Last week we saw how religion can be seen as an attempt to ‘articulate the noosphere’, in which the ‘laws’ of our personal and cultural evolution are sought and by which we can assure our continued personal and cultural growth. This week we will take a look at how such articulation at the level of religion slowly informs our cultural standards.
From Articulating the Noosphere to Regulating Human Behavior
Society has long struggled to both understand the principles which underlie a ‘successful’ society and to codify these principles into what we now understand as ‘secular laws’. As chronicled by Nick Spencer in his book, “The Evolution of the West”, religion’s role in this historic process has been dualistic. In many cases it has found itself trapped in the perpetuation of its financial and legalistic manifestations and power structures, and in other cases it has contributed to the fundamental concepts by which civilization has successfully evolved.
As discussed in the post of 6 August 2016 (Isn’t This Just Deism?, Part 1, http://www.lloydmattlandry.com/?m=201508), the thinking of Thomas Jefferson captured both arms of this dualism. While his approach was to discard the ‘otherworldly’ aspects of the New Testament and focus on Jesus as a secular moralist, he nonetheless drew the basis of his understanding of human nature and personal freedom from these teachings. The result, of course, was a basis for a set of laws which has underpinned a truly ‘successful’ society.
Larry Siedentop, in his book, “Inventing the Individual’, traces the history of ideals that form the basis of Western values. It’s not so much that these ideals are absent in Eastern thinking, but do not enjoy the primacy seen in the West. His take on the ‘articulation of the Noosphere’ that has emerged in the West:
o Each person exists with worth apart from their social position
o Everyone deserves equal status under secular law
o Religious belief cannot be compelled
o Individual conscience must be respected
As Teilhard (and many others) have noted, the Western evolution of understanding of the person and society is becoming a standard embraced elsewhere:
“…from one end of the world to the other, all the peoples, to remain human or to become more so, are inexorably led to formulate the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very same terms in which the West has formulated them.”
The Perennial Philosophy
While considerable diversity and frequent contradiction is paramount among the threads of thought seen in the evolution of religion, Aldous Huxley saw common cornerstones in all of them. He defines the immemorial and universal ‘Perennial Philosophy’ which permeates all religions as:
“…the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.”
Translating this semi-theological assertion into the perspectives of our ‘Secular God’, we can see that this concept of the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ reflects the principle which powers the coming–to-be of the universe (the ‘world of things’) and that it is reflected in some way in the core of the human person.
Effectively, this ‘metaphysic’ points the way to the underlying activity by which we have come to be and the guidelines by which we successfully negotiate our growth. The Perennial Philosophy recognizes that there are basic dynamics of human existence which, understood and managed properly, will lead to increased completeness. The religious and societal norms which have evolved, therefore, are our attempt to articulate these dynamics and the activities of understanding and management of them. By definition, as we evolve as persons and as societies, we hope to evolve them in a direction which activates our potential.
Or, as Karen Armstrong puts it in her insights on the many streams of thinking which developed during the ‘Axial Age’:
“The fact that they all (the sages of the Axial Age) came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked”.
The theologian, Cynthia Bourgeault, puts it a little differently:
”I think it’s fair to say that all of the great spiritual paths lead toward the same center—the larger, nondual mind as the seat of personal consciousness—but they get there by different routes.”
What’s the Alternative?
Successfully negotiating the continuation of our evolution goes beyond fulfilling our potential. It is obvious today that human activity always has the potential of contributing to our extinction. Finding and understanding the ‘laws of the noosphere’ also requires us to adapt to our ever-increasing population and the effects it has on the planet. One example of such an adaptation is acknowledged by John McHale in his book, “The Future of the Future”:
“At this point, then, where men’s affairs reach the scale of potential disruption of the global ecosystem, he invents precisely those conceptual and physical technologies that may enable him to deal with the magnitude of a complex planetary society.”
It’s not just that we are in danger of destroying our planet, but that even more danger lurks in our ever-increasing proximity to each other. As our population continues to expand, we are more and more at the mercy of our instincts to defend our space, to keep ‘the other’ at a distance, to defend our territory and make sure we get our fair share. Inventing McHale’s ‘conceptual technologies’ means to develop evolutional strategies that overcome this strong resistance to closeness.
In this area it’s essential to our continued evolution for us to ‘use our neo-cortex brain to modulate the instinctual stimuli of our reptilian and limbic brains.”
These ‘basic dynamics’ and ‘conceptual technologies’, therefore, are what is sought by humans in their attempts to ‘articulate the noosphere’. Culling them from the enormous and often contradictory cluster of statements of beliefs that have arisen over the long evolution of religion is the main goal of the ‘reinterpretation’ process that is the focus of the last segment of our search for ‘The Secular Side of God’.
As Teilhard sees it, referring to a person’s belief:
“By definition, his religion, if true, can have no other effect than to perfect the humanity in him.”
The Next Post
So, if we believe that that all statements of religious beliefs include some elements of the ‘Perennial Philosophy’, what remains is to address these statements and, using the perspectives we have developed thus far, reinterpret them to find such kernels. Next week we will begin to apply our ideas of the ‘Secular Side of God’ as we address many of these statements.