Tuesday, June 30, 2015

 

EVOLUTIONARY RELIGION and DEEP TIME


So let me tell you about how Evolutionary Religion led me back into the land of Hope. My last post on hope, “Letting Go of Honest Hope,” grounded me in the biblical hope that was at the core of the still-incomplete Quaker renewal of Christianity. Evolutionary Religion moves that hope from the heavenly kingdom to the vast prospect of a billion years of religious evolution, many of whose basic tenets have already been addressed by Friends' peculiar spirituality.

The focus of my faith, and the basis of my hope, has been for many years one of trusting the indwelling Spirit, the First Mover, the Creator who is wellspring of the material universe, source of our breath and soul. I wrote an essay at the request of the National Council of Churches about this, first calling it ecological faith, then moving to the more inclusive term cosmogenetic faith. Ecological faith takes me beyond faith in our brave, flawed species to a trust in the system, trust in Gaia as one self-regulating being, its intelligence sustaining the whole by being distributed throughout it. Cosmogenetic faith moves beyond planetary ecological processes to the radical Good News that the Creator creates on an infinite scale, ecosystem after ecosystem, universe after universe.

Despite this eco-theological buttress, I have been obsessed these last several years with near-term human extinction. As I have struggled with this frighteningly probable event, I have come to realize what the crux of it for me is. It is not just the unimaginable suffering of billions (human and non-human). It is not just the specific imagining of the untimely demise of my grandchildren. Nor is it the loss of so much that I hold dear in the Cenozoic Era and Holocene Epoch, the context of our blessed opportunity to work and dance on the material plane. What it really comes down to is the consequences this would have for one of Thomas Berry's central realizations, that the universe is aware of itself through us, homo sapiens. In The Universe Story, he names this reflective awareness a ”new power, a power of consciousness whereby Earth, and the universe as a whole, turned back and reflected on itself.” (143) So my question, what happens to this essential self-awareness, radical creative generativity being conscious of itself as world-making, if we go extinct?

Even as I have pondered and written about this these last eight years, astronomers have discovered a vastly-increasing number of exoplanets that may harbor intelligent life, and of course some are open to the possibility of parallel worlds. A few, those with a more Eastern sensibility, even entertain the notion of serial universes, as the Hindus believe. But this particular place, the Garden of Yahweh, is my home, and the rest is a thoroughgoing mixture of conjecture and faith. Human extinction matters to me perhaps most importantly because I was raised with the biblical story of Yahweh having a special, chosen relationship with us. And I am not aware of any other species for which this is an intimate, felt relationship. You could call this a failure of imagination, but it is related to a trait that I value, namely that I am more interested in experience of the divine mystery than in any belief about it.

Evolutionary Religion comes back to the spiritually modest, materially expansive proposition that though development of a mature religious perspective on this Earth is still quite rudimentary, “we” still have a very long time in which to make more progress, even if we destroy much of the gift we were given in terms of the 63 million year bloom of the Cenozoic. That destruction would involve ecological and civilizational collapse, including an epochal number of extinctions, perhaps including our own. It is quite possible that positive feedback cycles will become so severe that the earth becomes uninhabitable for higher life, in which case Schellenberg's thesis would be moot. But if the conditions for higher life remain after the ongoing series of shocks we have already started have reached equilibrium, then “we” may survive the bottleneck industrial humans have created. The referent for this “we” is intelligent life on this planet with a thirst for ultimate meaning, necessitating a deep religious faith. Homo sapiens can suicide, yet Berry's intuitive proposition about the self-reflective quality of the universe can survive! This is crucial to the possibility of meaning in this universe, which Schellenberg sees, without reference to Berry, as crucial, even as a religious skeptic. And it cognitively restores the grounds for my faith and hope.

DEEP TIME. This is key to Schellenberg's argument, and something with which I have a modicum of familiarity. Joanna Macy introduced me to the concept through some exercises in my training with her in California in 2000. We did a “Dance of the Ancestors” in which we moved through evolutionary history, experiencing our hominin forebears, as well as our ancient Old World ones. We experienced guided meditations of cosmic history since the Big Bang, and a couple in which we imagined future beings, presumably human, who thanked us for making it through the evolutionary bottleneck caused by climate change and habitat loss. But explorations of future time remained in the relatively near future, as Joanna had us imagine beings a hundred or perhaps a few hundred years in the future. When I have asked groups to choose future moments in some of my workshops, they have ventured as far as 10,000 years. (This is the figure Gary Snyder says is required for our maturation as a species.) But Schellenberg has his sights on really deep time, which he says we have missed in our backward-looking habits.

According to Schellenberg, the Darwinian revolution is only half finished, and our religious quest barely begun. Geology and Darwinian evolution, with their focus on the past, have achieved the initial half of the needed revolution. They discovered deep time, but stopped in the present. He argues that it extends as well into the evolutionary future, “Darwin's Door,” and evolutionary religion banks on that time for developmental advances in our maturity as a species, towards which religion is essential. This involves cultural evolution as well as biological. Intelligent life has the capacity to extend into what is rather unfathomable, a billion years of evolution of life on this planet (perhaps up to 2.4 billion years, the latter figure based on potential variations in atmospheric pressure as the sun gets hotter and hotter in its progression towards star death in another 4 billion years). Clearly a careful and imaginative teacher, he outlines exercises he uses with students for them to start to imagine, to move from vague cognition to gut recognition, the vast time scale involved here.

For myself, having been opened to a sense of deep time through exercises such as plotting on the floor the spiraling history of this universe since the supposed Big Bang, I had a second moment of recognition. If you assume the I behind the we witnessing evolving space-time, that is, the Creator within us, and sense that I in a continuing series of present moments, you begin to feel the vastness of possibility. And i, as the little perplexed, neurotic thinker who is worried about near-term extinction, find my fear for the near term (tremendously multiplied by reading Guy McPherson, Carolyn Baker and their ilk) eroding so fast that joy and hope return. When you look at it, virtually nobody in the current climate debate tends to think beyond 2050 or “a hundred years from now,” which has crept forward 12-15 years since climate scientists first ventured to project present trends, with respect to human presence in the earth's evolutionary history. We are collectively so enormously frightened of the near future, we cannot imagine anything beyond it, except the return of pre-conscious geological time. Replace this by a vigorously imagined (no daydreams here!) billion years of persistence of that I-thought, and we are in different territory indeed.

Up next: A "beliefless faith” is the necessary basis for a truly evolutionary religion on this planet.

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Comments:
Hi Robert! Thanks for all your deep thinking. I too wonder about the cosmic significance of human extinction if we – as meaning-makers of the Creator’s Creation - are the highest manifestation thus far of its emergent, self-organizing qualities. The threat of extinction has not been enough to convince humans to evolve as quickly as is now necessary. Could we hope that if some survive and we’re given a few thousand more years, our species would finally ‘get it’, and we could eventually satisfy the Creator’s desire to know its ultimate manifestation through us? What does it mean to the Creator if we are no longer here to hold up the mirror?

Something in me knows to be uncomfortable with the idea that the universe is about me and that our extinction will serve as evidence of the Creator’s failure, though I am barely able to say why. Knowing we have the power to make this planet uninhabitable is excruciatingly painful, but perhaps I mistake the meaning of this power. I find hope in the act of Creation, and in the idea that life and consciousness may not be solely relegated to humans. And I find that hope reflected in wild places, where I know I must take myself. In wild places, I get the idea that perhaps the universe was not purposefully built to increase complexity, but instead to spawn life and consciousness without instruction. I only suspect this; I don’t know it, and I don’t always want to believe it. But perhaps we will not be here, and that will be an expression of the beauty of wildness, and nothing more. Blessings to you.

 
Bob,
This is as troubling-- and possibly as enlightening-- a post as I have read coming from your 'pen' and I'm trying to organize my thoughts to be able to offer my own perspective.

The 'Evolutionary Religion' part of the title immediately brought to mind the recent (in the past 50 years) rise of the discipline (?) of Evolutionary Psychology (EP). I suspect this association was intentional on your part, but that's not really important.

The issues of spirituality and religion have taken a good deal my mental energy through most of my life, as I surmise they have in your life also. I encountered EP maybe 30 years ago and it has been a source of both intrigue and vexation, especially as many intelligent folks who I have encountered in the blogosphere seem totally taken by it. It also seems that the issue of determinism goes hand-in-hand with EP. People who are enamored of EP almost inevitably declare themselves to be determinists and one can easily extend that monicker to 'scientific determinist.'

From a religious point of view, contemplating such a strictly science-based, deterministic view of our own little human universe is, to my mind equivalent to staring into the abyss. It harkens back to the raw, unadorned existentialism that I flirted with in my more idealistic youth. I, like most of humanity I suppose, feel the need for a spiritual basis for life and our anchor in the world, but where and how to find it is the question.

To make a point in a small enough screed to fit in your comments section...
The spiritual basis for life in the universe is there, but ungodly (pun intended) hard to realize. The best analogy I can come up with is the quantum physics weirdness of the collapsing wave function. The spiritual energy in our world can be perceived only through our peripheral vision, and tends to disappear when we look straight at it. This definitely mitigates against our being able to discover our spiritual basis via science.

Lots more to say, especially about how human exceptionalism makes me very uncomfortable. But I'll leave that for another time.

Eric

 
I critique to Pope's adherence to the Church's human exceptionalism in the latest blog. My studies before and since then are delving into the meaning of the anthropocene, a bit of a tarbaby, but starting to make more sense (much of which is scary, but not totally nihilistic and apocalyptic).
Good to be in conversation . You must meet my friend the building inspector from Nashville, Ran. He comments on the Pope post.

for Gaia,
Bob
 
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