In a previous post I said that we are fully capable of recognizing and then accepting or rejecting thoughts or even whole trains of thoughts. In this post I want to explore that some more.
To be able to monitor and manage our thoughts, we have to interact with the world from a different internal perspective than the one we evolved with. Like other animals, our normal, everyday stream of thoughts concern our immediate experience, i.e. whatever is going on right at this moment. We can and do think about what’s going on in a way that other animals can’t, but that extra processing tends to be noise in the background. For most of us the default point of conscious awareness for dealing with the world is pretty much the same as it is in the other higher animals. When nothing at all is going on, we replay experiences or conversations or plan ahead or just let our imaginations wander from one thought to the next in a self-stimulating stream of consciousness until the traffic light turns green and our attention moves back to the mundane world.
That distracted thought stream, which we tend to follow when nothing is occupying our immediate attention, is unique to humanity. Contrast that with your dog or cat: when nothing is going in their world they curl up on the sofa or stretch out in a warm patch of sunlight and contentedly drift through the day completely free of the uniquely human feeling we call “boredom.”
One of the defining differences between human intelligence and that of other animals is that we can think about what we think about. We can think in abstract terms, but only once we reach a certain level of maturity. I described the process in an earlier post about child psychologist Jean Piaget, for whom abstract reasoning represents the stage at which childhood intellectual development transitions into adulthood.
We can think about what we think about, but do we actually do this?
How often has some bit of news coming over the radio kicked off a string of angry thoughts and emotions? For me pretty much every day on my way home from work. And how often do you recognize what’s happening and say, “No, what happened is horrible and I feel crappy about it, but I’m going home to my family and I don’t want to be in this mood when I get there,” and actually stopped your thought process and consciously put your mind on something positive?
It took me years to learn to catch myself, to recognize the kind of energy a particular train of thought was generating in me, and I’m still working on the part where I can actually change my mood in the few minutes left before I get home. We all know we should do this, but why is it so difficult?
The problem is that I’m still partially embedded in my thoughts. I am my thoughts in the sense that pursuing a stream of thoughts and daydreams on a long drive home affects everything about me. The capacity for abstract thought should allow me to say something like, “I have thoughts in my head the same way I have a watch on my wrist and a pair of glasses on my nose.” What’s happening instead is that I am my thoughts, because what I am is angry or happy or pensive or anxious depending on whatever random stream of conscious babble I’m riding through my own head at any given moment.
Traditional Christian teaching about sin goes something like this:
Through no choice of your own you’re born into this world a sinner (“original sin” doctrine), and if you are unfortunate enough to have been born into the 99%-plus portion of humanity who lived and died over earth’s long history without converting or even hearing about Christianity, your ultimate destiny is to spend eternity burning in hell.
Very nice, eh? We’re supposed to talk about a God of Love after that nonsense?
I covered ‘hell’ in an earlier post, here I’ll just reiterate that there is no such place. Hell represents endless suffering without hope of relief, which is the way all spiritual traditions describe a life without God. It is a powerful metaphor used even by Jesus himself in his parables (which were likewise metaphors and allegories), but when my fellow Christians take it as a literal, physical place they contradict and deny everything that Spirit’s incarnation onto this earth came here to teach us about God.
So regarding sin I’ll get straight to the point: evolution bred into us instincts that have been honed and perfected over millions of years. These instincts are about self-preservation and self-advancement within the tribe. They’re about fight or flight, food and sex. We’re a pack species, a social species, so cooperative instincts are also built in to us. These instincts are experienced as the twin drives to get ahead and to get along. To find your place within the hierarchy of the group, and as with everything else in evolution, to use the skills and attributes you were born with to rise in power and influence.
These instincts know nothing of Spirit. If there is an “original sin” it is being born into the ape family, with all the evolutionary drives and instincts we inherited as a result. Many passages in the New Testament discuss the differences between being “born of the flesh” and being born “of the Spirit”, and from this perspective its a perfect analogy. We’re born as apes, highly intelligent but embedded in ape instincts. By using our species’ capacity for intelligence and conscious awareness we can establish a bond with Spirit and be born again, reborn into union with Spirit, liberating ourselves from embeddedness in animal instinct, and begin living, working, and evolving toward something much higher.
…[complete that title sentence with some non-Christian religious tradition from anywhere in the world]. My dear sweet auntie was kind to everyone she met and she worked hard to raise a strong, loving family and regularly went to [temple/mosque/ashram/weekend voodoo goat butchering/whatever] all her life and died peacefully in her sleep after living a better life than most in this world. God’s going to do what, exactly, with her soul?
As a Christian not associated with any denomination, and not fiscally dependent on keeping members coming in or preventing them from wandering off, I get to ask questions that are difficult or uncomfortable for lots of my compatriots.
Better yet, I get to answer them as I understand things. My basic spiritual worldview revolves around three verses. The first is the definition of Law given in the New Testament. I covered this at length in the earlier post Making Sense of Love and Law but here it is again, its Matthew 22:36-40:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
With that one statement Jesus reconstructed the entire Old Testament from scratch. Continue reading
Before he passed away, author Christopher Hitchens (see here, here, and here for more archives of his work) explained the main point of his book “God Is Not Great” in an interview found here. From the opening of the interview:
Hitchens: The theme of the book is that it is going to be a choice between Civilization and Religion, and that the enemies of civilization, the theocrats, the religious fanatics, really mean it this time. If you look at the way the ‘parties of God’ are destroying Iraq, or the way that people who believe in the Tooth Fairy called the ‘Hidden Imam’ are about to get nuclear weapons in Iran, all the nutcase settlers on the West Bank who think they can bring on a Jewish messiah and bring about the end of the world, whose best friends in the United States are people like the late Reverend Falwell, and the fanatical Christians who also think it would be clever to teach Creationism in schools and stultify American children, you see what I’m talking about now.
Interviewer: “Are you surprised we’re still having this debate now?”
Hitchens: “I think there’s a change in the zeitgeist, I really do… I think people have had enough of this. They thought they could take for granted the secular values, the Enlightenment values. They thought that people would go to church and leave us alone, now we can’t be so sure of this, and I think people want to push back.”
Christopher Hitchens was one of my favorite writers. I always found his work very insightful and in the areas where I disagreed with him, refreshingly challenging. Unlike many polemicists, he backed up his ideas with cogent arguments and could never be waved off as anyone’s partisan hack.
What Hitchens and others object to about modern Christianity is the threat of a return to the days when Church and State worked together to dominate both the state and the church, i.e. the daily lives of all of the rest of us including making political demands regarding our spirituality.
One of Hitchens’ themes goes as follows: “Name a moral act done by a believer that would not have been done by a non-believer. Thought of anything yet? Now think of an act of violence done by a believer because of his faith. You’ve already thought of one, haven’t you.”
Why is a born-again, daily-praying Christian bringing all this up? Because these are legitimate points. If this is what others see in Christianity, then Christianity is bringing the wrong message to the world and we need to take a hard look at what Jesus’ message really is. Continue reading
Our universe started with the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. Our sun is 5 billion years old, and earth is around 4.5 billion years old. We’re about halfway through the sun’s lifetime as a Class G star. Estimates for the first appearance of life on earth are 3.5 to 3.9 billion years ago. Mankind’s divergence from the rest of the Ape family, generally considered to be about the time our earliest human-ish ancestors started walking upright, was around 6 million years ago. Walking upright is theorized to have gradually led to the development of larger and larger brains.
There is nothing fixed or static about this universe. Everything is in a perpetual state of change. Matter has increased in complexity from the sub-atomic plasma of the Big Bang to the innumerable combinations of atoms and molecules that make up the physical matter we’re familiar with today. Life forms have also gotten more complex, and over evolutionary time animal nervous systems have increased in complexity to the point that humanity, rational mankind, “homo sapiens sapiens” has emerged, introducing intelligence and conscious awareness to the Biosphere. This led thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin and others to introduce the word “Noosphere” as a term for the realm of human thought and self-reflective conscious awareness. We can think about what we think about, something no other life form we know of can do.
Consciousness itself develops and grows in every individual human. A newborn infant is embedded in pure perception, with no experiential knowledge of the world to make sense of what its senses are perceiving. As the child interacts with the world he constructs internal psychological structures to help him understand it, always testing this understanding against the reality of his experience. This process will continue throughout his life.
With the development of humanity and human consciousness came the development of human society. Our Ape cousins are social creatures who prefer to live in groups and we are no different. But our intelligence, our intricate and subtle ways of interacting with each other, and above all our ability to speak to one another using complex language led us to establish social structures that are non-existent in the rest of the animal kingdom.
Thanks to modern medical technology we have a huge number of reports from people who have died and been brought back to life. I am one of them, although my near-death experience (“NDE”) happened when I was very young and I didn’t get the deluxe tour like others did.
It went like this: I was six years old. Someone was cleaning grease off of some ball bearings from a car using gasoline as a solvent, and he had the gasoline next to him in a Coke bottle. For some reason I thought it was lemonade. When he turned his back I grabbed it and gulped some down quickly before I could get caught, and got plenty down my throat before I could stop myself. I vaguely remember him shaking me in horror, “Did you drink that?!” The next thing I remember I was floating above a young boy in a hospital room, the boy had an apparatus attached to his face, and I presume it was me having a close encounter with a stomach pump. Then suddenly a bunch of people surrounded him and started making a fuss and I drifted down a passageway like a cavern with a flat floor and textured walls. The passage made a gentle bend to the right and I could see a beautiful milky-white light shining against the walls. I drifted to the other end of the tunnel and out to the edge of the light, and hung around near the entrance to the passage. There were several other “beings” there, and among them I felt the kind of comfortable feeling one has among close friends when plans have been temporarily interrupted and everyone is just hanging around waiting to get on with it. No words were spoken that I can recall, and my memory of being in the light is little more than a snapshot.
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.
The perspective I’m trying to develop in this blog is twofold. First, that Spirit and God are real and actively involved with Earth, humanity, and in individual lives; secondly, that the process of Creation is exactly that: a process. The process got under way with the natural interaction of elements to form the physical foundations of the universe, and from that came the evolutionary development of life, up to and including humanity. The Creation story recounted in the Old Testament was given to a specific group of people who were at a rather “young” level of social and cultural maturity. It was intended to lay an historical foundation to both bind them together as a group, and to provide a basis for the laws, customs, and rituals that would be established later. The target audience for that story was still sacrificing their children to statues of farm animals, they were in no way ready for anything more complicated than the tale told in Genesis. It was never intended to be God’s personal lab notebook describing how the universe and the life within it came into being
Several thousand years later we’ve figured much of that out on our own. Creation started with the Big Bang, and It has grown from whatever that initial life form looked like 3.8 billion years ago all the way through all these ages to this species of Ape that is us. What is special about us is that we have the capacity of conscious awareness and abstract thought and, at long last, the capacity to perceive and interact with Spirit.
So evolution is the process of Creation. It didn’t start and end in six days, it started with the Big Bang and is still underway. Evolution is the means by which conscious awareness was created in this physical reality, and we don’t know if its finished yet. We have no idea if we’re the ultimate end-product of Creation or if the development of conscious awareness in modern humanity is only the beginning. For all we know we may only be the ground floor of a noospheric edifice of conscious awareness that will continue to grow into the far future as evolution trundles along on its merry course.
“Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward.” -G.W.F. Hegel
The Industrial Revolution brought radical changes to humanity in a short period of time, and traditional and once-dominant religious institutions were feeling the need to assert themselves. In the mid- to late-1800s came Darwin, the “godless” Marx & Engels Communist Manifesto, the early attempts to study Psychology objectively (i.e. secularly), a united Germany and the Second Reich, and an up-and-coming engine of power and prosperity in the secular democracy of the United States, in which every backwoods preacher and every farmer with a Bible and a vision and a burning mission from God Almighty could start his own religion and preach whatever he wanted.
After over 1000 years of religious domination, suddenly organized religions that were centuries old were being jostled and bumped. The world was changing, and it wasn’t about them anymore. Catholicism reacted by holding the First Vatican Council which resulted in the doctrine of Papal infallibility. Evangelical Protestantism went back to basics and the Fundamentalist movement was the result. If the Pope wanted to claim infallibility for himself, then the Protestant response was that it is the Bible and the Bible alone that is infallible.
Infallible, inerrant, and accurate in every way. I was raised to read the Bible in fine fundamentalist tradition: you don’t play around with the words in the Bible, they came from God. You respect that, and if the Bible says women aren’t to be permitted to speak in church, then women aren’t supposed to be preachers. If it says homosexuality is wrong, then you have to believe that, too. If you see that these things were written in a particular time and place in history and reflected the values of a specific culture rather than anything actually taught by Jesus, then you keep that to yourself because its in the Bible, see? Don’t argue! And if it says that earth was created in six days a few thousand years ago, you don’t argue with that either.
This is how I was taught to read the Bible. But reading it is one thing. What if you want to understand the Bible?