Creation: Chapter 4

Humanity Come of Age

The last 2,500 years are well known historically because their impact impinges directly on our present situation. The religions of the Far East, being involved with the reality of eternity rather than that of the universe, have had correspondingly less effect on the world situation than have the philosophical systems and spiritualities of the Near East, united as they were to be, to greater or lesser extent, with the Hellenic genius of mystical speculation and scientific exploration. This does not imply an inferior valuation of Indian and Chinese religion, which at the present time is coming increasingly into its own as an essential counter-balance to the arid materialism of the West with its attendent mental and physical disintegration.

The advent of Christianity 2,000 years ago seemed to presage a new stage in human growth: through the sacrifice of God who came down to the world in the form of the Son, taking upon himself the full burden of human weakness after having emptied himself of the divine power that was his by right (in somewhat the same way as God in his eternal mode had effected a shrinkage, or contraction, in order to accommodate the created universe), he was able to bring humanity to a right relationship with the Deity, reconciling the world to God. The creation story of a paradisical state of our original ancestors which was shattered by human disobedience to the divine will does not accord with modern evolutionary theory, but before we cast away the Genesis narrative as mere pre-scientific allegory, we would do wisely to consider its deeper implications. The idea of a prior state of bliss that humans enjoyed and from which they departed is found in Indian and Chinese religion also, and so should be taken seriously rather than viewed with superior condescension. It could mean that the human soul came from a sphere of a different order from the physical body that evolved painfully to its present state of cerebral, and therefore mental, pre-eminence. One remembers with sympathy Wordsworth's beautiful lines from his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises in us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar,
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home.

The implication of the soul's pre-existence contained in this passage, while far from scientific proof, rings true to many sensitive people, and the idea need not be summarily dismissed by the arrogance of the marketplace or the dogmatism of the theologian. It is not outside the bounds of possibility that the seat of value judgement which we call the soul should exist in the mental/psychic/spiritual dimension, and find a temporary association with the complex human brain during a person's lifetime, there to gain experience of worldly things in the working-out of relationships with living creatures in general and man in particular. The Freudian psychologist would tend to explain this memory of past bliss, and also the more arresting mystical experiences of union with God that are well documented in the literature of religious studies, to a return to the consciousness of the womb where we felt secure before our expulsion from it at the time of birth. But even if this mechanism were true, the remembrance of greater things in the past could still point to a deeper state of union with God, which could indeed be more easily attainable in the womb (especially if the mother was in peaceful serenity, a not very usual circumstance in worldly life) than after birth into independent existence when the person lay at the mercy of various emotional cross-currents.

It is sad to reflect on the new creation wrought in Christ becoming increasingly tarnished by covetousness for money and power. The new commandment of loving one another was betrayed by the very understandable enmity against the Jews, the children of the old covenant, whose hostility to the new covenant was implacable. This enmity blazed forth in mutual detestation that has only recently been healed. Nevertheless, this fall of Christians from the high, near visionary, path of love for all people, friend and enemy alike, was an inevitable result of the exposing of the full, personality, unconscious no less than conscious, of those dedicated to Christ. In him nothing can remain concealed under the deceptive veneer of pious religion. Jesus tells us that if we dwell in the revelation he has brought, we are indeed his disciples: we will know the truth which will set us free (John 8:31-32). This truth is a direct confrontation with our sins, for it is these that enslave us. In communion with Christ we not only see the truth clearly, but we are also able to accept his forgiveness, which frees us from sin's slavery. Only then does the new life commence. But unfortunately it takes a long time for us to come to terms with the destructive elements in our personality, and so healing is correspondingly delayed. Historically the fresh inspiration provided by the new Faith became insidiously encrusted by the urge to worldly power. At the same time the Hellenic springs of Christian theology became increasingly suspect to the hierarchy. The accession of the Church to political power after the agreement with Constantine led to the surfacing of the oppressive aspects of Christianity even if the Roman Empire now became Holy.

Though we are brought to salvation by faith in God alone, we have still to permit the Holy Spirit to initiate a deeper healing of the personality. Then there is a gradual recreation of the person in the image of God, an image already familiar to the soul in its inner depths. It seems that the human is a bridge uniting the world and God, so that God can work through a willing person to bring order to the material universe. Finally the creation may be filled with the light of the Holy Spirit. Until Christ is a burning presence within us so that he is the inspiration of our life, we remain merely at the foothills of our true vocation, which is to be an agent of light to the world. The preliminary advent of Christ is a mighty light on the path.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century the Dark Ages commenced. Christianity began its slow penetration into northern Europe, but it began to have a decidedly adverse influence further south. It reached a low point in the destruction of the great library of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The creative process sprang to the defence of human enlightenment in the unlikely form of the Arab prophet Muhammad, whose dates are believed to be 570 to 632. The teaching of God given to this "seal of the prophets" in the Koran was clear and definitive, but the inquiring human mind will never cease to ask questions, and in due course Greek philosophy found an hospitable home among the more liberal of the Prophet's descendants. It was especially Aristotle that guided their scientific studies, while the great neo-Platonic mystic Plotinus was an important influence on the development of Sufism at about the same time.

While northern Europe languished under a pall of intellectual darkness illuminated by the occasional light of Christian scholastic theology and sanctity, the Muslim world, which then included Spain, enjoyed something of a minor golden age of enlightenment. It was indeed the destructive initiative of the Crusades, aimed at restoring Christian rule to the Holy Land, that brought the semi-pagan soldiery of the Christian West to the knowledge of a distinctly more advanced Islamic civilization. The Christians came to conquer; they left defeated but distinctly more enlightened than at the start of their campaigns, which were attended by barbaric cruelty not only to Muslims and Jews but also to Christians of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, which was on one occasion sacked by the dissolute army.

The ignorance of the Dark Ages gradually yielded to the enterprise of the Middle Ages, which saw the rise of the great universities and an impressive flourishing of scholastic theology as well as mysticism, the two not infrequently in opposition with one another. The direct experience of God known to the mystic puts human rationality severely in its place, while the reason has to master mystical insight both to interpret its revelation and to check its idiosyncratic excesses. It is here that an authentic religious tradition, by which is meant one that has been proved by the lives and witness of its saints, is of crucial importance, as the great Sufi theologian al-Ghazali showed in relation to Islam. But mystical insight is here also to broaden the way of orthodoxy, which, like everything else in the world, is not static but in a state of continuous creation. Nothing that is fundamentally true need threaten the seeker, for truth, which by its very nature frees us from subservience to idols and brings us closer to the vision of God, draws us to our own fulfilment.

In coming to an assessment of truth, especially in matters spiritual which depend so much on the subtleties of tacit knowledge, there is usually a primary source of enlightenment (usually a scripture), a tradition that has learned to interpret this wisdom over the years, and finally a focus of inner discernment that has two faces. The first is discursive reason based on the scientific findings of the present time, while the second is something much more interior and personal. It is an intuitive awareness of the rightness (or inadequacy) of the matter under consideration, and is a soul quality. It lies beyond mental analysis, but is a mystical appreciation of the validity or otherwise of a teaching. It is mediated directly by the Holy Spirit, but nevertheless requires stern testing by the rational function. In this way intuition and reason may work together, the former pointing the way, the latter then assessing the information to ensure that it is pure, trustworthy and practically sound. In the history of human institutions, especially those associated with religion, these three modalities have often been in conflict. Thus there has been the persecution of mystics in both Christianity and Islam (and on occasion in Judaism also) by a state religion frightened of the threat to an established hierarchy that mystical authority poses. The rationalist has also downgraded mystical illumination because it casts doubt on the absolute inerrancy of reason; "enthusiasm" can be a dangerous word in the ears of the ruling élite - and, of course, it not infrequently goes astray by neglecting the criteria of common sense and rational investigation. It is admittedly true that unchecked mysticism can easily proceed to pantheism, diverting theosophical speculations, and private systems of belief that tail off into frank occultism. Nevertheless, it is the mystic who is generally God's prophet to the world, because he has been privileged to see as much of the divine reality as is compatible with human frailty. His message is nearer the love of God as indicated by Jesus than either that of the theologian or the prelate, unless, of course, representatives of these two disciplines have had a direct mystical encounter themselves. It could, in fact, be insisted that all true theology is mystical inasmuch as a direct encounter with God should precede any thoughts about him.

The Renaissance that followed the Middle Ages witnessed a far less restricted enquiry into the realms of nature. The discovery of new continents opened human awareness to the immensity of the living world, while unobstructed observation established the heliocentricity of our little solar system, in the process provoking a notorious confrontation between clerical dogma and scientific research. Even the full might of the ecclesiastical establishment could not silence the voice of truth, which now, in the mouths of explorers into reality, was the arbiter of a new style of existence. The increasingly uneasy tension between human experience and spiritual tradition culminated in a decisive break in relationship between science and religion during the Age of Reason that dominated the eighteenth century. The spiritual faction tended to use God to explain obscure aspects of the workings of creation, but, very properly, this "god of the gaps", has been ruled out of court by intelligent theologians. As our knowledge increases, so do these gaps become filled in and God is correspondingly eased out of the picture. The furore that followed the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species some 150 years ago, in which the theory of evolution by natural selection (that we have already considered in a previous chapter) enraged the ecclesiastical powers so that they were made to look ridiculous in a public debate on the subject, saw the end of classical theology as a force governing the world of matter, at least in the eyes of unprejudiced observers. Fundamentalist groups retaliated by stressing the creation narrative of the Bible against all rational evidence, and even today the theory of evolution cannot be taught in some areas that are heavily dominated by the local religious establishment.

On a wider front, the Industrial Revolution of little more than two centuries ago confirmed the supremacy of the scientific approach in the most undeniably practical way. It also demonstrated the superiority of Western culture as its products flooded all countries that could afford to install and use them, so that now countries from all over the world move towards their own sufficiency in industries that at one time would have been the preserve of the West. Our contemporary way of life was heralded by the Industrial Revolution as categorically as was human civilization by the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago. When we consider the gradually increasing momentum of human advancement from those prehistoric days to the time immediately preceding the industrialization of society, and compare it with the shattering crescendo of development in our own time, it is evident that the advances over the past century have been far greater than the sum of all earlier material achievements. It is no exaggeration to speak of the technological revolution of the last forty years, for now has power of previously inconceivable magnitude been placed in human hands. We can not only travel in outer space as a preliminary to exploring the other planets of our solar system, but also have the capacity to destroy the entire fabric of the earth.

The break in relationship between science and religion already noted now seems irremediable. The workings of the universe are seen increasingly to be a part of its own nature, not depending on any outside force to supplement them. And yet creation's highest achievement, the human being, has proved himself inadequate to cope with the responsibility of domination that has been thrust upon him (either by divine decree or the towering mental capacity that natural selection has given him, according to the philosophical view of the observer). The mastery of fire first achieved by Homo erectus has found its apogee not only in the central heating of homes but also in the incinerators attached to the gas-chambers of the Nazi concentration camps. Recent developments in the understanding of physics have unleashed the burden of nuclear energy on mankind; it can be used as a limitless source of power but also as a way of killing millions of living forms when it escapes rigorous control, whether in the course of warfare or during accidents involving nuclear reactors. What does a man gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self? (Mark 8:36).

The situation of mankind was pondered deeply if not for long by one of the few great prophets of our century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as he lay incarcerated in prison after the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Hitler, of which he was an accomplice. His Letters and Papers from Prison edited by Eberhard Bethge make as compulsive reading now as they did to his contemporaries forty years ago. He was imprisoned from April 1943 to the time of his death by hanging on Monday, April 9th, 1945, a day after he had conducted a little religious service. The concept of the coming of age of the world was central to his late thought, for he too realized that God was no longer necessary to explain the intricacies of the natural process. That type of God was a human artifact and indeed had to die if man's coming of age was to be complete. It was the same type of God that the greatest of the Western Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, had bade us take leave of some six centuries previously.

Among Bonhoeffer's thoughts is the crucial theme, "We should find God in what we do know, not in what we don't; not in outstanding problems, but in those we have already solved", and again, "God cannot be used as a stop-gap. We must not wait until we are at the end of our tether: he must be found at the centre of life: in life and not in death; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in activity, and not only in sin. The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Christ. Christ is the centre of life, and in no sense did he come to answer our unsolved problems." His reflections take him to the conclusion that "God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who makes us live in this world without using him as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we are ever standing. Before God and with him we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us."

However I would add, it is only in the presence of that God that we can start to be mature human beings, not merely ones who, like youngsters in their late teens, have come of age in the eyes of the law and in their physical development.

The uneasy truce between human experience and religious dogma that has attended world history at least since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers was definitively broken with the advent of the Renaissance, and now the rift is very wide. This is especially sad when we remember the impetus given to scientific research by members of various religious orders in the Middle Ages to say nothing of the famous hospitals some of these communities founded. Religion shows itself to its best advantage when it serves the public like Jesus washing the disciples' feet. This is human creation at its finest.

The human has indeed come of age in his power over the natural creation. The sky alone is the limit, but whether he is more fulfilled now than in the long ages past when he hunted and gathered is debatable. Then at least he could share his spoils with his fellows. But the question itself is irrelevant; we are not here simply to be happy. We are to create a new order under the aegis of the God who absents himself for our sake. Is man nature's masterpiece or its Frankenstein's monster? His power to create is seemingly unlimited, but will he bring the earth to full spiritual potentiality or simply submerge it in a sheet of flames?

Chapter 5
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