Monday, July 20, 2015



J.L. Schellenberg is an analytic philosopher and a religious skeptic. But because he takes evolution seriously, he recognizes the vast potential for future development of the process of “reflective intelligence” which began for us, and from the perspective of Thomas Berry, the universe itself, roughly 50,000 years ago. Though a skeptic with regard to specific beliefs and their truth-claims, he is an imaginative being with a wide-open sense of awe and wonder, which he correctly recognizes as the basis for faith, but not necessarily belief. In the current argument between “scientistic” atheists and creationists, Schellenberg prosecutes both sides for being immature and premature in their judgments, “rationally unsustainable.” (64) “Because we are immature, belief is premature.” (49) But if belief is unwarranted, so is the attack on the very possibility of ultimate reality by militant atheistic writers such as Richard Dawkins. And he criticizes naturalists (Barbara Forrest), who “ regularly overestimate the accomplishments of science and underestimate the potential of religion.” A “beliefless faith“ supports that potential, which he feels is huge over the billion-year future evolution of complex life on Earth. As opposed to the systematic universal doubt of science, Schellenberg argues for an “evolutionary religious skepticism,” that remains open to continuing revelation of the divine over that vast period.

Schellenberg argures that, compared to other hominins, we are still young, and both the seemingly advanced state of scientific progress and our religious profundity are over-rated. He expects our (or other species with a similarly reflective intelligence) future development to lead to “improvements in our spiritual genetic code.” He cites evolutionary biologists who attest that our brains are three times the size and complexity of Lucy, the australopithecus (ca. 3.5 million years BP), who also say that growth of the same magnitude may await us. Of course there is an assumption here that cognitive development is a precondition for spiritual development. Responses to my last post, both at this site and privately, question this.

Here is my take on it. Yes, there is a powerful intuitive strain, as well as a high capacity for emotional intelligence, in many mammals. And, since we will shortly be discussing social intelligence, many social species seem to be far more advanced than we. But I am not yet convinced that the kind of reflection which both Schellenberg and Berry see as key to deeper, conscious spiritual development can be achieved without an extremely high level of cognitive development. Since we cannot communicate through language, we don't really know if this is the case for dolphins, whales, and elephants. Nor can we assume that they do have reflective intelligence, a reflectivity that in our species is capable of going to the very source of the I-thought, as is richly evidenced in Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism.


With respect to this core capacity for reflectivity, individual humans have clearly followed it to attain a high degree of spiritual development, as with founder-models of world religions such as Jesus and Gautama the Buddha. But instances of personal transformation are insufficient when social behavior reputedly based in religious belief remains as sectarian as ever. This continuing juvenile group behavior is clearly one of the main reasons militant atheists attack organized religion, and current headlines underline this doubt.

For my mentor Joanna Macy, developing the capacity for group transformation is critical if we are going to survive the evolutionary bottleneck we face in the immediate future. “Self-reflexive consciousness... does not characterize the next holonic level, the level of social systems. Though an 'esprit de corps' can be sensed in organizations with strong allegiances, it is too diffuse to register and respond to all the feedback necessary for it survival. The locus of decision-making remains with the individual, susceptible to all the vagaries of what that individual considers to be of self-interest...” She goes on to pose the question of whether the present crisis might “engender a collective level of self-interest in choice-making – in other words, self-reflexivity on the next holonic level.” A genuine evolutionary shift would move beyond the kind of group unconscious possession which remains a recent memory in the case of fascism. As she says, “a monolith of uniformity has no internal intelligence. The holonic shift in consciousness would not sacrifice, but instead require, the uniqueness of each part and its point of view. It would begin, almost imperceptibly, with a sense of common fate, and a shared interest to meet it together” Coming Back to Life, 43-44.

Thomas Berry goes so far as to say a “re-invention of the human at the species level” (The Great Work) is necessary for our survival . It would be a great blessing if this were to occur in the few remaining years of the “last decade,” before the window closes, but I continue to be skeptical about “conscious evolution,” which seems to be simply a projection beyond individual instances of transformation . For those of us who place more credence in biological evolution along demonstrated lines, Schellenberg's promise of a billion years of evolutionary process to achieve reinvention is comforting...

A more mature religious stance, one which would invite this holonic shift, would entail an openness to and tolerance of others' experiences of the ultimate. In the realm of things unseen, paranormal, and metaphysical, truth claims are extremely difficult to verify. The more detailed a belief is, the harder it is to convince others with contrary specific beliefs of common ground. Faith, on the other hand, keeps us open to a reality beyond the realm of our limited cognitive and emotive abilities. His argument about belief is a rational restatement of what the Hindu Advaitists have already argued more eloquently. Krishna Prem pointed out in his invaluable “Initiation into Yoga” that every belief, when carefully examined, is a floating kite tethered by a string which returns to a corresponding doubt. More fundamentally, my master Ramana Maharshi punctures the fundamental belief shared by almost all religions that reality consists of god, world, and self, saying that all are illusory, for the Self that projects this habitual trinity is the only abiding reality.

Schellenberg does not attempt an exhaustive review of the history of religious practices, content with the generalization that ongoing religious squabbles and wars prove its immaturity. When he looks out at the social scape of current practice, he sees the same dreary picture that the atheist critics do, without giving up on religious possibility. But there are small religious communities that have blazed a different path. One that I know intimately is Quakerism, the Religious Society of Friends. Though George Fox's original vision was through Jesus as the historical Christ, his imaginative genius led him directly to the Light as a universal indwelling spirit in all humankind. So, though many Quakers remain Christian or recognize their Christian origins, we have no creed, and do not erect barriers to other sects due to purported beliefs. “There is that of God in every man” (Fox) is what we try to recognize, no matter what the other may call that. Quakerism is the western expression of the Upanisadic sage's axiom, “There is one Being, but wise men call it by different names.”

For me, Quaker practice at its best exemplifies the beliefless or “imaginative” faith that Schellenberg sees as a fundamental requirement for an evolutionary religion. Quakers practice a corporate mysticism where truth experienced as revelatory is tested by the group, especially the elders (“seasoned Friends”), who bring a loving and open skepticism to specific belief claims that emanate from personal experience. The earliest Quakers called themselves Friends of the Truth, and one of their immediate roots was in the Diggers, whose leader Gerrard Winstanley equated Christ and Reason. A religion that is both experiential and experimental, it is not tied to biblical truth, but rather to that Spirit by which [the scriptures] were written (Fox, Journal, 70 in Armistead ed). “The truth is more holy than the book to me,” Fox responded when asked to swear on the Bible. Furthermore, Quakers have a strong commitment to “continuing revelation,” for the divine is active at all times, throughout history, if we will only listen. What could be a better context for practicing evolutionary religion?

The number of American Quakers is now half what it was in the 1970's, when I first encountered them. They do not have significant numbers anywhere except in Kenya, where they were evangelized by a branch of Quakerism closer to mainstream Protestantism. But the story of social evolution is not necessarily of continuous growth. I hope that, going forward, Quakers do a better job of sharing what they have to offer, especially with the significant number of youth who are “spiritual but not religious.” We do not know what practices might survive the coming evolutionary bottleneck for complex life on Earth. But I pray that Quakerism, particularly that which reflects most closely its first generation (conservative Quakers, who are in even greater decline), is one of them. Even if we experience extinction on the scale of the Permian catastrophe 250 million years ago, when 95% of species perished, the possibility remains for four recoveries from such an event over a billion-year evolutionary future. And we will need the most effective models of religious tolerance and openness to continuing revelation (with means of testing them) available for any such unimaginatively long recovery. Hopefully, after the current sixth extinction, the Earth will not witness another mass extinction event induced by the behavior of one errant tenant species.

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