Salvation, Pt. 2

In Salvation Pt. 1 I talked about the transformative power of Spirit in our everyday lives.  In this post I want to get into my take on the bigger picture, and on how this perspective views the events surrounding Jesus’ death.

To me the distinction between consciousness and conscious self-awareness is captured in the expression, “Animals know, humans know that we know.”  My dog is conscious, but my dog is bound entirely by the rules of Behaviorism.  Of course we humans are also subject to the principles of behaviorism, it remains a very successful discipline of Psychology for treating a number of common complaints.  But the self-referential nature of human consciousness, the fact that we can think about what we think about, gives us the ability to examine our “animal” consciousness from the outside.  We are no longer embedded in our own perceptions, we can step outside of our perceptions (step outside our natural ape selves, in a way) and objectively examine thoughts and perception that other animals are only subject to.

So if humans are capable of examining the contents and processes of our own minds, capable of  (for example) observing ourselves as we read a webpage on the internet and thinking about what we’re reading, who is that observer?  And what realm of consciousness is that observer tapping into?

This is actually an old Buddhist point, used to get new students to understand that there are other levels of consciousness and that we use them every day without ever realizing the enormity of what we are doing.  No other creature in Earth’s long history can do that, and we take it completely for granted.  This capability is fundamental to intelligence, it is fundamental to perception, and it is the foundation of any understanding of spirit.

I have been connecting self-aware consciousness with human “spirit” in my posts, and I want to point out that this connection has a Biblical basis.  It is seen in the comparison of two verses, one in the Creation story in Genesis, the other in Solomon’s Ecclesiastes.

Genesis 2:7, on the creation of Adam:

Then God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

Ecclesiastes 12:7, Solomon’s meditation on man’s mortality:

…and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Breath of life” clearly conveys something beyond mere movement of air into and out of a set of lungs.  Other animals do that and they didn’t get any breath of life.  Solomon connects the two: the Biblical term “breath of life” as used in Genesis is the same thing Solomon calls “spirit” in Ecclesiastes.  And both refer to the only thing that separates us from the other animals, namely intelligence and self-referential conscious.

I need to briefly mention Christianity’s doctrine of the Trinity, because it provides a framework for what I need to say next.  As with all things human, what this doctrine presents is probably a vastly over-simplified picture of reality.  However it is extremely useful as an aid to understanding our relationship with God from the Christian perspective, and so I will describe it in terms of my own peculiar point of view.

By Christian tradition the Trinity consists of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  God the Father is the Christian term for the source and origination of this universe and every other.  The Holy Spirit, which I’ve been referring to simply as capital-s “Spirit”, is that part of God that interacts with the universe and everything within it including us.  If we can distinguish between ourselves and our conscious minds, then from this perspective that is the same distinction between God and Spirit.  From this perspective Spirit would be viewed as something like “God’s consciousness”, or “awareness”.  Our own little sparks of consciousness I generally refer to as lowercase-s ‘spirit’, not part of the triune godhead).

Jesus, of course, is the Spirit’s incarnation in human form into this physical reality, onto this earth. I think of him as a human who was fully aware and already fully connected to Spirit from childhood.  Mary would have still had to change his diapers and Joseph would still have had to teach him how to use a hammer, but for reasons I’ll get into next, Spirit had to experience humanity before it could really connect with us.  It did this by incarnating on this earth and experiencing humanity for itself.

I need to set up this next bit: the Christian concept of “sin” has libraries full of Christian theology written about it but from this perspective it is extremely simple.  If the most all-encompassing definition of sin is “separation from God”, then we’re born into sin because we’re born completely embedded in the evolutionary instincts, urges, and impulses we inherited as apes.

So the “state of sin” is simply embeddedness in our evolutionary instincts. “Embedded” is a term psychologists use to describe “lack of differentiation.” Example: a four-year old is incapable of considering anyone else’s viewpoint but their own, because children at that age are embedded in normal childhood ego-centrism. I had a nephew at that age who was completely confused that nobody else thought it was funny when he shined a flashlight in our faces, and someone finally took it away from him.

“But its funny!”

“Not to me.”

Total puzzlement: he hadn’t matured enough to have differentiated his mood from the mood of others. By age 6 or 7 most children do understand this, and many are also able to re-integrate with those same feelings by developing the capacity for empathy or sympathy.

Knowing that someone else’s feelings are not yours, but still sharing in the feelings of another as an individual who can relate to the other person is impossible while they are embedded in that earlier undifferentiated stage of maturity. To differentiate is to separate the sense of ‘self’ from their feelings: I have these feelings rather than I am these feelings. To reintegrate is to recognize that the feelings are legitimate, and that others have them also, and that it is perfectly normal for others to have different feelings even about the same event.  Without differentiation, this understanding is impossible.

The Buddhists have another great saying for this process: When you begin your journey, a mountain is just a mountain (undifferentiated); as you progress, the mountain is no longer a mountain (differentiated); when you finish the journey, the mountain is once again a mountain (re-integrated).  As we mature, our perspective of “the mountain” changes. It expands and grows more rich and meaningful, not because the mountain has changed, but because we have changed.

Human infants are born with animal consciousness, i.e. sensory perceptions and a handful of instincts, and only begin to develop a higher, more “human” level consciousness when they begin to experience the transformations described by Piaget and others starting a few months after birth.  Until that process begins they are completely unaware of their own consciousness, much less that of any Spirit.  Until we came along Spirit was not and never had been human, and thus had no point of reference by which to even begin to understand human consciousness and perception.

There was no connection.  Spirit had no experience of human, and whatever conscious connection those ancient seers might have had with Spirit always ended up in violence and bloodshed and death, as anyone who spends ten minutes reading the Old Testament quickly realizes.

If there was an “original sin” it was being born into the Ape family and finding all of our natural urges and instincts to be about fight, flight, food, or sex.  From that perspective, this state of sin isn’t necessarily something to be forgiven, it is something to be transcended.  Jesus’ later call for us to be “born again” can be seen as a call to differentiate the focus of our conscious awareness out of embeddedness in the natural instincts of ape and into conscious relationship with Spirit.

But we weren’t there yet.  Being in the state of ape is a normal and natural fact of human life, so why would transcending that require a human sacrifice?  Or more accurately, a deicide? Something more than that was going on with Jesus’ death, and I think it had as much to do with Spirit learning how to connect with us as about giving us a means to connect to Spirit.

God cannot know sin because he cannot be separate from himself. But humanity knows sin very well, we’re embedded in it from birth. We’re in a “state of sin” whether we ever did anything wrong or not, purely by the fact that we born on this earth as a species of Ape with conscious minds that have never known Spirit.

Perhaps God cannot be separate from himself, but he can project an incarnation of himself into our world, fully human in every respect, which can grow up with a consciousness already differentiated from Ape.  And yet part of Jesus’ learning on this earth may have been to experience the separation from God that God could not otherwise experience.

I believe that was a big part of Jesus’ mission here, possibly one of the most important aspects of it. To experience humanity from start to finish, all the way through and including a difficult and painful death.  This had to be done if God’s heretofore non-human Spirit was to be able to relate to our nascent little consciousnesses at all.  This experience couldn’t be faked.  It had to be fully experienced for it to be genuine, experiential knowledge.

But at what point does Jesus, this incarnation of Spirit who was here specifically to establish a bridge between nascent Ape conscious awareness and Spirit, at what point does he experience the state of separation from Spirit that much of humanity spends their whole lives in?  Throughout his time on earth he clearly had complete union with Spirit, with God, but for Jesus that seemed to have changed the night before his crucifixion. This is the part that still seems to puzzle theologians.  Tears of blood in Gethsemane?  What was that about?  Prayers to “let this cup pass from me”?  Was it death he feared?  How can that be, according to the New Testament he’d raised people from the dead, that wouldn’t have worried him to that extreme.

From this perspective I’m guessing that the final thing he had to experience on this earth was complete separation from God and Spirit, possibly for the first time in his life.  For a few hours he was going to experience the state that we live in from birth.  Three of the Gospels describe a period of darkness in which the sun was dimmed “from the 6th hour to the 9th”.  I’ve wondered about that since I was a kid and nobody could ever explain to me what that was all about.  Now I believe that represents a period when that complete separation took place.

“For this I was born,” he is quoted as saying at one point.  “Why have you forsaken me?” he asks God in another.  At the end of that period of darkness Jesus pronounced his work accomplished, and my belief is that he died a true sinner in the deepest meaning of the term: one whose conscious connection to Spirit was broken.

How can God know sin? God is not in an evolutionarily-derived body, God does not know the drives and impulses, the fears, joys, pains, and loves that we know, neither does he have the experience that most of us have, of living day to day without any connection to Spirit, knowing that a grave awaits us no matter what we do with our lives, and never being quite sure whether there is anything for us beyond it.  It could well be that even Jesus wasn’t sure what awaited him next, and such a death might have been worse than ours in the sense that he knew full well what he had lost.


At the end of Part 1 I said I would talk about the afterlife next, but I don’t seem to have gotten to it yet.  I will get at that in Part 3.

2 thoughts on “Salvation, Pt. 2

  1. Steve Price

    I like much of what is said here using modern insights of psychology and evolutionary theory to reimagine Christian theology. There are two related issues I would be interested in hearing the author discuss: 1. The biblical origins narrative starts with human and natural perfection and rapidly introduces degradation and loss. However, the Darwinian narrative posits a movement from simple to increasingly complex. How best can these conflictingvnarativemovements be reconciled? 2. These two most recent essays discuss sin only from a personal perspective. How can modern insights from psychology, anthropology, political science, and biology illuminate the probably more powerful forms of sin, namely structural racism, tribalism, nationalism nd other forms of control the force unwilling, highly moral persons into compliance even with violent systems of oppression?

  2. Notanist

    Great ideas. For things like racism, tribalism, nationalism etc. I like the perspective described by Robert Kegan in “The Evolving Self”. He describes them in terms of developing maturity, where the unfolding self learns to relate to a broader and broader world. The child starts by identifying only with immediate family, and everything else is ‘outsider’. Then others like friends and playmates are allowed in, and with growth and experience a healthy growing “self” allows itself to gradually become a part of a bigger and bigger world. Sometimes people get stuck, to where they cannot relate to others beyond their race or religion or political party or nationality or whatever it may be. Definitely worth a post or two, I’ve been planning on talking about Kegan at some point since much of my perspective is based on his work.


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