On Tuesday the 19th of March, Jenny Raper led the Spiritual Reading Group in an exploration of religion as an essential part of human experience, guided by the thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, John Haught, and others. Here is Jenny’s introductory paper from that session.
Last year I spoke about two of the intriguing questions of our age. Are we 'hard wired' for religion? (William James) Are we, as a species, 'homo religioso'? (Karen Armstrong)
Following their lines of thought, I believe we are both 'hard wired' and 'homo religioso' – not just from my many years of reading theology (Christian and other) but also from my own soul or self-consciousness.
Last year, with great help from Philip, I discovered that amongst scholars and historians of religions, there seemed to be no doubt. Many non-religious scholars also share the idea that humans have always held spiritual beliefs and developed religious rituals.
I have created five sections for this presentation: The Dawn of Human Consciousness, The Age of Writing, The Axial Age, Post- Darwin – truth or heresy?, and The Epic of the Universe.
The Dawn of Human Consciousness – the recognition of self, beauty and creativity
The development of human consciousness is hazy and shrouded by the past, but Professor Darren Curnoe, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New South Wales, believes homo sapiens evolved around 200,000 years ago. But, around 70-50,000 years ago we have examples of jewellery and cave art and this is viewed as evidence of consciousness. This is also around the time they left Africa, moving to South Siberia, Western China, East Asia and Australia. Because these archaic peoples developed oral traditions, jewellery and cave paintings and vestiges of burials, he posits the scientific idea that humans have a gene (maybe from the Neanderthals), the microcephalin gene, which with other mutations may account for our consciousness.
In their world, early homo sapiens lived a life in awe of the presences surrounding them. They lived entirely in the natural world – surrounded by the sky and the landscape. They were entirely dependent on the elements of water, fire, wind and earth. They created a world of sky gods and spiritual beings who dwelt in the sky and in the natural features of the land. These potent spirits possessed incredible powers and yet lived and behaved as humans did. The natural features, such as rivers and mountains were sacred and often associated with gods; animals, trees and plants, rocks and caves were all sacred and often places of ritual. Their rituals were designed to propitiate the gods, give thanks to the gods and ask for blessings, such as food and safety. In other words, they were conscious of their world and their own fragile lives in a vast universe.
We do know that as they branched out into the world, the developing cultures all developed their own systems of belief, symbols and practices. These three elements remain with us to this day in various forms. A few have developed into large religious systems with hierarchical leadership arrangements.
The Age of Writing – an act of human consciousness
In the period 50,000-30,000 BCE humans developed language and kept records and expressed concepts as well as mere images. Written forms of language arrived around 3,500-3000 BCE in Sumer (a little later in Egypt and independently in China): these were marks etched into clay tablets and, in China, marks cut into the oracle bones. Remnants of these tablets tell us that organised religion around temples existed. Believed to be the most ancient, the temple in modern southern Turkey at Gobekdi is dated at c.10,000 years ago. Scientists believe it is the heart of a burial system and death cult, from the thousands of human bones excavated. No writing appears, but many sculptures of 'menacing' animals and especially vultures, which are still used to carry away the bones of human corpses to the heavens. This temple is evidence of a very self-conscious people, but we know very little about how they perceived the nature of the universe around them.
The Axial Age (c 900-400 BCE)
This period is extraordinary. It was described by Karl Jaspers as “The Axial Age”, “a period of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change.” In other words, a surge of consciousness unlike any other until our own time. Great systems of spiritual beliefs came into being during this time, Daoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Judaism and philosophical realism in Greece. To be human would never again be the same. Daoism and Hinduism appear to be the two streams that wrote about the universe, the cosmos in a way that was new. There was a new understanding of the vastness of the Cosmos beyond and there arose a new understanding of the place of humans in that context and how we should behave along with this new consciousness – with rightness and kindness. Carl Jung wrote in 1951 that “the ancient Chinese mind contemplates the cosmos in a way compatible with that of the modern physicist ... that it is a decidedly psychosocial structure.”
For example, Hinduism changed greatly over the Axial period from a religion of sacrifice to a way of living consciously; searching for an end to suffering by detaching from the material world. Their scriptures emerged over this period. Quote: “In the Upanishads, Brahman is the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists and the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe. Brahman is also considered to be the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth which does not change. Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind diversity in all that exists in the universe.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
The Greeks – according to Karen Armstrong - in the 6th century developed a desire for a personal religious experience – a new consciousness at work. Cults arose like the Eleusian mysteries which gave initiates guided experiences to achieve new insights of themselves. In the 5th century there was a movement to study “science” for its own sake. Their main interest was in the elements – for example, man could not live without water, therefore he must have emerged from the water. One philosopher, Anaximander (610-546BCE) went beyond the elements. He argued that the basic stuff of the universe was wholly 'indefinite' (apeiron)– this was divine, beyond the gods. It was the immeasurable and inexhaustible source of all life and had no relevance to the lives of humans. This was an attempt to rationalise their new concepts, not spiritual insight. Yet, at the same times their ancient Gods and Goddess did not disappear.
John Haught writes of this period, it “is special for its idealizing of a unifying principal of meaning, goodness, beauty and truth, sometimes called God.”
Post-Darwin – Truth or heresy? A crash into a new truth – evolutionary consciousness.
Moving into our own age, I have consulted the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic Christian born in France in 1881, not so long after the publication of Darwin's book ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ in 1859.
He became a successful scientist in palaeontology and geology, continuing on with his Jesuit studies. Teaching in Egypt, he was affected by the vastness and silence of the desert, experiencing a 'pantheistic fusion with the cosmos'.
He maintained his course and during his theological training, 'he found his own synthesis between … scientific studies and the doctrines of his faith' … 'a dynamic pattern and rhythm running through the whole universe - a universe fully alive and unfinished'; he saw a 'cosmos in a process of evolutionary creation, or convergent cosmogenesis unfolding in space time'. Ursula King writes that he saw “Spirit and matter were no longer two separate realities but two states ...of the one Cosmic stuff ….the dualism of matter and spirit of body and soul dissolved before him.”
King writes that his vision never wavered. The world, the whole world is God's body in its fullest extension. He proclaimed this as the “Cosmic Christ” - “God's incarnate Being in the world of matter.” He continued to preach about this God – as the 'mystery of your flesh' – not merely pure spirit. In his last essay, just before his died in 1955, he wrote that humanity was reaching a new psychological stage (advanced consciousness?) It was becoming adult and crossing new thresholds. Science needed the stimulation of religion and, and the understanding of revelation could develop more fully if it took into account “the new contributions that scientific research is gradually making to human consciousness.” His work was not published until after his death.
“The Epic of the Universe” The New Cosmic Story – inside our awakening universe
In the later part of the 20th century, scientists found methods to break the atom. This was considered to be a huge leap for human knowledge and after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan people realised science had reached a new level, one where human life could be extinguished in a few moments with the push of a button far away.
Two decades later scientists were able to build rockets and space ships and 'fire' men into space and some onto the moon. For the first time humans could see photographs of our Earth – a most beautiful 'blue watery planet', as described by one astronaut. A new consciousness was born – the earth existed in space, limitless and vast. The age-old question arose from a new perspective– who are we? How do we exist in this cosmos of millions of planets in millions of systems of galaxies?
So to American theologian John Haught, who was born in 1942, a decade before Teilhard de Chardin died. He has a chair of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington USA. He published his book ‘The New Cosmic Story’ in 2017.
He writes: “Startlingly absent … is a sense of how religion fits into the cosmic story.” Religious experience is part of the whole inside story of the universe. So, how will the religious experience fit into this new understanding of the cosmos? For thousands of years religious sentiments have come down from one human generation to the next packaged in symbolic forms whose meaning is mostly inaccessible to science. The new science is largely unintelligible to non-scientists. He writes that although science claims to be objective, humans are subjective along with the cosmos which has been emerging over the billions of years prior to our existence. Therefore, science “must take into account the interior dimensions of living, thinking and worshiping subjects and not just outward, ….events.”
He writes that many scientists take for granted that their learning is all there is. In their opinion, subjectivity is a 'filmy human concoction that evaporates altogether when under scientific examination'. Haught thinks that the story of the universe is not only about atoms, molecules, cells and groups, it is also about the inner drama - spirit and subjectivity. Our archaic forebears gave us the symbols, analogies, metaphors, rituals, myths and theologies pointing to the indestructible and transcendent dimension from whence we came and toward which we are destined and where we find meaning and moral guidance for our lives.
He refers to our Hindu forebears writing in the Upanishads: “We read that suffering may be conquered if we can overcome the illusion of existing separately form Brahman”, that is, Infinite Being, Consciousness and Bliss. He says “in this respect religion has its origin in a sense of grateful surprise at the mystery of being” – we all, atheists and believers alike experience the “shock that anything exists at all” We humans have devised countless ways to avoid acknowledging the mystery of it all, today perhaps more than ever.
He writes that “current cosmology allows us to interpret religious expectation as a relatively new state in the universe's ongoing adventure.” The universe is still coming into being ….so the placing religion in the centre allows for the various forms of religious experience to counter the cosmic pessimism of the “materialist thinkers”. In a universe that is still becoming, we have the chance to seek unity of religious experience, by expectancy and aspirations towards 'rightness'. We can fully embrace modern scientific discoveries while leaving ample room for the coming of novelty, surprise, more-being, deeper meaning and human freedom into the cosmic narrative.
He believes that two strands have always existed in the Cosmos – spirit and material – and that all of existence is made of these two entwined in the Cosmic Christ, an ancient concept that God, in Christ, is both spirit and matter. We no longer need to pray for deliverance, looking back at past experience, but rather pray with anticipation in a cosmic perspective, in hope for fulfilment of the universe. Unlike the old concept of a fixed or frozen universe, we inhabit a universe that is still unfolding. We might watch and pray that the beauty, depth and breadth will be realised. How will we 'unfold' our religious beliefs systems and develop our subjective spirituality to live in the Cosmos? We can no longer live in the belief that this Earth and our sky gods are all there is – yet we exist here on this 'blue, watery planet'. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and many theologians believe we, as Christians, can expand our consciousness to rediscover the Cosmic Christ – 'The Word of God' described by St John's Gospel and by Teilhard de Chardin as “God's incarnate Being in the world of Matter.”