Archive for category Cosmology
The concept of sustainability, considered in its widest sense and not reduced just to development, embraces all actions focused on maintaining the existence of other beings, because they have the right to coexist with us. And only starting from this premise of coexistence do we utilize, with sobriety and respect, a part of them to satisfy our needs, while also preserving them for future generations.
The universe also fits within this concept. From the new cosmology, we now know that we are made of the dust of stars and that passing through us is the mysterious Basic Energy that nourishes everything and which unfolds into the four forces –gravitational, electromagnetic, nuclear strong and weak– that, by always acting together, maintain us as we are.
As conscious and intelligent beings, we have our place and our function within the cosmologic process. Although we are not the center of everything, we certainly are one of those forward points through which the universe turns into itself, that is to say, the universe becomes conscious. The weak anthropological principle allows us say that, for us to be what we are, all the energies and processes of evolution had to organize themselves in such an articulated and subtle manner that our appearance was possible. Otherwise, I would not be writing here.
Through us, the universe and the Earth look at and contemplate themselves. The capacity to see appeared 600 million years ago. Until then, the Earth was blind. The profound and starry sky, the Iguaçu Falls, where I am now, the green of the nearby jungles, could not be seen. Through our sight, the Earth and the universe can see all of this indescribable beauty.
The original peoples, from the Andean to the samis of the Arctic, felt one with the universe, as brothers and sisters of the stars, making a great cosmic family. We have lost that feeling of mutual belonging. They felt that the cosmic forces balanced the paths of all beings and acted within them. To live in consonance with these fundamental energies was to have a sustainable life, filled with meaning.
We know from quantum physics that consciousness and the material world are connected and that the manner a scientist chooses to make his observation affects the observed object. Observer and observed object are inseparably linked. Hence the inclusion of consciousness in scientific theories and in the very cosmic reality is a fact that has already been assimilated by a large part of the scientific community. We form, in effect, a complex and diversified whole.
The figures of the shamans are well- known. They were always present in the ancient world and are now retuning with renewed vigor, as quantum physicist P. Drouot has shown in his book, The shaman, the physicist and the mystic (El chamán, el físico y el místico, Vergara, 2001) for which I was honored to prepare a prologue. The shaman lives a singular state of consciousness that allows him to enter into intimate contact with the cosmic energies. The shaman understands the call of the mountains, the lakes, the woods and the jungles, the call of the animals and of human beings. The shaman knows how to direct such energies towards healing ends and to harmonize them with the whole.
Inside each of us lies the shaman dimension. That shaman energy causes us to stand speechless in the face of the immensity of the sea, to sense the eyes of another person, to be entranced on seeing a newborn child. We need to liberate the shaman dimension within us, so as to enter into harmony with all around us, and to feel at peace.
Could not our desire to travel with the spacecrafts in cosmic space perhaps be the archetypical desire to search for our stellar origins, and the desire to return to our place of birth? Several astronauts have expressed similar ideas. This unstoppable search for equilibrium with the entire universe and to feel that we are part of the universe pertains to the intelligible notion of sustainability.
Sustainability includes valuation of this human and spiritual capital. Its effect is to generate within us respect, and a sense of sacredness, before all realities, values that nourish the profound ecology and which help us to respect and live in symbiosis with Mother Earth. This attitude is urgently needed, to moderate the destructive forces that have overtaken us in recent decades.
Making Sense of Evolution
The belief that we must choose between evolution and religion is seductive. Biologist, Richard Dawkins, is only one of many atheistic scientists who believe it’s one or the other. Intelligent Design (ID) proponents, freaked out by the capacity of nature to evolve itself through natural selection and genetic mutation, (and thus elbow out the need for a Designer), likewise try to persuade us that it’s evolution or faith.
Thank goodness for the clear-minded intelligence of theologian John Haught, who brilliantly reveals how the common underlying assumptions of both these camps give rise to the false choice. Ironically, the embittered enemy camps share the same mythic God—a cosmic engineer God who intervenes episodically to design a perfect universe. One camp believes in that God and other doesn’t. So, they hammer away at each other. But it’s not a fair fight. The atheists are going to win this one every time, simply by pointing out the existence of evil, evolutionary dead-ends, and vestigial bits that clearly serve no purpose (such as the human appendix). The universe isn’t perfectly designed by a cosmic engineer. (But it is beautiful in its design, and imperfection is part of its beauty.)
Why don’t these atheists pick on someone their own size, like John Haught? Because anybody with real theological chops exposes the superficiality of their worldview, and how they have set up a straw theological man to tear down. They call John Haught an “accommodationist” (accommodating to ID proponents) but they can’t have actually read his theology. He is anything but. They make two basic “blunders” according to Haught. I will deal with one of the blunders in this blog, and the second one next week.
Blunder one: By presenting evolution and natural selection as an alternative to a designer God, they leave their own territory and enter the land of theology and metaphysics. The problem is that they seem to cross this border unconsciously. There ought to be border guards asking them for their metaphysical passports. They are at home when they describe the physical processes of life. But then, by stealth and under cover of the night, they cross the border into the land of metaphysics and make pronouncements about the nature of Ultimate Reality.
Here’s an example: Richard Dawkins new book, The Magic of Reality, is a delightful read when he sticks to science. I am reading it, and it is filling in many gaps from my pathetic science education. It’s written for adolescents and young adults, which is just about perfect for me. But out of the blue at the end of a delightful chapter on diversity, he drops in the following zinger: “Next time you see an animal—any animal—or any plant, look at it and say to yourself: what I am looking at is an elaborate machine for passing on the genes that made it. I’m looking a survival machine for genes. Next time you look in the mirror, just think: that is what you are too. (Emphasis mine). That’s “magical?” It’s terrifying and depressing.
But is it true? How does he know it’s true? Has science led him to that conclusion? But science doesn’t draw conclusions about the nature of Reality, just how that part of reality we call physical reality works. Am I the only one who finds this chilling? Is this any better than having fundamentalist Christians trying to brainwash children into believing that ID is a legitimate scientific theory? I don’t want my children growing up to believe that they are “machines”—didn’t this language go out of style with Newton? Nor do I want them believing that every thought, feeling, and choice is predetermined by a bit of physical matter.
Here Dawkins is no longer acting as the brilliant scientist he is. He’s morphed into a metaphysician advocating a particular worldview—one could even say a theology. How did we get from describing physical reality—the proper domain of science— to this metaphysical pronouncement about the nature of ultimate reality?
Blunder one, again: natural selection is not an alternative to intelligent design. It is physical process, which partially describes Reality. Darwin’s discovery was brilliant and is still valid today, but there are other valid theories of evolution (See Back to Darwin: A Richer Account, by John Cobb). In the four-quadrant diagram below, philosopher, Ken Wilber outlines the four fundamental perspectives from within which we see and know Reality.
Each quadrant has its corresponding ways of knowing reality (epistemologies). The right hand quadrants are the domains of science—physical, tangible reality. The best method we have for knowing this external dimension of reality that we call “nature” is the scientific method. The left hand quadrants describe the interior, subjective dimensions of reality. The upper left quadrant is the realm of “I” or consciousness. The lower left (LL) quadrant is the realm of “We”, the intersubjective domain, where worldviews arise and evolve.
What Richard Dawkins and other materialists do is to collapse all of reality into their preferred quadrant, the upper right (UR). It’s called reductionism or in Wilber’s terms “quadrant absolutism”. EVERYTHING (the other three quadrants) can be reduced to the physical! If you want to know everything about the reality “machine” take it apart until you get to the fundamental unit of reality—for Dawkins, this is genetic material. Genes have replaced the mythic God for him in the sense that they absolutely control life. It’s not only scientists who can be guilty of this. Spiritual folk who make the claim that they create reality in an absolute fashion through their consciousness collapse all the other three quadrants down to the upper left (UL).
Even consciousness (UL) is said to be created by the brain (UR). But it’s one thing to say that consciousness and brain function are correlated (they are); it’s a completely other thing to claim that consciousness can be reduced to the spongy grey matter inside our skulls (it can’t be). Furthermore, when he ends his chapter on DNA with the claim that the young, impressionable reader is nothing more than selfish, physical bits of matter, using her to pass on genetic material, Richard Dawkins is either unknowingly or sneakily migrating into the LL quadrant and presenting a worldview—genetic determinism. I repeat, this is not science. It’s fine for him to weigh in with his opinions—if he would simply preface such pronouncements with something like, “I’m not speaking with the authority of science here. This is just my personal opinion.”
What Wilber proposes is that if you want a theory of everything you need to employ what he calls “integral methodological pluralism” (sorry about that). All it means is that there are methods of knowing reality that are native to each quadrant or domain. If you want to know about physical nature (UR and LR), then the scientific method is by far the best method.
But if Richard Dawkins wants to know reality as it arises in the UL quadrant (the realm of consciousness), he will need to follow the methodological injunctions of the historical religious traditions about how to meditate and then practice for 10,000 hours or so, and then weigh in on whether the Pure Awareness he is experiencing can be reduced to brain function. (There is a correlation, of course. Every quadrant is correlated to the others. But correlation is not to be confused with causation. Just because you can measure Theta brain waves in Zen meditators doesn’t mean that they are caused by the brain). The problem is that Richard Dawkins is not the least bit interested in what religion has to say about the nature of reality because science, in his view, is the better “alternative”. It’s not an alternative, Dr. Dawkins, it’s just a beautiful and wondrous way of understanding one astounding aspect of reality—the physical.
 John Haught, Making Sense of Evolution, See chapter 2 on Design
Richard Rohr: Creation as the Body of God
The following was written by Richard Rohr and cross-posted from The
Huffington Post, March 4, 2011
Creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine.” — Thomas
“God remains in immediate sustaining attentiveness to everything that exists, precisely in its ‘thisness.’” — John Duns Scotus
The Incarnation of God did not happen in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. That is just when
we started taking it seriously. The incarnation actually happened 13.7 billion years ago
with a moment that we now call “The Big Bang.” That is when God actually decided
to materialize and to self expose.
Two thousand years ago was the human incarnation of God in Jesus, but before that
there was the first and original incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon,
stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and “every kind of wild beast”
according to our own creation story (Genesis 1:3-25). This was the “Cosmic Christ”
through which God has “let us know the mystery of his purpose, the hidden plan he
so kindly made from the beginning in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9). Christ is not Jesus’ last
name, but the title for his life’s purpose. Jesus is the very concrete truth revealing and
standing in for the universal truth. As Colossians puts it, “He is the image of the
invisible God, the first born of all creation” (1:15), he is the one glorious part that
names and reveals the even more glorious whole. “The fullness is founded in him …
everything in heaven and everything on Earth” (Colossians1:19-20). Christ, for John
Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308) was the very first idea in the mind of God, and God has
never stopped thinking, dreaming, and creating the Christ. “The immense diversity and
pluriformity of this creation more perfectly represents God than any one creature
alone or by itself,” adds Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) in his Summa Theologica (47:1).
For most of us, this is a significant shaking of our foundational image of the universe
and of our religion.
Yet if any group should have come to this quite simply and naturally, it should have been the three groups of believers that call themselves “monotheists”. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe that the world was created by one God. It would seem to follow therefore that everything, everything without exception, would bear the clear imprint and likeness of the one Creator. Doesn’t that seem to follow? How could we miss that? After all, we believed that One God created everything out of nothing.
We must realize what a muddle we have got ourselves into by not taking incarnation
and the body of God seriously. It is our only Christian trump card, and we have yet to
actually play it! As Sallie McFague states so powerfully, “salvation is the direction of
all of creation, and creation is the very place of salvation.” (The Body of God, p. 287) All
is God’s place, which is our place, which is the only place and every place.
In the 4th century St. Augustine said that “the church consists in the state of
communion of the whole world” (Ecclesiam in totius orbis communione
consistere). Wherever we are connected, in right relationship, you might say “in
love,” there is the Christ, the Body of God, and there is the church. But we whittled
that Great Mystery down into something small, exclusive, and manageable too. The
church became a Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant private club, and not necessarily
with people who were “in communion” with anything else, usually not with the
natural world, animals, with non-Christians, or even with other Christians outside
their own denomination. It became a very tiny salvation, hardly worthy of the name.
God was not very victorious at all.
Our very suffering now, our condensed presence on this common nest that we have
fouled, will soon be the one thing that we finally share in common. It might well be
the one thing that will bring us together. The Earth and its life systems on which we
all entirely depend (just like God!) might soon become the very thing that will convert
us to a simple Gospel lifestyle, to necessary community, and to an inherent and
universal sense of the holy.
I know it is no longer words, doctrines, and mental belief systems that can or will
reveal the fullness of this Cosmic Christ. This Earth indeed is the very Body of God,
and it is from this body that we are born, live, suffer, and resurrect to eternal life.
Either all is God’s Great Project, or we may rightly wonder whether anything is God’s
Great Project. One wonders if we humans will be the last to accept this.
“From the beginning until now, the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of
giving birth, and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first fruits of the Spirit, we
also groan inwardly, as we wait for our bodies to be set free” (Romans 8:22-23). It seems that St. Paul is saying here that we human ones might be the last ones to jump aboard
God’s great plan. There is the groaning of growing in all of creation, and the groaning
of resisting and “waiting” in us humans.
All of creation, it seems, has been obedient to its destiny, “each mortal thing does one
thing and the same … myself it speaks and spells, crying ‘What I do is me, for that I
came’” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, When Kingfishers Catch Fire). Wouldn’t it be our last
and greatest humiliation, surely the “first being last,” (Matt. 20:16) if we one day
realized that all other creatures have obeyed their destiny unblinkingly and with
trustful surrender. Watch the plants and animals!
It is only humans who have resisted “the one great act of giving birth,” and in fact
have frequently chosen death for themselves and for so many others.
From Radical Grace, April-May-June, Volume 23, Number 2, 2010.
The New Evangelism: Michael Dowd’s Evolutionary Christianity
Gailon Totheroh April 22, 2011
Who is Michael Dowd? He calls himself an evangelist. Not surprisingly, he can be found in churches preaching. But Dowd’s gospel is not one where sin is rebellion against God, but rejection of Darwin.
Likewise, salvation doesn’t come from Jesus on a Roman crucifix, but merely embracing the emergent Universe. Thus, we should Thank God for Evolution, the title of his 2008 magnus opus. Subtitled “The Marriage of Science and Religion,” the popular book-endorsed by no less than six Nobel Laureates-unfolds a central theme that standard Darwinism is scientifically accurate and religiously inspiring.
With faith-evolution controversies running unabated, Dowd’s Darwin-for-all-occasions may seem a hard sell. Yet Dowd’s effusive friendliness and seeming openness are swaying many his direction. His sales technique even wins over atheists and Christian evangelicals.
Still, Dowd is a mover-and- shaker who doesn’t move everybody to awe. The unwilling might include those who question Neo-Darwinism in whole or part, those who are uncomfortable with religion, and conservative adherents of traditional religions.
Since 2002, the self-described “evolutionary evangelist” has been on the road across America in a marathon of speaking engagements held mainly at schools and church groups. In addition, Dowd has four main websites, three books, and has spoken at the United Nations for their Values Caucus, a group dedicated to provide an “open forum . . . in order to allow a new culture to emerge.”
But Dowd’s background emerges from the old culture. Growing up Roman Catholic, he says he became a born-again Christian while serving in the army in 1979. He accepted that evolution was mostly harmful bunk until a few professors at Evangel University (conservative, Pentecostal) convinced him otherwise. From there, he went to seminary and then signed on with the liberal United Church of Christ for nine years.
While still with the UCC, he fully embraced evolutionary mysticism in 1988. Within an hour of starting a course on “The New Catholic Mysticism,” Dowd says he was weeping and seeing the “scientific story of the Universe” as a “sacred epic.” “I knew I would spend the rest of my life sharing this perspective as great news,” he adds. In fact, Dowd’s worldview moved from Christian monotheism to religious naturalism.
His commitment to naturalism while retaining the language of Christianity can be glimpsed in his statements from a recent article in Skeptic magazine:
“God is not a person; God is a personification of one or more deeply significant dimensions of reality.”
“‘Getting right with God’ means coming into right relationship with our planet and all its gloriously diverse species and cultures.”
“I foresee a time when religious leaders get their guidance and inspiration from humanity’s common creation story (Darwinian evolution) and teach and preach the discoveries of science as God’s word. When that day comes, our faith traditions will thrive and many of us will look back and exclaim, ‘Thank God for the New Atheists’.”
Despite his co-option of theological language, there is little left of traditional monotheism, let alone traditional Christianity, in Dowd’s worldview. Indeed, the “supernatural” itself doesn’t exist according Dowd; it’s merely an invention of the Western mind. “Evidence suggests that the only place that the so-called supernatural realm has ever existed has been in the minds and hearts (and speech) of human beings–and only quite recently.” Accordingy, the God of the Bible is no more real than the Greek gods Poseidon or Helios, and the Bible itself is a jumble of “old mythic stories” that provides no real guidance for the challenges we face today: “Ours is a time of space telescopes, electron microscopes, supercomputers, and the worldwide web. It is also a time of smart bombs, collapsing economies, and exploding oil platforms. This is not a time for parsing the lessons given to a few goatherds, tentmakers, and camel drivers.” (emphasis added)
Given Dowd’s turn to religious naturalism, one may find surprising the number of Christian evangelicals interviewed for his recent online series at EvolutionaryChristianity.com, “The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity.” Some of the evangelicals’ tacit approval of Dowd’s agenda is curious.
For instance, among the nearly 40 interviewees was Karl Giberson, professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, who bemoans, “Evangelical theology has not made peace with evolution.” That is, some evangelicals have not accepted Darwin’s take on evolution as is and incorporated it into their theology.
Giberson serves as vice president with the pro-Darwin BioLogos Forum, a group he helped found with the most well-known evangelical advocate of Darwinian evolution, Francis Collins. The BioLogos website states, “We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. We also believe that evolution, properly understood, best describes God’s work of creation.” But Dowd thinks God is only a metaphor for the universe and the Bible can’t be used to determine right and wrong. Science is the new Bible. This would seem to put BioLogos and Dowd at odds with one another.
Indeed, Giberson estimates that he disagrees with 60% of Dowd’s thinking. Yet Giberson objects to nothing Dowd asserts in their hour-long interview for the Advent series. Why is that?
Giberson says, “It’s fine to be working arm in arm with Michael Dowd, comfortably setting aside our differences and promoting the harmony of Christian faith and evolution.”
And Giberson also disagrees with Dowd about the New Atheists, taking them to task in his book Saving Darwin. What gives? Aren’t the Dawkins and Harris crowd the same people Dowd honors as God’s prophets? But Giberson says building a coalition to promote Darwinian evolution is more important than the gulf between their religious beliefs.
WINNING OVER THE RELUCTANT
Even apart from Dowd’s celebration of the New Atheists as prophets, he shows an ability to win over secularists. Atheist blogger Phil Ferguson originally wrote with ambivalence about Dowd’s Advent series. For Ferguson, Dowd and his cohorts’ made-up religion stuff is okay as long as they “don’t fight known science.” At the same time, “Maybe they are just abusing science to promote religion.”
After Dowd responds online by saying that he’s a “religious naturalist” in which God doesn’t mean what it used to mean, Ferguson is on board. He applauds Dowd’s “intentions and efforts”-and his pragmatism in “reaching people that would run screaming from this blog, so keep up the good work.”
Not everyone has hopped onto Dowd’s bandwagon. New Testament scholar Peter Jones has described Dowd’s worldview (“One-ism”) in his book One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (2010). Jones finds Dowd’s use of Christian and Biblical language deceptive; he rejects establishing common cause with someone who engages in “worship of creation.”
Stanford scientist Richard Bube, whom both Dowd and Giberson greatly respect, was extremely critical of Dowd’s first book written in 1990, The Meaning of Life in the 1990s. Bube was once president of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), an organization of devout Christians in science-and a pioneer in efforts to put science and faith in harmony.
Dowd says Bube’s writing were his “lifeline” during college. Yet Bube calls false Dowd’s assertions that “every atom of the universe has an inner intelligence which is non-material and ultimately unknowable” and “the earth is alive and we are the Earth’s reflexive consciousness.” Bube also criticized Dowd for taking liberties with the Bible and Christian theology, concluding that “we must not let the idea take root in the Christian community that these aberrations on Christianity are the prescribed way to go.”
A COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY?
Dowd frames all he does in terms of openness and diversity. After all, he says, “Just like a forest or a pond eco-system, variety and different diversity of species makes for the health of an eco-system. I think that’s true in consciousness and culture as well.”
But the range of diversity he is willing to embrace seems to have sharp limits. For one thing, by endorsing and heaping fulsome praise on the New Atheists and their bashing of what he calls “superstitious, other-wordly religiosity,” Dowd certainly appears to encourage the exclusion of traditional monotheists from being part of any discussion about Darwinian evolution. After all, one of the driving goals of the New Atheists is to so debunk traditional religion that its adherents will be driven out of the public square entirely.
In his own series at EvolutionaryChristianity.com, meanwhile, don’t expect to find any supporters of intelligent design in biology as part of the conversation.
When asked why he didn’t include someone from the intelligent design movement among the nearly 40 interviews in his “Advent of Evolutionary Christianity” series, he replied, “If I were to do it again, I would probably include one, two, or three people from that perspective . . . I certainly anticipate interviewing and occasionally featuring some of the work of a more ID perspective.”
However, Dowd added pre-conditions for interviewing an ID proponent. Candidates would have to subscribe to four concepts Dowd says were held by the Advent interviewees: “We’re all committed Christians, we all value evidence as divine communication and divine guidance, we all have deep-time eyes, and we all have a global heart.”
But how can this group of interviewees truly have these four points of common ground when they obviously don’t agree on what being a Christian means? Or what “divine communication” signifies? What serves as evidence? Are “deep-time eyes” a reference to an old earth chronology or more about “one’s communion with the powers of the earth” as Dowd’s website states? Does “global heart” mean any animal is just as good as a human because people are only a part of “the larger body of life”?
While Dowd’s stated commitment to many voices matches his assertion that his is just one voice among many — his lone voice dominates the Advent series. By interjecting stories and commentary during the interviews, Dowd exerts far more influence than that of any other individual.
DOWD’S WORLDVIEW AND ITS IMPACT
What is true of Dowd is that he has held a worldview of religious atheism for over 20 years. The difference is that today there are millions of people who have switched to Dowd’s faith in the Universe. In fact, analysts have estimated that there are 50 million Americans and 100 million Europeans who fit what used to be called New Agers, but now want to be known as Cultural Creatives, Progressives, Brights, or Integral Spiritualists.
So what wins out in the end for Dowd, the advocate of blending Christianity and evolution? Party-line evolution-with mysticism in tow-or is it vice versa?
And what true blue evolutionist might not welcome Dowd? Dowd himself finds even the atheist evolutionary biologist PZ Myers a kindred spirit: “There is very little about which PZ and I disagree, other than perhaps the fact that I’m working to evolve religion and he’s working to free society of it.”
In the process, well-reasoned scientific objections to macroevolution and alternatives to Neo-Darwinism like intelligent design are cast aside. The other casualty is well-considered traditional religion – thrown under the bus for the latest mystical fad that is nothing more than recycled paganism.
A Solstice Passes, Unnoticed
We are apt to miss this phenomenon of Earth’s axial tilt, as we miss so much of what the natural world does in our surrounds
By James Carroll
ONCE, HUMANS were intimate with the cycles of nature, and never more than on the summer solstice. Vestiges of such awareness survive in White Nights and Midnight Sun festivals in far northern climes, and in neo-pagan adaptations of Midsummer celebrations, but contemporary people take little notice of the sun reaching its far point on the horizon. Tomorrow is the longest day of the year, the official start of the summer season, the fullest of light — yet we are apt to miss this phenomenon of Earth’s axial tilt, as we miss so much of what the natural world does in our surrounds.
In recent months, catastrophic weather events have dominated headlines as rarely before — earthquakes and tsunami in Asia; volcanic cloud in Europe; massive ice melts at the poles; tornadoes, floods, and fires in America. “Records are not just broken,” an atmospheric scientist said last week, “they are smashed.” Without getting into questions of causality, and without anthropomorphizing nature, we can still take these events as nature’s cri de coeur — as the degraded environment’s grabbing of human lapels to say, “Pay attention!”
To our ancestors in the deep past, that attention to nature was, well, natural. They made the evolutionary leap into human consciousness through close observation, among other things, of what heavenly bodies do in the sky. In a cosmos over which they had no control, paying attention to patterns of heat and cold, light and dark, rain and drought was a matter of survival. The invention of agriculture depended on awareness of seasons, so that times of planting and harvesting, herding and grazing, could be depended upon. Movements of the sun and moon were seen to have both influences on, and counterparts in, individual human experience — from mood swings to menstruation to aging. Astrology opened into astronomy, calculation into mathematics, scrutiny into science. Definitions of the calendar were essential to culture. The solstice was a marker of all this.
But this habit of regard for nature was essential also to the transition into modernity. Contemplation of the sun was nothing less than the incubator of our age. Copernicus and Galileo, after all, ushered humans into the breakthrough of testable knowledge by means of their study — one theorizing, the other experimenting — of Earth’s place in the solar system. The solstice, previously perceived as the sun’s standing still for a moment before reversing course on the horizon, would never be understood that way again. Heliocentrism initiated the maturing of science, which eventually would demonstrate that seasonal rhythms not only produce global dynamics of climate but also hormonal changes — daily, weekly, monthly — within the individual human body, each person biologically synchronized to the cosmic clock. Because of science, we were able to grasp the age of the earth — to know that there have been more than 4 billion summer solstices. Humans awakened to the full complexity of the universe.
Ironically, the accompanying social revolution of industrialization led to illusions of human mastery over nature, and ultimately to detached indifference toward it. Contemporary technological civilization became blinded to key phenomena of the living world, much as the night sky is blotted out by the artificial light of cities. Most recently, the cycles of time have given way to the eternal present of the computer screen — detachment squared. As humans came to know so much, we lost our grip on the knowledge with which we became human: our familiarity with the physical universe we live in. Imagining that we no longer needed nature, we ourselves became the great threat to nature. As our sense of the complexities of life quickened and deepened, our destructiveness of life also quickened and deepened. Through ambitions of unlimited growth, consumption, competitive manufacture, and self-expanding technology, we humans have become a mechanism of extinction. When we stopped noticing Earth, we began to destroy it.
Intimate awareness of nature and its cycles, as we saw, was an ancient mode of survival. But survival is at issue again. Noticing the length of light now, reveling in the sun’s achievement, rejoicing in Earth’s perfect balance, honoring the summer solstice — loving it: This is how we became human, and it is how we stay human.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
Reprinted from the Boston Globe (June 20/11).
Thank God for Death! — Could Anything Be More Sacred? More Necessary? More Real?
by Michael Dowd
Just yesterday I discovered that a dearly beloved colleague in the Great Work, Judy Cannato, has entered hospice and will soon die. I wept when I learned of this, as Judy and I both discovered that we had cancer at roughly the same time, just under two years ago. (I seem to be free of it now, however, at least temporarily.)
I’ll write more about Judy and her wonderful books soon. But here I want address the question of death itself. Because, in my experience, most religious people are clueless regarding what God has revealed about death in the past few hundred years, through science. And this ignorance has resulted in untold suffering — for families and for society as a whole, as well as for individuals.
I am regularly asked (more often since I was diagnosed with lymphoma), “Do you believe in an afterlife? What do you think happens to us when we die?” My typical response is to make one or more of the following points…
1. As I discuss in “The Gifts of Death” section of Chapter 5 of my book Thank God for Evolution, it is vitally important when thinking about death in the abstract, when contemplating the inevitability of our own demise, or when grieving the loss of a loved one, to have an accurate understanding of the positive role of death in the Universe. Widespread ignorance of the scientifically indisputable fact that death is natural and generative at all levels of reality, coupled with our culture’s failure to interpret the science in ways that will help us to actually feel that death is no less sacred than life, result in not only distorted but outright disabling views.
(Here you can sample testimonials from our travels that demonstrate the emotional gifts of a science-based perspective, meaningfully interpreted. It’s also important to remember that Moses, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and Muhammad could not possibly have known what we know about death. This evidence-based understanding couldn’t have been revealed in a way that we could have received it prior to telescopes, microscopes, and computers.)
2. Looking at reality through evolutionary, “deep-time eyes”, my sense of “self” does not stop with my skin. Earth is my larger Self. The Universe is my even larger Self: my Great Self. So, yes, “I” (in this expanded sense) will continue to exist even after “I” (this particular body-mind) comes to a natural end. There is deep comfort in knowing that my larger Self will live on. More, I am powerfully motivated to be in action today precisely because I do not ignore or deny the inevitability of death. My small self has but a brief window of opportunity to delight in, and contribute to, the ongoing evolution of the body of life. Truly, this is it; now or never. I am immensely grateful for both the comfort and the compulsion born of this sacred evolutionary perspective.
3. From an evidential standpoint it seems clear that we go go to the same place we came from before we were conceived—the same “place” that trillions of other animals and plants have gone throughout Earth’s history when they died. Some speak about it as “coming from God and returning to God”. Others talk about it as “coming from mystery and returning to mystery”. Still others as “coming from nothing and returning to nothing”. All these I sense as legitimate and emotionally satisfying ways of thinking and talking about what happens at death. And as I sometimes humorously respond, when asked about the afterlife, “If where I go isn’t the same place that all other plants, animals, and species throughout Earth’s history have gone, I’m gonna be pissed!”
4. A universal experience whether or not we can admit it, death is the sole companion to life. From the moment we take our first breath, the inevitable result is death. Thus, any so-called “faith” which doesn’t include trusting that whatever happens on the other side of death is just fine is, in my view, really no faith at all. Fear of a terrifying, hellish after-death scenario, OR attachment to a blissful, heavenly after-death scenario are just that: fear or attachment; not faith, not trust. As legendary Griefwalker and “Angel of Death” Stephen Jenkinson puts it: “Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life … is death.” (I highly recommend purchasing the DVD “Griefwalker”. Once you watch it you’ll probably just keep loaning it out.)
5. The idea of being “rewarded” (condemned?!) with experiencing even one year (much less millions or billions of years) of after-death existence free of struggle, challenge, or difficulty, would occur to me as hell, not heaven, were I to think of (or worse yet, witness from on high) the divinely decreed eternal torment and everlasting torture of others who had in some way missed the mark. Adding to the repugnance would be an after-death future in which those relegated to never-ending suffering included not only perpetrators of outright evil but also those condemned for nothing more than holding wrong beliefs—that is, beliefs different from mine.
6. Here is the way I discuss the subject of “the afterlife/what happens when we die” on pages 116-117 of my book, Thank God for Evolution:
My formal training for becoming a United Church of Christ minister culminated in an ordination paper that I wrote and then presented to a gathering of ministers and lay leaders. Titled “A Great Story Perspective on the UCC Statement of Faith” (available at TheGreatStory.org), my talk stimulated a host of comments and queries. A widely respected minister posed a question I shall never forget. “Michael,” he began, “I’m impressed with your presentation and with the evolutionary theology that you’ve shared with us. However, there’s a little boy who lives in me, and that little boy wants to know: Where is Emory?”
Emory Wallace, a well-known and beloved retired minister, had for nearly three years guided me through my ministerial training. He died suddenly, at the age of 85, just a few weeks before my ordination hearing.
“Where is Emory?” My mind went blank. I knew I needed to say something—after all, this was my ordination hearing—so I just opened my mouth and started speaking, trusting the Spirit to give me the words. My response went something like this:
Where is Emory? In order to answer that question I have to use both day language—the language of rational, everyday discourse—and night language—the language of dreams, myth, and poetry. Both languages are vital and necessary, just as both waking and dreaming states of consciousness are vital and necessary. Like all mammals, if we are deprived of a chance to dream, we die. Sleep is not enough; we must be permitted to dream.
We, of course, know that day experience and night experience are different. For example, if you were to ask me what I did for lunch today, and I told you that I turned myself into a crow and flew over to the neighborhood farm and goofed around with the cows for a little bit, then I flew to Dairy Queen and ordered a milkshake—and if I told you all that with a straight face—you might counsel me to visit a psychiatrist. However, if you had asked me to share a recent dream and I told the same story, you might be curious as to the meaning of that dream—but you wouldn’t think me delusional.
So in order to respond to your question, “Where is Emory?” I have to answer in two ways. First, in the day language of common discourse, I will say, Emory’s physical body is being consumed by bacteria. Eventually, only his skeleton and teeth will remain. His genes, contributions, and memory will live on through his family and through the countless people that he touched in person and through his writings—and that includes all of us.
But, you see, if I stop there—if that’s all I say—then I’ve told only half the story. In order to address the nonmaterial, meaningful dimensions of reality I must continue and say something like: “Emory is at the right hand of God the Father, worshipping and giving glory with all the saints.” Or I could say, “Emory is being held and nurtured by God the Mother.” Or I could use a Tibetan symbol system and say, “Emory has entered the bardo realm.” Any or all of these would also be truthful—true within the accepted logic and understanding of mythic night language.
My response was well received in that meeting of nineteen years ago, and it has shaped my theology ever since. Recently, I blended the core of that distinction into my Great Story talks and workshops. I am sure that my understanding of day and night language—language of reason and language of reverence—will continue to evolve and thus inform my preaching, my teaching, and my personal relationship God, the fullness of Reality.
[Posted April 8, 2011]