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Where To After The Gods Have Gone?

"I triumph, I triumph, I triumph, the last word is spoken. Farewell to my sighs, farewell to my tears, At last I have broken the bondage of years!"

The Sea of Faith is full of clergy who fulfil the criterion for the second category of Church Leavers defined by our very own categorizing Aristotle, Noel Cheer. – those who go with a great fuss, trumpeting their new-found liberty like Schubert's lover in Die schöne Müllerin, and with about as much ultimate conviction.

The latest of these is John Patrick, author of "The Gods Have to Go" in the November SoF Newsletter and I should like to take issue with the group in answering him.

These prophets of the humdrum seem to overlook two principal issues:

The transforming force of religion on the human psyche over the ages has changed lives and been a major factor for good (and also evil) in the evolution of social attitudes and the interaction of humanity and nature. The fundamentalist extremists which John Patrick condemns (and fears) represent only a fraction of religious activities – Christian, Islamic and Jewish are the ones I know something about – and their social reality is much more complex than his superficial generalizations allow for. For example the schismatics of Africa led by Akinola of Nigeria are splitting the Anglican Church by their bigoted attitude to homosexuality, the priesthood of women and the literalist approach to the Bible, but they are also transforming African society by their fight against poverty, AIDS and the abuse of women, and supplying martyrs to those causes.

The gods which the Noisy Leavers want to banish are all man-made. The attribute 'man' is deliberate; the deities of Israel, Islam and Christianity have a lot of testosterone in their make-up. They are only human artifacts. To wheel them off to the dump does nothing to validate or invalidate a divine ambience about us. Since the beginning of human awareness, humankind has felt the presence of the divine. Rather indecorously Noel refers to it as an "itch" and our response as a "scratch". John Patrick's unsubstantiated assertions – "The current answers given to the oft-repeated dogma 'there must be something' seem mostly fatuous, and indicate we have learned nothing in the past 300 years" – are not arguments. Given that Jesus built a model life on conformity with the divine will, which he pictured as a father figure, it seems to me as presumptuous and arrogant simply to dismiss the divine presence without argument as it is to discount the comments of serious modern scholars with a disdainful et al. The accusation of "a total lack of knowledge" on the part of the press is equally groundless. The daily papers publish a wide spectrum of views; see the excellent and balanced article on the new spirituality which appeared in section B of the Herald on New Year's Eve – Soul Searching.

The anthropomorphic deities of the past are for many of us an error which the "past three hundred years" (more like 500 if we count the reformation as the starting point) have led us to see. Teilhard de Chardin points the way to a new concept of the divine which explains the human itch and the ways in which we scratch it in a more acceptable way.

An expert paleontologist, Teilhard, in Le Phénomène Humain (The Phenomenon of Man) traces the patterns of evolution from the mega-molecules of primaeval slime to the emergence of humankind. He describes the processes by which a phylum (evolutionary phase) matures into a multiplicity of competing options and generates increasing intensity between them until one bursts through into a new level of complexity and leads evolution into a new stage.

In the realm of matter, gravity forms a mesh, attracting particles to each other and "holding the stars in their courses". Teilhard proposes an additional principle of a different kind, as pervasive through the whole cosmos as gravity, which he identifies as conscience – awareness at sub-human levels of evolution, self-awareness and moral consciousness in homo sapiens. What lies beyond human awareness we cannot know. Conscience inheres in every atom of the cosmos but just as infrared light or the passage of the hour hand round the dial or the bullet in flight are not perceptible to our senses, being too slow or too fast to be seen, so conscience only becomes perceptible to our awareness with the turning of the heliotrope to face the sun or the curling of the bean around the nearest pole, and, within that part of the cosmos we can know, reaches self-awareness only in humankind. In our limited perception it is associated with Life. This concept leads Teilhard to propose that for the first time in evolutionary history, subjects can understand the processes of evolution and collaborate with them, creating, as it were, their own developmental destiny, converting what was previously a morphological process into a psycho-social one. The mammalian phylum has been transcended by the human; a new order of nature has emerged, replacing the physical advantages which longer necks, or powerful jaws or speedy flight conferred, with mental skill, with wider and wider patterns of collaboration and the use of more and more competent tools.

Teilhard describes two characteristics which mark the maturity of a phylum and signal its readiness to accede to a higher order of being: the individual strands which make it up proliferate and diversify, and the competition between them creates the tension which will in due course precipitate the transforming crisis. The human phylum is already manifesting the characteristics of this maturity within the complex of social, economic, political, ideological, philosophical and religious spheres, by the multiplicity of competing models: – national sovereignties v international corporates, capitalism v social justice and environmental protection, democracy (so-called!) v theocracy and despotism, this religion v that religion v secularism and so on accompanied by a growing tension between them. The crisis is heightened by the pressures of human population on the natural order, by the destruction of habitat, by the over-exploitation of resources, by climate change precipitated by rising levels of carbon dioxide and methane. The supply of water and oil and the loss of tillable land are already sowing the seeds of desperation in many parts of the world and there are enough atom bombs concealed about the globe to precipitate a man-made disaster in response to competition for resources and inequity of distribution. If that is not enough, there is always the possibility of a devastating pandemic, a large meteor strike like the one that destroyed the dinosaurs or the eruption of a super-volcano capable of destroying crops globally and disrupting travel for years. There is one of those just 200km south of Hamilton – lake Taupo – which devastated the world 30,000 years ago and which is due for another cataclysm any time now. In one way or another the world is set for a precipitating event and awaiting the trigger. The prophetic voices of scientists talk now of decades not centuries or millennia before catastrophic conditions set in. The more sanguine among us hope that whatever the cataclysm, a remnant will remain to lead the evolution of awareness into the new stage, homo animalis becoming homo spiritualis.

Teilhard proposes that the moment of transcendence produces a leading shoot around which the new creature coalesces and that the leading shoot to the new stage is already there in the model of Jesus.

Scientists have given us a picture of a cosmos which is becoming on a scale which overwhelms our imagination and denies our attempts to answer the question "becoming what?". We cannot attribute purpose to God. The presence and action of another universal principle, conscience, which Teilhard demonstrates, gives the possibility of self-determination to the cosmos by way of directed coincidence, (those ratios at the Big Bang without which, if they had not been what they are, matter could not exist, the anomalous expansion of water as ice is formed etc) and establishes an affective link between the whole cosmos and evolving humanity. Where gravity can be measured, conscience must be experienced; it is primarily subjective, embracing the whole gamut of the emotions as well as rational discourse. Where gravity promotes physical affinities, conscience promotes affective affinities, in a word, Love. This principle is so much a factor in our daily lives that we take it for granted like gravity or the air we breathe. Although it seems at first sight impossible to credit, the universe is constituted in such a way that an individual human awareness can establish a personal bonding with the divinity that permeates us all, enter into a harmony which is signaled by "that peace which the world cannot give", which opens channels of capacity like those which amazed the participants at Pentecost and it manifests itself in an impulse to love.

Conscience is not God, any more than energy is, or the strong and weak forces which hold matter together. The divine is coterminous with the cosmos; implicit in every atom, it expresses itself in the operations of the universe of which the exercise of the human will in everyday activities has its part. And it is totally self-aware. Jesus appears to suggest this when, to reassure his followers of their significance in the terrors of the apocalypse to come, he says (Matt 10:29) "No sparrow falls to the ground without your Father knowing."

The gods which John Patrick wants, rightly, to abolish, have become stumbling blocks to our understanding of what total awareness means. We have a big word for it – omniscience – which serves to insulate us from its implications, lest we be overwhelmed. We personify our gods for the same reason, to keep them within the compass of our understanding. He is right; they must go, leaving the awareness in us that at this moment in time and space and in that unknown that lies beyond them, divinity is closer for each of us than breathing, the sacred participates in our thoughts and actions, indeed the Sacred is evolving as a consequence of what we think and do.

The call of the divine in us, Noel's itch, is to establish that bond which Jesus calls "the kingdom of heaven" and to increase the loving affinities which bind us to each other and to nature. To this end beliefs, credos, are totally irrelevant except as a means for each individual to achieve union with the cosmos. The Greek philosophers sought peace of mind in renunciations of one sort or another. The Neo-Platonists saw life as a moving upwards towards the divine in love sparked by one of the four frenzies, physical love, prophecy, madness and wine. I am told Buddhists seek their way in meditation, Muslims in orthopraxis, Jews in the observance of the law. To each their own path. Christianity, for all the warping of Jesus' teaching and example it has generated, is, at its best, a good passage to the affinity which the divine seeks to establish in us. Churches are, despite their differing creeds, societies bound together in the bond of love. The communion they share in the body and blood of Christ is a realisation, however imperfect, of the divine affinity. Those who storm out, shouting that they cannot accept the parcel of creeds and rituals that make up worship, like those who, within the Church, adopt narrow sectarian views, are abandoning the substance for the shadow. Credos are relevant, not for salvation, but only as a path for people to find unity with others. Where they create separation and division they condemn themselves.

Jesus the Leading Shoot shows us the way. "Unless you trust as a little child you may in no way enter the Kingdom". That is the only attitude which leaves the mind open to the omniscience and omnipresence of the divine and the astounding consequences of love. Trust and love negate the judgementalism and consequent prejudice which fission and destroy our relations with each other. Jesus said "Don't judge".

His predictions in Matthew 26 tally with the predictions of our scientists. There may well be an apocalypse in one form or another. Very many may well die and with them the divine suffers and dies as well. The lesson of Jesus is simple. Whatever the apocalyptic trigger which opens the way to the evolution of homo spiritualis, and whatever we try to do to avert it, our true calling is to collaborate with the divine by loving each other. This is the only answer to apocalypse and foreshadows the nature of the new society which hopefully will follow it. The evolution of this part of the universe depends on our success.

As a postscript the implications of this shift of perspective are vast. If the divine is implicit in every grain of us, salvation becomes the successful transition from animal to human in each of us and in humanity as a whole; incarnation takes on a different meaning, raising issues of Jesus' role and our own, the nature of evil and its relationship to the divine, the nature of evolution and our willing or unwilling participation in it, i.e. the question of freewill; openness to the divine enables capacities which may change our view of miracles, and the implications of total awareness within and outside space/time raise interesting speculations about life after death. (cf the Neo-platonic hope of union with and reunion within the divine.) There is however a caveat attached to the hope of a new world where the lion will lie down with the lamb. Of the twelve million sperm in a male ejaculation one, just one, may just possibly unite with an ovum to make a new life. The cosmos is extravagantly prodigal in its becoming. The new evolutionary shift on the threshold of which we seem to be standing, may not succeed. It depends on us.

Fred Marshall 2006