology radically changed western consciousness.

So did Freud and Jung with their work in the human sciences. With the scientific study of our own minds, we see now that rationalism, too-- whether physical or meta-physical-- has had its day. What began in European culture around the time of Dante and Francis of Assisi, but is just coming into its own in our time, is the scientific study of personal awareness.

This whole historical development is sometimes called a "turn toward episteme" or the "turn to the subject." It is an awakening of human consciousness to human consciousness.

Both Karl Rahner and Biogenetic Structuralism attempt to spell out this new perspective in detail. Rahner uses an analysis of our most intimate personal experience, while the Biogenetic Structuralists use the scientific knowledge accumulated by the areas of evolutionary science, neuro-physiology, and cultural anthropology. But both seek to "understand understanding."

In the concluding chapter of Brain, Symbol and Experience, for example, the Biogenetic Structuralist authors say, "Epistemology is a genetic, evolutionary process... involving the evolution, development, and conditioning of the nervous system." This means, as they point out, that any experience or perception on the part of an individual "is generated by [the brain's] neural organizations that have been influenced by the evolution of the species, the development of the individual, and the forces of social conditioning."

Our growing awareness of all of those factors-- and of all them taken together-- is what the Immense Transition is all about. What it comes down to in practical terms is that when we ask, "What is our place in the scheme of things?" the answer is: "We are the scheme of things." This new understanding of ourselves is the essence of the Immense Transition. It is the New Cosmology.


The experience of ourselves as self-aware has two major aspects: one is that we are conscious of our participation in the cosmic evolutionary process, the other is that we are thereby conscious of our relationship with everything else that exists. It's especially important to note that both of these aspects of self-awareness come together in our understanding of cultural evolution as the continuation-- by us, on our planet-- of the evolution of the universe.

The majority of Americans still claim not to believe in biological evolution and even persons who are aware of the scientific evidence accumulated in the last several centuries find the idea of cultural evolution difficult to grasp-- simply because it's such a radically new way of seeing ourselves.

As descendants of the rugged individualism of America's pioneer days, we are just not used to recognizing that there is a level to the cosmic process beyond the emergence of individual consciousness: that there is, as I spelled out in post #22, "The Other Half of Person."

This is where an understanding of the conscious activity Jung called "Feeling" and the Medicine Wheel imagery associated with it is especially useful. Feeling-consciousness has been written off by patriarchal attitudes as irrelevant, so we need all the help we can get in understanding it.

As I described in post #30 (Ways of Being Religious), the Feeling function asks of anything, "Do I like it?" and "How do I relate to it?" It apparently comes from the activity of the brain's Parietal lobe, which focuses on spatial relationships, and it's the word "relationships" that is the key to understanding Feeling-awareness. As an activity of the conscious mind, Feeling is concerned with belonging, participation, togetherness, closeness, with holding on to the good things of the past, with loyalty and inclusiveness, with leaving out nothing and no one-- with everything that might be summed up by "heart."

As a traditional way of being religious, Feeling focuses on loving acts of devotion to the Holy Presence. A significant aspect of the Immense Transition is not an abandonment of this perspective but a recognition that the Holy Presence resides in all things, so that the issues of peace and justice and a concern for equality and ecology come together in our recognition of the significance of the fact that nothing and no one is excluded from our awareness of "all our relations."

While Rahner's abstract expression of the existential of self-presence is something like "one possesses the thing known and one’s own self together," the implications are much clearer in the Medicine Wheel's image of the Green Mouse who is located at the south-- the place of summer, mid-day heat, fire and warmth-- and who always remains close to the Earth.

The acceptance of ourselves as close to the Earth and one with the natural world is also expressed well in other cultural traditions such as the Green Man imagery of Europe's pre-Christian times, the Wildman imagery of a renewed post-patriarchal masculine, and the feminine image of Divine Sophia as the Lover of humanity who delights to be with us and excludes no one. I hope to explore these broader cultural images in later posts.

In post #26, "Help From Uncle Louie," I offered some preliminary thoughts about the value of images over concepts in helping us come in contact with the deepest aspects of our existence. While abstract words like "gnosis," "episteme" and "subject" are certainly helpful at some level in our understanding of this aspect of the Immense Transition, the single word-image "green" seems to bring it all together nicely.


2. The Immense Transition and Our Experience of Self-transcendence.

The "turn to the subject" which characterizes the contemporary moment in the history of western religious thought includes not only a degree of consciousness of self-awareness which our ancestors lacked, but also a focus on our relatedness to all else. Rahner's existential of self-transcendence differs from his existential of self-presence in that self-transcendence emphasizes our openness to all that is not our self. At a very deep level, we experience ourselves to be open to everything that is or can be.

While western religion certainly paid attention to other human beings-- as do all the world's religious traditions, especially in meeting their immediate needs for food and shelter-- it tended to ignore the things of the world. The "world," in fact, became a name for something to be avoided, as in "the world, the flesh and the devil." The world was the source of occasions of sin and thus a threat to eternal salvation.

What a contrast to see Teilhard de Chardin dedicate his book The Divine Milieu "to those who love the world." The very fact of that he did so is itself an example of the Immense Transition currently happening in western religious consciousness. And when we realize that Teilhard is quoting from the gospel of John, we see how far we have to go in recovering the roots of western religion. This aspect of the Immense Transition is indeed immense!

And to a great extent, it's science that leads the way. It's science, not the religious traditions, that allows us to be open to the world. And to love the world.

Michael Conforti's book, Field, Form, and Fate: Patterns in Mind, Nature, & Psyche, that I mentioned in the previous post, offers a fine description of what "love for the world" means.

Conforti quotes from an article by Rudolf Ritsema, a long-time director of the annual psychology meetings begun in Europe in 1933 known as the Eranos Conferences. Ritsema distinguishes between the three familiar forms of love: eros, philo and agape. He calls eros and philo "subject-object love," in which, as he says, "there is personal involvement and an expectation of something in return." In contrast, says Ritsema, agape is love without any specific focus: "an overflowing fullness of heart which cannot but be shared with whomever comes in contact with it, without expecting anything in return." And it results in a sense of one-ness "with everything and with the origins of creativity."

This is an especially helpful example of Rahner's existential of our self-transcendence as an openness to all things. Traditionally, agape is considered divine love, but just as Rahner uses "transcendence" (usually used of theos) to describe human experience, so here the kind of love usually attributed to theos is attributed to anthropos as well. Indeed, it is precisely self-transcendence-- our human openness to everything-- which allows us to love of the world.

And it's also this openness to the world which allows us to take our place in the cosmic process. As Rudolf Ritsema noted, agape puts us in communion with "the origins of creativity." It is precisely our love of the world which empowers us to take our place as co-creative participants in the evolutionary process as it continues in the cultural development of humanity on Earth.

The recognition of this link between our openness and our participation in cultural evolution is a major aspect of the Immense Transition. It makes clear that what happens on our planet-- in terms of human rights or global warming, for example-- is in our hands. It's up to us!


Reflection on the Jungian functions and Medicine Wheel imagery also help us to understand the depths of this experience of self-transcendence and of its significance in the Immense Transition.

The function of consciousness called Intuition apparently has its origin in the activity of the brain's Occipital lobe which is associated with sight and vision. And unlike Feeling (which is a judgment function), Intuition is a perception activity. The key word here is vision, in two senses: physical sight and our ability to see mentally in pictures. Imagery and our image-making ability ("image-ination") are central aspects of this Intuitive Black Bear function of consciousness.

It's important to note that this visionary ability differs from Sensation, the other perception function, in that it sees the forest rather than the trees. The Intuitive function is oriented to the whole picture-- to the pattern that the details make, rather than the details themselves. And this ability to see patterns is especially significant in our understanding of the importance of intuitive imagery in contrast to rational concepts. Intuition operates not via ideas but by pictures, and seeing the whole picture is a major aspect of the Immense Transition.

Because it asks of any pattern that it sees, "What does it mean? What is its significance?", the Intuition function is imaged well by the shamanic Black Bear at the west of the Medicine Wheel. It looks to the future, especially to the potential for wholeness and healing, and is associated with water and the torrential flow of late afternoon thunder storms, as well as with autumn and the twilight of evening-- all situations when our sense of awe, wonder, reverence and mystery are especially strong.

As I noted in post #30 (Ways of Being Religious), the traditional way of being religious associated with intuitive imagery is Myth and Ritual. Sacred story and symbol are the very means of the healing and wholeness which empowers our participation in the cosmic process.

We can see this same concern for empowerment and healing expressed in the images of other cultural traditions such as the Druids of the Celtic lore, Merlin in the Grail stories, and the feminine image of Divine Sophia as the Artificer or Fashioner of our identity found in the Hebrew scriptures. (And these again are topics for future posts.)


Our intuitive vision of our deepest identity and significance is critically important if we are to understand and live out the meaning of our lives. I mentioned Teilhard's words in the previous post: "Seeing is being."

If western patriarchal culture dismisses the relationship-oriented Feeling function as feminine, it denies the very existence of the meaning-oriented Intuition function. It's easy to see why patriarchy fears and suppresses this aspect of human experience!

As I noted in post #31 (Integrating the Four Functions), "in its desire to explore possibilities for the future and its seeking to have an authentic ("wholistic") perception of reality, truth, and the meaning of life beyond the conventional... our Black Bear intuitive-imagery function is the very opposite of the attitudes of the institutional churches and governmental and educational organizations which seek to censor and silence creative expressions which depart from the well-established conventional norms."

I also noted there that "We need to keep in mind that the Black Bear function is a way of seeing in the broadest, widest and most comprehensive sense, and that it is the realm not only of artists, musicians and poets but of all creative individuals. (And, in the perspectives of the New Universe Story, that includes you and me.)"


In practical terms, probably the most significant aspect of the Immense Transition for western people is the opening this existential of self-transcendence affords us to the unitive worldview of the Asian religious traditions. It can easily escape our awareness because it has already become commonplace. Zen meditation and tai chi, for example, are available everywhere nowadays and even local churches offer courses in yoga. This represents an immense change in the cultural consciousness of the western world.

The essence of the unitive worldview of the East, that the existential of self-transcendence opens us to, is expressed well in a famous story in the Hindu tradition of a father offering his young son what today we would call "religious instruction." (In contemporary scientific jargon we would say that the father is teaching his child their people's cosmology.)

The child's name is Śvetaketu. The father is telling him about God, the Divine Fullness, the Ultimate Mystery behind the universe. He ends his comments with these words: "And that, Śvetaketu, is what you are."

In Sanskrit, the father's words are tat twam asi: "you are that." Their meaning isn't all that different from what theoretical physicists are talking about when they refer to the  cosmic plenum or the Implicate Order manifesting itself as the things of the world. And it's not at all different from what Jesus is recorded as saying at the Last Supper when he prayed for his friends that they might be, as he is, one with God.

This recognition of our non-duality ("not-two"-ness) with the creative source of the world is the major aspect of Immense Transition which is ours via our personal experience of what Karl Rahner calls self-transcendence.

If "green" can summarize what the Immense Transition means in terms of the experience of self-presence, maybe what might serve to summarize what the Immense Transition means in terms of our experience of self-transcendence is to recall the famous saying of the 19th century adventure writer Rudyard Kipling.

He said that "East is east and west and west and never the twain shall meet."

And it's no longer true.

(Look for the other two aspects of the Immense Transition in the next post.)

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