Religion in Human and Cosmic Evolution: Whitehead’s Alternative Vision

This was an early draft of a paper I presented at the 10th International Whitehead Conference. For video of the actual presentation, click HERE.

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Abstract: This talk compares several approaches to the emergence of religion in human evolution. I contrast Robert Bellah’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s pluralistic, cosmologically oriented accounts to Daniel Dennett’s reductionistic, adaptationist account. Following Bellah and Whitehead, I root the emergence of religion in the ritualized play of our hominid ancestors. Foregrounding the importance of play behavior (instinctive in all mammals)  is a direct challenge to adaptationist explanations of religion in terms of its sociobiological utility. I then argue that the history of human religious expression should count as data requiring interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme. Materialistic approaches seeking to “explain away” religious expression stem from an incoherent bifurcated image of nature, wherein dead matter is given explanatory priority over life and consciousness, which are relegated to the status of improbable epiphenomena. This approach, which ends up claiming that the emergence of human consciousness and its attendant religious experiences are an improbable accident, provides the exact opposite of a proper scientific account. Bellah and Whitehead in their own ways re-imagine the materialist’s bifurcated image of nature, making it possible for the project of “naturalizing religion” to proceed in a non-reductionistic way. The guiding research question is no longer “how can the history of human religious experience be explained away as a product of mechanical forces?”, but instead becomes “what must the universe be like, such that human religious experiences are possible?” 

My talk today will explore the evolutionary origins of human religion. As many post-colonial anthropologists have pointed out, “religion” is a highly contested term that cannot be unproblematically deployed as a transhistorical, universalist catch-all category. Although I’ve chosen to use the word, I agree with this problematization of a priori definitions of religion, which all too often blur our perception of the multifaceted richness of human spiritual expression by forcing it to submit to the discursive categories of modern scientific and sociological methodologies. I include the term “spirituality” here to indicate that by “religion” I don’t just mean a set of clearly articualted dogmas in which one believes with certainty, but a creative and experientially grounded orientation to the mystery of being alive. Whatever religion, and the spirituality at its core, are, they are more than can be captured by a fixed definition. They are interrelated dimensions of an ongoing cosmologically embedded activity, not simply a set of verbally professed beliefs. Like Augustine said of time, when it comes to religion and spirituality, “I know what it is if no one asks; but if anyone does, then I cannot explain it.” Instead of trying to explain religion by reducing it to the favored terms of modern biology, psychology, sociology, the aim of this talk is to let it reveal itself by situating it within the long evolutionary account offered by Robert Bellah and the alternative cosmological scheme provided by Alfred North Whitehead.

Inquiring into the origins of religion—and connecting those origins to the evolutionary emergence of our species—is necessarily to step beyond the bounds of strictly empirical or positivist science and into the domain of myth-making. It is important that I be upfront about this, since it does a disservice to the phenomenon in question to pretend that what is essential to it could be accessed in an impersonal or objective way. Religion, now and in the past, has more to do with matters of concern than with matters of fact. Inquiring into its nature will never be a dispassionate affair decidable by mathematical proof or experimental refutation. At the same time, human religious concerns and values are themselves matters of fact that have arisen and continue to arise in the course of cosmic evolution. As such, they require interpretation within any adequate cosmological scheme.

Even the most sober-minded, materialistic scientists, whenever they offer evolutionary accounts of the origins our species, or of our universe, inevitably become myth-makers. Bellah makes this quite clear when, in the early chapters of his 2011 book Religion in Human Evolution, he examines the popular works of scientific luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Jaques Monod. It became even clearer to me when I watched the philosopher and author of The Atheists Guide to Reality (2011) Alex Rosenberg during a recent conference presentation introduce Charles Darwin and Lord Kelvin as “old testament fathers” and describe images of a leaf insect, a double helix DNA molecule, and a chamber full of gas particles as “iconography”—that is, religious icons whose contemplation is supposed to convert you to the laws they express. Each of these supposedly scientific thinkers ends up offering their own physical or biological sermon, pretending all the while to have achieved some sort of heroic post-religious and so purely scientific rationality. The implication of course is that they are adults while the rest of us are cowardly children afraid to accept the pointlessness of our own existence, terrified of the fact that we are, as Monod put it, “[gypsies living] on the edges of an alien world” (48).

In contrast to these scientistic thinkers engaged in what Whitehead referred to as “heroic feats of explaining away,” my own approach, building on Whitehead and Bellah, is motivated by the search for some sort of cosmological reconciliation between scientific theorization and religious mythopoiea. I hope to show that the forced choice between religion and science is a false one, and that the emergence of an ecological civilization will depend upon our ability to construct a cosmological outlook that does justice to both scientific facts and religious values, and that recognizes the various ways facts and values overlap.

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Perhaps the most well-known attempt to “explain away” the phenomenon of religion is the philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell (2006). He begins his book by comparing religion to Dicrocelium dendriticum (lancet fluke), a tiny manipulative parasite that infects the brains of ants, compelling them to climb to the top of the nearest blade of grass so as to get themselves eaten by a cow, thereby transporting their fungal stowaways into the nutrient rich environment necessary for the completion of their reproductive cycle. Religion is explained, not as a genetic parasite, but, building on Richard Dawkins’ well-known and largely discredited meme theory, as a memetic parasite, a sort of mind disease. By analogizing cultural evolution to the blind process of natural selection, even mind is explained away as mere mimicry. Monkey see, monkey do. Humans, like every other organism from the neo-Darwinian perspective, are not granted evolutionary agency, but are reduced to lumbering robots accidentally shaped by a multigenerational battle to the death with a harsh environment. So-called religious “memes” are said to spread and survive today not because people find them deeply meaningful and potentially transformative but because they have succeeded in their “competition for rehearsal space in the brain” by getting copies of themselves made. Their transmission from brain to brain, and from generation to generation, has been, as Dennett puts it, “transmission without comprehension.”[1] Now that humans have woken up to  the all-comprehending light of scientific rationality, and have come to know the universe as nothing but a large, complicated, purposelessly operating machine, religion has worn out any usefulness it may once have had and must be gotten rid of. Maybe it served our species initially as a sort of “morality prosthesis” or “nurse crop” for civilization, to use Dennett’s words again. But we are grown ups now and need to accept that existence—that of humanity and of the cosmos itself—ultimately comes to nothing. Nihil. Or so the modern scientific materialist story goes.

To be fair to Dennett, his book is less an attempt to provide the definitive explanation for the evolution of religion than it is an argument that religion ought to be studied scientifically as a natural phenomenon. He admits that the memetic theory he puts forward is probably wrong, but at least, he says, it gives others something to fix. Fair enough. Following thinkers like Bellah and Whitehead, I am sympathetic to the call for a naturalization of religion, for a scientific study of it as a phenomenon emergent from and continuous with its wider biological and cosmological contexts. But of course, it all depends what we mean by “science” and what we mean by “nature.”

The problem, obvious to anyone who has studied Whitehead’s work closely, is that Dennett’s approach to the evolutionary emergence of religion presupposes what Whitehead’s philosophy of organism so passionately protests against: the bifurcation of nature.[2] For Dennett, to count as a scientific explanation, the cultural meanings of religion must be reduced to the natural mechanisms of biology. All the seemingly intrinsic values of our human existence must once have been of merely instrumental survival value, otherwise they could not have been preserved by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection. All seemingly intrinsic value is then explained away as a mere “psychic addition” to what is really the purposeless exchange of genetic or memetic material across the generations.

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The contrast between such reductionistic biological accounts of religion and Bellah’s and Whitehead’s more cosmological approaches could not be starker. Dennett mentions and even praises William James’ radically empiricist approach to religious experience (a major influence on Whitehead), only to dismiss it as inadequate for his own, more reductionistic purposes. Dennett instead trades in James’ psychological microscope for what he describes as a wide-angle biological and social (or sociobiological) lens. For Whitehead and Bellah, biology, psychology, and sociology each have important contributions to make to the study of religion, but in the end the proper lens to take is that of the telescope: human religious expression must be understood in the broadest context we are capable of imagining, namely, the cosmological.

“Cosmology,” says Whitehead, “is the effort to frame a scheme of the general facts of this epoch, of the general character of the present stage of this universe. The cosmological scheme should present the genus, for which the special schemes of the sciences are the species” (The Function of Reason, 77). He goes on: “A cosmology should above all things be adequate. It should not confine itself to the categoreal notions of one science, and explain away everything which will not fit in. Its business is not to refute experience, but to find the most general interpretive system” (ibid., 86).

So long as nature remains bifurcated, reductionistic explanatory strategies like Dennett’s will continue to handicap scientific investigation into the evolutionary emergence of religion. Instead of trying to explain away religious behavior as the accidental result of blind biological forces, we must treat it as a genuine flowering of the universe we find ourselves living within: not as accidental, but as essential. Human religious experience, in other words, should count as part of the legitimate data that must be included in any adequate account of this universe. To treat religion naturalistically, we need not explain it away as epiphenomenal. We can instead inquire into the cosmic conditions of its possibility. From the perspective of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, the history of the human species’ religious experience “consists of a certain widespread direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (Religion in the Making, 74).

Stated in more general terms, instead of following the typical, reductionistic logic of evolutionary explanation that would seek to make life and mind mere epiphenomena accidentally emergent from what remains in reality a dead material universe, we can adopt the alternative, no less scientific, Whiteheadian approach.

“Mankind has gradually developed from the lowliest forms of life, and must therefore be explained in terms applicable to all such forms,” admits Whitehead. “But why,” he continues, “why construe the later forms by analogy to the earlier forms. Why not reverse the process?” (The Function of Reason, 15). That is, why not give up the polemical desire to explain away the more complex by reducing it to the less complex by recognizing that, if phenomena like life and mind (and with them, human religiosity) are present in today’s universe, they must have in some sense been prefigured from the beginning.

“In the course of evolution,” Whitehead asks, “why should the trend have arrived at mankind, if his mental activities…remain without influence on his bodily actions?” In other words, the question we should ask ourselves is “what is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?” Whitehead’s answer is that “…some lowly, diffused form of the operations of [mentality] constitute the vast diffused counter-agency by which the material cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 26). This “counter-agency” is counter to the otherwise entropic tendency of the physical universe, which I should point out Whitehead has no interest in denying. Much of the cosmos, including the Sun that feeds all life on our planet, he readily admits, is decaying and will eventually return to chaos. He invokes a counter-agency only out of explanatory necessity, since the mere mechanics of efficient causality cannot account for the current highly organized state of the universe, for the fact that a star like the Sun feeding a living planet like the Earth should have been possible at all. Physicists now understand that far from equilibrium systems are not in fact disobeying the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but more efficiently realizing it. But why must we emphasize entropy as the sole causal tendency, given that physicists now also understand our universe to be self-organizing at every scale? Why not also identify “centropy,” the tendency of the universe to organize itself into ever-more complex forms or centers of agency? Alongside efficient causality, formal and final causality are also evident in the creative urge of the universe toward as yet unactualized possibilities of self-organization. If we deny a cosmic ground to agency, purposiveness, and value, logical consistency requires the absurdity that we deny it in ourselves, as well. For we are the children of this universe. Whitehead defines religion at one point as “the wider conscious reaction of [humans] to the universe in which they find themselves” (Religion in the Making, 31). Following Whitehead’s reversal of the usual logic of evolutionary explanation, we can recognize the emergence of religion in human beings as evidence that something more than blind chance and inexplicably imposed physical necessity is at work—or, as we’ll see—at play in the evolution of our universe.

Bellah, like Whitehead, grounds his account of the emergence of religion in the broadest possible context by situating human evolution within so-called “Big History”: he spends the first 40 pages of the second chapter of his book, called “Religion and Evolution,” laying out the course of cosmogenesis from the first few seconds after the big bang, through the formation of galaxies and stars, to the solidification of the Earth, to the appearance of the first single-celled procaryotes, to eukaryotes, metazoa, reptiles, mammals, primates, and finally Homo sapiens. He is less confident than Whitehead when it comes to attributing some “metaphysical direction” to the over-all arc of the evolutionary process. He does, however, approvingly reference a comment in The Origin of Species, where Darwin admits that “a little dose…of judgement or reason often comes into play, even in animals very low in the scale of nature” (208). Purpose does seem to operate, then, at least at the scale of individual living beings. In contrast to Dennett’s mechanical, gene-centric view, Bellah’s is certainly an organism-oriented understanding of biology. But it is not yet a full-fledged ontology of organism like Whitehead’s. More on this later.

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Although he of course recognizes important distinctions that make humans unique among other members of the animal kingdom, even reproducing Terence Deacon’s statement that our species represents an entirely new phylum, Bellah nonetheless dwells at length on the many pre-existing mammalian capacities that prepared the way for us, including extended parental care, empathy and shared attention, ethical relations (including ritualized aggression and mating), and most significantly, the capacity for play. Play becomes especially prominent in young mammals because of the “relaxed field” provided by prolonged empathic parental care. This period extends even more as evolution draws nearer to Homo sapiens, who are born exceptionally prematurely and remain in the childhood phase longer than any other species. Play is not initially a functional capacity that might be selected for by the normal Darwinian mechanisms. It appears to be engaged in purely for its own sake as an end in itself. Play has nothing to do with sexual reproduction or eating (though it may be erotic and enjoyable), nor can we play while fleeing or fighting for our lives. This is not to say that play may not become functional later on. Bellah cites numerous ethologists who describe the way bouts of playfulness in some primate species leads to the neutralization of hierarchies and physical inequalities among play partners, such that a sort of proto-justice appears to emerge. More than any other animal behavior, play requires the capacity, not only for shared attention, but for shared intention. Shared attention and intention (in a word, empathy) are the precondition for any form of sociality.

Here is where Bellah’s approach becomes really interesting. He posits that early hominids developed the first ritual activities out of complexified forms of mammalian play. The source of the complexification was the ramping up of empathic sociality among humans, eventuating in what Bellah (quoting Sarah Hrdy) calls “emotional modernity” (85). Homo sapien minds, due to their tendency to play ever-more intimately, have become uniquely vulnerable to possession by the power of symbolism—the power of words and images to bind us to certain political and cosmological worlds, worlds we literally create through the ritual enactment of myth. This power of symbolic binding transforms ritual play into religion. It is important in this context to admit, as Whitehead reminds us, that “we should not be obsessed by the idea of [religion’s] necessary goodness. This is a dangerous delusion.”[3] Despite the fact that religious symbolic consciousness was born out of our unprecedented capacity for social intimacy, once it has emerged, it has the power to detach us from one another just as readily, generating the worst kind of in-group/out-group discrimination, and, as has become more apparent in the modern, industrial era, symbolic consciousness also has the power to produce civilizational myths that are entirely detached from the ecological context of the living planet that sustains us.

What is clear is that religion grows out of the soil of collective ritual. Religion is not therefore primarily something you merely believe in: it is something you are and do. The essential thing about religious life is not mindless, ranting about dogmatic creeds, but sincerity in its engagement with symbolic forms of ritual play. A religious symbol “[has] the effect of transforming character when [it is] sincerely held and vividly apprehended,” according to Whitehead.[4] Early rituals, we can speculate based on the archeological evidence, emerged out of collective celebration involving song and dance. Most probably, these celebrations were in tune with lunar and seasonal rhythms. The earliest religious rituals were cosmologically embedded celebrations of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. These ritual celebrations were not based on beliefs in supernatural beings, but on deep perception of and desire to participate in the rhythms animating the plants and animals on the earth and the shinning orbs in the sky. The human being’s religious impulse, growing out of ritual play, is to “recreate” the harmonies of these cosmic beings in symbolic form, to refashion them into myths for the guidance of our civilized societies.

Bellah’s argument draws extensively on the cultural historian Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (1938), from which I quote at length: “Archaic society…plays as the child or animal plays…Only in a later phase of society is play associated with the idea of something to be expressed in it and by it…Then, what was wordless play assumes poetic form. In the form and function of play…[humanity’s] consciousness that it is embedded in a sacred order of things finds its first, highest, and holiest expression.” (Homo Ludens, 17-18).

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Rooting the emergence of religion in ritual play short-circuits any attempt to explain religion in terms of biological utility, since by definition play is not about working as a means to the ultimate end of survival, but about sheer enjoyment as an end in itself. Further, because of the important role of play in the evolution of our species, and because it depends on shared attention/intention and basic ethical relations, it provides clear evidence contrary to Dennett’s view that organisms are just mimicry machines. “In acknowledging play,” says Huizinga, “you acknowledge mind, for whatever else play is, it is not matter.”

“Even in the animal world,” he continues, “[play] bursts the bounds of the physically existent. From the point of view of a world wholly determined by blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. Play only becomes possible, thinkable…when an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos. The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings…” (Homo Ludens, 4).

Huizinga here almost slips into Whitehead’s fallacy of bifurcation by reifying the difference between mind and matter. Elsewhere he asks “would it be too absurd to assign a place [to play] outside the purely physiological?” I’d say yes, it would be absurd, or at least incoherent, to suppose the playfulness of mind-bearing organisms somehow exists separately from their physiological make-up. The physiological need not be equated with the mechanical.

Even though I’m critical of Huizinga’s slippage toward bifurcation due to his tendency to reify culture and mind as entirely “outside” of and set apart from mere “nature,” I still acknowledge and gladly inherit from him his other, underemphasized but no less profound intuition, that the efficacious reality of play in human and nonhuman lifeforms entails that we inhabit a sensitive and playful universe, not a dull, deaf, and dumb one. As we’ll see in a moment, I have similarly mixed feelings about the residue of bifurcation in Bellah’s more phenomenological approach to religion.

We might also describe ritual as serious play (following Huizinga who points out that the opposite of play is not seriousness, but work). That animals should engage in play behavior is already a sign that reductionistic accounts of biological evolution miss something when they ignore organismic agency and focus exclusively on the struggle for existence and fitness to a pre-existing environment. Life, as Whitehead also knew, isn’t just about mere survival. The urge of life seeks more than mere survival: it seeks to thrive, to “live well, and to live better.”[5]  If survival was the name of the game, matter would have done better to remain in rock form, for compared to million year old minerals, life is deficient in survival value.

Whitehead, like Bellah and Huizinga, also roots religious behavior in ritual forms of play.[6] Both he and Bellah offer strikingly similar accounts of the stages of religion’s evolutionary emergence:

Whitehead: ritual play<>emotional evocation<>mythical belief<>rationalization

Bellah (drawing on Merlin Donald’s work on the evolution of human cognitive capacity): mimetic/ritual<>mythic<>theoretic

Both acknowledge that ritual is widespread among mammals. Early humans were no different, but because of their increasing emotional and cognitive sensitivity, began to recognize that certain emotional states, enjoyable for their own sake apart from the needs of biological survival, could be reliably reproduced through collective ritual enactment. Only later, once the capacity for symbolism had emerged, were mythic beliefs articulated in an attempt to account for the purpose of ritual practices and their attendant emotional quality. Myths then contributed through a kind of feedback loop to the intensification of the emotional qualities. Notice that the arrows in the diagram point both ways, which is meant to prevent us from thinking that the emergence of a new stage means the prior stage is forgotten or transcended. Early stages are still present with and necessary for the expression of later stages. This is true even with the final stage of rational, philosophical, or theoretical reflection upon religious rituals and myths. Religion of the theoretic or rational type (the sort we are most familiar with today) grows out of and remains dependent upon non-rational forms of mythic speech and ritual play. Again, an adequate account of the emergence of religion in human evolution makes it clear that it is not primarily about what one believes, but about who one is and what one does. The fundamentalisms of our late modern age, whether atheist or creationist, tend to neglect the ritual and mythical dimensions of religious life. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the cognitive components of belief systems, which are often only the dead products excreted by a more primary, living process of cosmic participation.

Bellah describes ritual play as an experiential opening transporting us into a non-ordinary reality, a reality transcending the everyday world of “work” or mere survival. Bellah’s understanding of religious experience as one among a variety of cultural realities (differing from that of science, aesthetics, politics, and so on) is drawn largely from the phenomenological approach of Clifford Geertz and Alfred Schutz. While I think this sort of approach provides a helpful critique of and alternative to more scientistic explanations, allowing us to examine religion on its own terms, because it leaves the question of the cosmological basis of religious experience unanswered if not also unasked, I believe a Whiteheadian supplement is necessary. Taking a phenomenological look at religious experience by bracketing other cultural enactments of reality risks leaving the bifurcation of nature from culture intact. Whitehead allows us to grant the validity of multiple cultural realities while also acknowledging human culture’s continuity with the rest of the cosmos. This will become clearer as I conclude this talk, but for now let’s stick with Bellah’s account of ritual play (and the religious experiences it is associated with) as transcending the everyday world of work.

The idea is not to transcend work entirely,  which would be impossible, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that we participate in. A certain degree of work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains what we are to survive for: if not to engage in ever-more ingenious forms of play, then for what? And what does it mean that ritualized play, and the spiritual efflorescence it generates, is at the historical origin and remains the existential core of our cultural lives?

One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Göbekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in the 1990s, provides us with a counterexample to the standard, technocentric account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. The existence of Göbekli Tepe suggests, instead, that these cultural activities pre-dated the shift to the agricultural mode of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society” (as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has argued). The great deal of detailed planning and hard work required to construct such a temple—a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually enacted relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play—makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the playful. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for more elaborate forms of play. Not only religion, but science and art, too, are born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.

This understanding of the origins of religion (and culture more generally) in ritualized play provides a powerful critique of the economic values guiding our contemporary civilization, where it seems that work has become an end in itself, and where play, when we find the time for it, has little connection to the rhythms of the earth and wider cosmos in which we are embedded. The contemporary world’s obsession with sports may seem like an exception, but I’d argue they are usually engaged in, not as ends in themselves, but as means for social prestige or to fulfill moral expectations of success. The question remains: Are we here to toil extracting Earth’s resources, competing with one another for more money to consume more products, or are we here to ritually participate in the renewal of cycles of cosmic creativity?

Part of what makes so many scientific materialists averse to accounts of the evolution of religion like that of Whitehead and Bellah is that the latter seem at first to be both anthropocentric and anthropomorphic. When Whitehead claims that photons, protons, electrons, stars and galaxies are species of organism in possession of feelings and desires, and that their ecological evolution is analogous to that of bacteria, plants, and animals, isn’t he just projecting human or at best vital capacities onto a dead, inanimate collection of objects?

Maybe.

That is, unless we are willing to reconsider the incoherence of modern science’s bifurcation of nature. What if the scientific attitude of “austere objectivity” makes the scientist constitutionally immune to infection by the subjectivity of the universe? Overcoming the incoherence of the bifurcation of nature will require a new scientific outlook, since the materialist interpretation of science makes it impossible to understand how life and consciousness (not to mention religious expression) could be a part of this universe. We are left having to claim they are astronomically improbable accidents, which to my mind is the exact opposite of an adequate scientific explanation. What if, instead of turning our own existence into an absurdity, we look again at the universe and ask:

“What is this universe such that something like human organisms with their religious mentalities are possible?”

This is not to center the universe on the human, or to make the universe in the image of the human, it is only to admit the evident fact that we are the children of this cosmos. For better or worse, the space-time of this world is our parental unit. We are not an accidental appearance in this world, we are what the universe has come to be doing here and now, the most genuine expression of its essence we could ever hope to discover.

Bellah is not as metaphysically confident as Whitehead about the cosmic extent of meaning or the anthropic tendency of the cosmos. But he is by no means a cosmic pessimist like Weinberg, Monod, or Rosenberg. Bellah takes his stand not on an ambitious metaphysical cosmology, but on the phenomenological theology of Martin Buber (thereby potentially helping him overcome the residue of bifurcation resulting from his reliance on Geertz and Schutz’ more cultural approaches). Buber distinguished the two fundamental ways of relating to reality: 1) the I-It relation, which objectifies the world into dead things to be manipulated, and 2) the I-You relation, which perceives the world as full of subjectivities, and as itself a subject (i.e., God, the “eternal You”).

Building on Buber, Bellah argues that it is not at all surprising that for a “supersocial” species like us, an “I-You relation would at the highest level of meaning trump the I-It relation.” He continues: “To put it bluntly, there is a deep human need—based on 200 million years of the necessity of parental care for survival and at least 250,000 years of very extended adult protection and care of children, so that, among other things, those children can spend a lot of time in play—to think of the universe, to see the largest world one is capable of imagining, as personal” (104).

Understanding how religion could have emerged from mammalian play requires shifting from the I-It to the I-You mode of relation. “In the observation of play,” says Bellah, “and even more clearly in actually playing with an animal, it is almost impossible not to have an I-You relation, which arouses suspicions that one is not really doing science” (82). The I-It relation leads the scientific materialist to a view of evolving organisms as passive machines, rather than creative actors. Grasping the creative, purposeful, playful dimension of organic life requires that we adopt the more participatory I-You relation to evolution, which is what Whitehead invites us to do when he reverses the typical logic of evolutionary explanation. This is very different from Dennett’s I-It approach, which is predicated upon the idea that the best way to study the evolution of religion is to imagine we are aliens from another planet trying to gain a view of it “from the outside,” as it were. To approach human religion from such an alienated perspective is to seriously handicap the pursuit of a naturalistic account of its evolutionary emergence. If we want an account of religion’s emergence that is immanent to cosmogenesis and avoids the undue imposition of other-worldly transcendence, then we’re going to need to study religious experience from the inside out.

“The final principle of religion,” says Whitehead, “is that there is a wisdom in the nature of things, from which flow our direction of practice, and our possibility of the theoretical analysis of fact…Religion insists that the world is a mutually adjusted disposition of things, issuing in a value for its own sake. This is the very point that science is always forgetting.”[7]

Science deals with the facts, but in its immature and hubristic rush to overthrow the religious social matrix from which it emerged a few hundred years ago, it has neglected to include the values of the universe alongside the facts, or rather, to include these values as among the facts. “We have no right,” says Whitehead, “to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe.”[8] For what is a fact, metaphysically speaking? Whitehead’s non-bifurcated image of nature is a rejection of the fallacy of vacuous actuality. To be actual, to be a fact, for Whitehead, means to experientially enjoy existence as an end in itself, to value oneself as an actuality and to be valued by other actualities. Without the value-experience of human and nonhuman organisms, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”[9]

Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to move beyond the modern bifurcation separating nature from culture, fact from value, and mechanism from meaning. Moving beyond the bifurcation of nature to grasp the cosmological significance of religion, and the religious significance of cosmology, will require re-evaluating metaphysical assumptions that have been woven into the very fabric of the scientific worldview for hundreds of years. The originators of this worldview, the original myth-makers responsible for initiating the Scientific Revolution, conceived the universe as a machine and imagined God as its transcendent designer. Though they differ in the details, this was the imaginative background informing the thoughts of Newton, Descartes, and Kant. Nowadays, scientific materialists no longer have any need for the “God hypothesis,” but the imaginative background informing their ideas remains the same. The universe is still to be understood by analogy to a machine, only now it has become a purposeless machine. Understanding this cosmic machine requires purifying our perspective of any hint of emotion, value, or appreciation, since these merely subjective qualities can only contaminate an impartial view of reality. Whitehead ontology of organism provides us with an alternative.

“The metaphysical doctrine, here expounded,” he says in the final pages of Religion in the Making, “finds the foundations of the world in the aesthetic experience, rather than—as with Kant [and many contemporary scientific materialists]—in the cognitive and conceptual experience. All order is therefore aesthetic order…The actual world is the outcome of the aesthetic order, and the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God” (91-92).

To draw this talk to a close, I want to draw a parallel between Whitehead’s aesthetic ontology to Huizinga’s understanding of play. Huizinga locates play within the field of aesthetics, and suggests that playing is inherently creative of order. “Play,” he says, “has a tendency to be beautiful.”[10] Huizinga goes on, in Whiteheadian fashion, to describe ritual  acts of play as cosmic happenings, as continuous with natural processes.

Would it be too absurd, following Whitehead’s rejection of the bifurcation of nature in favor of an aesthetic ontology, to assign a place [to play] within the evolution of the universe itself? Might we come to understand the whole of the cosmos at every level of its self-organization as an expression of divine play? Might Blake have been right, that “energy is eternal delight”? Instead of God the disincarnate transcendent designer of a clock-work universe, or a meaningless machine-world running down toward heat death, might we interpret the scientific evidence otherwise? Might it be, as Whitehead suggests, that “the world lives by its incarnation of God in itself,” that “every event on its finer side introduces God into the world,” that “every act leaves the world with a deeper or a fainter impress of God” (140, 143)?   For those with an allergy to the G word, we should remember that Whitehead’s philosophical intervention into traditional theology aimed to transform the transcendent God of “coercive forces wielding the thunder” into the creaturely God of persuasion, “which slowly and in quietness [operates] by love.”[11] The ultimate religious theme in Whitehead’s cosmology is this divine Eros, the counter-agency that saves the world from decay into irrelevance by luring organisms toward more creative forms of organization. Whitehead’s God is not a big boss in the sky who designs and determines everything, but the poet of the world, who through aesthetic sensitivity beckons all beings toward the highest beauty that is possible for them, given the limitations of their finite situation. Beauty is the teleology of the universe. This, at least, is Whitehead’s alternative cosmological interpretation of the facts and values of the history of human religious expression. Whether or not we seize this alternative vision will determine the future of our civilization, if indeed it is to have one.
Further resources:
On the ideological sources of the selfish gene approach to biological evolution:
Bruno Latour. “How to make sure Gaia is not a God of Totality, with special attention to

Toby Tyrrell’s book On Gaia.” Written for the Rio de Janeiro meeting “The Thousand Names of Gaia,” September 2014.

On the geochemical inevitability of the emergence of life on earth (life is no accident):

James Trefil, Harold J. Morowitz and Eric Smith. “The Origin of Life: A case is made for the descent of electrons.” American Scientist (Volume 97), 2009.

On the importance of love in biological evolution:

Humberto Maturana Romesin and Gerda Verden-Zoller. Origins of Humanness in the Biology of Love. Imprint Academic, 2009.

[1] 2010 talk at Sante Fe Institute

[2] see The Concept of Nature

[3] Religion in the Making, 3.

[4] Religion in the Making, 5.

[5] Religion in the Making, 8.

[6] Religion in the Making, 10.

[7] Religion in the Making, 128.

[8] Modes of Thought, 111.

[9] Process and Reality, 167.

[10] Homo Ludens, 15.

[11] Adventures of Ideas, 166; Process and Reality, 343

An interview with Jesse Turri at Home Brewed Christianity on Science, Religion, Imagination, and more…

AlexGreyPsychedelicPaintingArtGalleryMars1LSDBicycleDay

HERE is the interview. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I remember a wide-ranging conversation on everything from my own intellectual and spiritual development, to the relationship between science and religion, to the role of imagination and psychedelics in the philosophy of nature.

HERE is Jesse Turri’s personal website.

Ontologies of Work (capitalism) and Play (panpsychism)

Now that the Pluralism Wars have died down, each camp having dug itself in for the winter, maybe its time to change the subject. Let’s talk about David Graeber’s recent article in The Baffler “What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun?” He makes the radical (or not so radical?) move of taking play seriously, not only in economics, but in biology and cosmology. What happens when we take play seriously? It becomes apparent that the economy is not composed of rational actors/intelligent designers competing with one another in a brutal state of nature for raw materials. That the biosphere is not just “red tooth and claw” but endosymbiotic: all living things share their bodies with others. We live in and on one other. We eat each other. “Life is robbery,” as Whitehead put it. But why all the carnage if our sensitive existence as living organisms wasn’t somehow worth the pain? Natural selection plays a role in evolution (=death as the judge of which mutations are beneficial and which are not), but so does sexual selection (=eros as the feeling for which mutations will be beautiful and which not). We coexist together today both because of the ways we have enjoyed coexisting yesterday. Evolution is not a miserly profit calculator; nature is exuberant and wasteful in its transactions (as Bataille taught us). Graeber is asking us to assume for a moment that Blake was right and Newton was wrong: the energy of the universe is not blind matter but “Eternal Delight.”

Steven Shaviro (author of Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics) had nothing but approval for Graeber’s playful proposal of a “principal of ludic freedom.” Shaviro is himself a panpsychist of sorts, though he credits Graeber with helping him zero in on the problem he has with information theories of panpsychism (e.g., Tononi and Chalmers):

I think that “cognition” and “information” have become way overrated in recent discourse, and that sentience needs to be seen first of all as affective (or as involving “feeling” in Whitehead’s sense) before it is seen as cognitive or informational. Affect or feeling both precedes and exceeds cognition or information, in the same way that play, in Graeber’s formulation, precedes and exceeds utility maximalization. What clicks for me especially in Graeber’s formulation is the way that “the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities” necessarily involves energetics as well as informatics. Sentience as a power or capacity must thus also be understood in energetic terms rather than only informatic ones (and this is for me precisely where the panpsychist leanings of Chalmers and Tononi need to be supplemented).

Speaking of panpsychist energetics, I posed a related question a few weeks ago about “thermopolitics.” It seems to me that some form of panpsychist ontology is not only true, but that the process theology it entails (here is a Bible-friendly variant) is also perhaps the the most practical and psychologically effective way to motivate modern civilization to ecologize before it’s too late.

Compare the panpsychist theory/practice of a ludic universe with the machine-world of Neil Savage’s blog article “Artificial Emotions”. Savage suggests that human-like robots capable of feeling and emoting are right around the corner. In order to make such a bold technological claim, Savage first has to scientistically reduce the human psyche to a computer program:

Special and indecipherable, except by us—our whims and fancies are what makes us human. But we may be wrong in our thinking. Far from being some inexplicable, ethereal quality of humanity, emotions may be nothing more than an autonomic response to changes in our environment, software programmed into our biological hardware by evolution as a survival response.

What, pray, is an “environmental change” if not a feeling in some living organism’s experiential field? What is an “environment” in the first place, if not other responsible (i.e., experiential) organisms? Savage’s “software/hardware” trope just re-inscribes the same old Cartesian dualism between mind or cognition and dead extended matter. It seems to me that this sort of eliminativist theory of human consciousness, aside from being ontologically false, functions politically as an apology for capitalist social relations. It asks us to believe that life is brutal and that we are all just cogs in the machine toiling to get a little extra before we rot, that life on earth has always been about competition in the marketplace where the only quasi-justice available comes in the form of a mythical invisible hand/natural selector deciding who wins and who loses.

Cosmopolitical Reflections on Economy, Society, and Religion

The following is an extension of some reflections I began late last year while the Occupy Movement was in full swing. I’ve since read much of David Graeber‘s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I was quite impressed with his historical research and analysis of the present moment. His argument that the emergence of the Axial age religious traditions can be understood as a direct response to re-organization of social relations resulting from the invention of coinage is very interesting. I’m not sure I would go all the way with him, but it is interesting nonetheless.

————————————————————————————————————

When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when to pay for the Vietnam War Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the reserve currency of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased around $3 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector?1 When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth’s ecology. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, in order to sustain its constant growth, the techno-industrial machine within which our daily lives take place must extract ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.). The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth’s ecology.

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant claim in 1992 that neoliberal capitalism had brought the “end of history,” our increasingly dire ecological situation, as well as the recent financial crisis, are forcing human civilization to entirely re-imagine its future from the ground up. Congress’ response to the financial crisis made it clear that government as we know it is no longer capable of serving the people. Politicians, it seems, are bought and sold like any other commodity in the market. By using tax dollars to bail out the banks, the US government in effect admitted that, while the 99% have to suffer the consequences of their risks and pay their debts, the super rich do not. The values of “democracy” and “capitalism” appear increasingly antagonistic, since the market has now completely swallowed the political sphere both in America and abroad: a consortium of transnational corporations, rather than the nation-state, now governs world affairs.

As the Occupy movement of late 2011 exemplifies, the result of Congress’ response has been to make revolutionaries out of average citizens, as more and more people are now beginning to reject the status quo to imagine radically new possibilities for human life on planet earth. In this essay, rather than attempting to wield the jargon of econobabble against global capitalism, as many ecological economists have tried,2 I will turn to emerging discourses within anthropology and cosmology in an attempt to put the current crisis in a larger historical context.3 Truly imagining a world after capitalism–a system which was created and is maintained largely by violence and the threat of violence4–will require thinking with entirely new categories. Without seeking out our roots in human and cosmic history through acts of counter-memory, we remain at risk of continuing to define ourselves according to the colonial logic of master and slave (as “owners of ourselves” and “masters of nature,” etc.) and to the capitalist logic of worker and consumer. To imagine the future, we must first remember the past.

It was with the publication of On the Wealth of Nations in 1776 that Adam Smith effectively brought the modern discipline of economic science into existence.5 In order to distinguish economics from politics and ethics, he had to argue that property, money, and markets existed before governments and provided the very foundation of human society. In other words, in order to establish the autonomy, and indeed the priority of the economic sphere over all others (cultural, spiritual, political, etc.), Smith first had to argue for a peculiar theory of human nature based on

“the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes [and] Locke about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forth-year-old males who seemed to have sprung from the earth fully formed, [having then] to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.”6

This is the infamous “social contract” theory, which supposes that human beings are essentially isolated, self-interested profit calculators who relate to one another primarily via the logic of exchange. The role of mothers in raising children is entirely ignored, as are familial and communal relations, since they do not operate according to the law of exchange. Society is said to have arisen only because of some primordial contract between otherwise atomized individuals, and government only to protect the soundness of money and contracts. Smith even went so far as to reduce conversation and language to a logic of exchange, a reduction later parodied by Nietzsche, who suggested that, if modern bourgeois values were made fully explicit, human thought itself must be understood to have emerged from our desire “to set prices, to measure values, to think up equivalences, to exchange things.”7

According to David Graeber, anthropologists have been trying to point out the utter falsity of this account of the origins of society for more than a century.8 In point of fact, contrary to the “just so” stories told by Smith and all economists since, we have not always been capitalists.

Smith argued that the market began with individuals bartering with one another, each hoping to get the better end of the deal: “I’ll give you three beaver pelts for 6 of your chickens.” Due to the problem of the “double coincidence of wants,”9 so the story goes, money was soon invented to make such exchanges easier. One would expect, based on Smith’s account of primitive barter societies, to find indigenous peoples across the world engaging in such exchange. But as early as the 1850s, anthropologists had already dispelled Smith’s make-believe portrayals of indigenous societies (he made up several erroneous stories about Native American bartering). Lewis Henry Morgan, for example, published descriptions of the economic practices of Iroquois Six Nations peoples: tribes stockpiled most goods in longhouses to be distributed according to need by councils of women.10 A stronger contrast with what was going on back in Glasgow would be difficult to imagine. Economists (aside from Marx and Engels) to this day continue to pay no attention to libraries full of such anthropological data.11 “Why?” asks Graeber:

“The simplest answer would be: for there even to be a discipline called ‘economics,’ a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes…it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that…simply does not exist.”12

Before he could claim to say something scientific about the objective nature of markets, Smith had to invent the subjectivity of the human beings who participated in them (much of this work had already been done for him by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke). He imagined human beings in the most abstract way possible, as disembedded individuals with no ties to culture, community, or land (other than that which they owned) and barely a trace of even having been born through a mother or into a family. This picture has little to do with how humans have lived for the majority of our species’ history.

Despite the more recent individualizing effects of money on human consciousness, we remain fundamentally social creatures who make decisions based upon a complex tapestry of interwoven value spheres, the economic/material only one among them. These individualizing effects began as early as 600BCE when coinage was invented simultaneously in India, China, and Greece, and they increased severalfold since the colonial era began around 1500CE. In our own era of globalized consumer capitalism, where money now mediates almost every one of our interactions with other people and the world, individuals are more likely than ever to buy into capitalism’s master narrative of exchange. But a closer look at history reveals that a counteracting tendency has always been in place.

In each region where money and markets first began to enter everyday life around 600BCE, one of the world’s great enduring wisdom traditions arose to challenge it: in India, Buddhism; in China, Confucianism; in Greece, Philosophy. Again, around 1500CE, as Europe left the Middle Ages to begin the planetary era of the capitalist empires, the Reformation emerged, at least initially, in opposition.13 It seems that religion and philosophy, as we know them, emerged as spiritual counter values in response to the increasing influence of the more materialistic economic sphere.

For the first time in history, popular uprisings during the Axial age were intellectually and/or spiritually motivated: “those opposing existing power arrangements did so in the name of some kind of theory about the nature of reality.”14 The poor weren’t simply angry about being put in debt, they felt they had moral knowledge of the injustices and therefore the ignorance of their oppressors, and were prepared to argue as much on rational and/or theological grounds.

On the other hand, religion and philosophy have also played into the hands of the logic of exchange by adopting its categories of thought. In the gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as “[comparable] to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.”15 Primordial debt theorists like Michel Aglietta and Andre Orléans go so far as to argue that debt itself began as a religious concept.16 They point to the Vedas as some of the earliest recorded reflections on the nature of debt. In the Satapatha Brahmana (composed around 700BCE), it is written:

“A man, being born, is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from Death.”

Ancient Indian brahmins were already conceiving of human existence in terms of a business deal. The gods created us, and so we owe them a debt which can only be repaid with our lives (which is to say, it cannot possibly be repaid). We are in a similar situation with regard to our parents, according to the Vedas, and so must have our own children and be kind to strangers in order to have any hope of paying off our debt to them. The Brahmins, of course, were kind enough to accept taxes from the people on behalf of the gods.

The complicity of religion in tightening the stranglehold of the logic of exchange, despite its spiritual ideals, seems to present a problem. The transformative power of spiritual values like love, generosity, and reverence (etc.) seem to be among the few remaining counter values to the greed encouraged by the market, but how can the religious worldview be enacted outside the logic of exchange? In our postmodern context, spirituality has been even further co-opted by the market, as religion is increasingly treated as just another brand-name consumable meant to express our unique individuality. Not only has money corrupted politics, it has infested religion and spirituality, as well.

Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society through the mediation of monetary instruments. This mediation begins primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Max Weber’s analysis of the link between Protestantism and the capitalist work ethic are well-known, further problematizing the role of religion in countering the market.

While the traditional religious response to the market can still be edifying, it seems our current situation calls for a radical re-visioning of religion’s cosmological basis. We must re-imagine the human being’s relationship to the cosmos as it has been conceived in the modern age. During the 19th century, mechanistic science analogized physical energy to the activity of the proletariat, defining it as the ability to do work. Carrying the analogy even further, it was supposed that energy must always pay a debt, due to heat loss, back to the cosmos. The thermodynamic concept of entropy is no doubt a crucial component of any critique of techno-industrial capitalism’s fantasy of unlimited growth on a planet of limited means, but the utilization of such socioeconomic metaphors by physicists betray the far reaching influence of the market even on science. In a society whose highest aspiration was not work, but play, one would expect to find descriptions of the activity of energy not only in terms of entropy, but also in terms of centropy. Energy would be, not blind toiling, but, as Blake suggested, “eternal delight.”

Religion and society themselves can be understood as having emerged from the human being’s innate proclivity to play. This is precisely the perspective offered by sociologist Robert Bellah in his recently published 700-page account of the Axial turn in the evolution of religion.17 The relaxed field generated by playfulness, according to Bellah’s richly empirical story, is the source of all human ritual and religion, and indeed of culture more generally. Play is symbolic, which is to say that when we are engaged in play, we are pretending, stepping out of the normal, ordinary course of daily life into an imaginal realm with no necessary connection to the world of biological survival and economic exchange. In the course of daily life–the so-called serious world–we are obliged to work, to “bring about [a] projected state of affairs by bodily movements.”18 In the anxiety-free space of play, ends and means unite to produce a self-justifying, inherently enjoyable state of peace and mutual fulfillment.

One way to apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it suggests about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socioeconomic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. Gobekli Tepe, a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in 2008, provides a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs by domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to domesticated modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.”19 The great deal of detalied planning and hard work required to construct such a temple–a structure that provided the people who constructed it with a ritually protected relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play–makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the jovial. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for play. As cultural beings, we take play very seriously.

Bellah connects play to the axial phenomenon of “renunciation.” A “renouncer” is one who, for spiritual reasons, rejects the political and economic roles assigned them by society. In rejecting society, they seek to establish schools (from the Latin, scola, and the Greek, skole, meaning “leisure”) of various kinds in order to teach and preserve their spiritual insights without being subject to the field of anxiety and toil ruling over the ordinary reality of the work day. Renouncers are found in every axial culture; they are able to find support in their respective cultures, despite largely rejecting the premises of these same cultures, because everyone, even the ruling elite, have had a general sense of unease about the state of the world in which they live since about the Axial age. Not until the irruption of linear time characteristic of this age was an apocalyptic end to the world readily conceivable; nor, for that matter, was the coming of a utopian future easily imaginable.

Religion, it seems, has had a complex series of effects upon its human practitioners. It was perhaps the initiator of civilization, convincing us to give up our nomadic wandering to settle near the numinous power of elaborate temples, where, through the playfulness of ritualistic art and music, humans and gods transacted in a “time out of time.” The agricultural revolution demanded by such settlement, and the surpluses it created, then lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized chiefdoms, and eventually, to full-blown states. Societies organized around kinship–wherein everyone was understood to be related to primordial semi-divine ancestors–were increasingly replaced by kingship–wherein the king became the only link between peasants and the divine, and only an elite group of priests had the free time for ritualized play. As we’ve seen, it was amidst such injustice that the religious instincts of humanity erupted in the form of the great Axial ethical critiques of civilized empire (e.g., the Jewish prophets, the Greek tragedians and philosophers, the Chinese Confucians, the Buddha).

Play is symbolic because, as Bellah defines it, symbolism is the possibility latent in ordinary objects, persons, and events in the world of daily life to become “[meaningful] in another reality that transcends the world of working.”20 The renouncers of empire who have emerged in the last 2,500 years or so have all critiqued the world of daily life–of working–by pointing to a transcendent realm beyond the immoralities of worldly politics and economics.

Today, as the global capitalist economy continues to convulse, the ideological bankruptcy of its supporters is becoming all the more transparent. Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani recently spoke to conservatives at a meeting of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the “laziness” of those responsible for the Occupy movement: “How about you occupy a job?,” he said. “How about working?”21 Giuliani went on to compare the occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street to Woodstock, suggesting that protestors would rather have fun than work. In his mind, school is not an end in itself (as it was for students of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum); rather, school is a means to an end: a job. The truly insidious thing about capitalism is that it commodifies everything, placing a monetary value even on time itself. Of course, time must first be falsified into a measurable quantity, namely industrial clock-time, before it can be monetized.22 The time-anxiety experienced by the modern working person is a direct result of this falsification. Leisure time and recreation, when measured in terms of clock-time, is impossible, since genuine play is always an end in itself, never a means (for better performance at work, relieving stress, etc.).

One of the core cosmopolitical issues behind the Occupy movement concerns the relationship between work and play. Has not our capitalist civilization become imbalanced in respect to the activities associated with these two modes of consciousness? I quote Bellah at length:

“In our society, [playful activities] tend to be viewed as ‘less real’ than the world of daily life, as fictional and ultimately as less important than the world of working… Yet one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time…the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed… [It is usually] seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need, [and as such] is a world of mechanical necessity…It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.”23

Bellah points to art, science, and religion as practices and modes of consciousness equally capable of lifting us out of the world of daily life to reveal something beyond, something more real, in fact, than working. The world of working is a world of lack, of deficiency. The world of play is one of fullness, a plenum, wherein everything is symbolically possible. It is not only a culturally instilled sense of guilt that prevents us from breaking free of the world of work, as Weber suggested, though it is surely that, too. There is also the fear of death. Religion in its degenerate forms has not done much to assuage this fear. In its perennial forms, however, religion is the surest expression of humanity’s faith in the immortality and universality of the soul. Until individual human beings are released from the egoic anxiety resulting from their consciousness of death, we will never come close to realizing a cosmopolitics of play, where communal celebration, rather than private capital accumulation, becomes the norm. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the various Occupy encampments represents a non-linguistic, almost mimetic/enactive cosmological critique of capitalism. The drumming, dancing, and playfulness are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the world of working with its logic of exchange and monetary idolatry.

Footnotes

1 This was the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world.

2 i.e., by commodifying the community of life on earth in terms of “ecosystem services,” etc.

3 “History” should here be read in both its sociocultural and evolutionary senses. See Big History (2008) by Cynthia Stokes Brown or The Universe Story (1992) by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme for examples.

4 David Graeber (366, Debt: The First 5,000 Years) suggests that the only thing holding the current global economic structure together is the threat of U.S. military power.

5 25, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber

6 210, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber

7 2.8, Genealogy of Morals

8 21, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

9 The person whose chickens I want may not want the beaver pelts I have to trade him.

10 29, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

11 395, n. 15, Debt The First 5,000 Years (2011). Most economics textbooks still account for the emergence of money according to some variation of Smith’s “myth of barter.”

12 33, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

13 The Catholic Church’s writs of indulgence were arguably the central grievance listed by Martin Luther in his 95 theses, written and posted in 1517. These writs were sold by papal representatives to those who wished to reduce their stay in purgatory by paying down their debts to God. In other words, the logic of exchange was so pervasive it even crept into our conception of the heavenly economy.

14 248, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

15 18:23

16 56, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

17 See Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

18 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011). (Bellah quoting Alfred Shultz)

19 See the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins

20 8, Religion in Human Evolution (2011).

21 http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=lQsqlA3nS1E

22 See the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

23 3,9, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

Remembering Creation: Towards a Christian Ecosophy

Remembering Creation:

Towards a Christian Ecosophy

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun by William Blake

“The Lord was born with me [Wisdom] at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. From everlasting I was established, from the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth…Then I was beside Him, as a master artist, and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him, rejoicing in the world, His earth, and having my delight in the sons of men.” –Proverbs 8:22-31

“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image…so that they may rule…’ And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’…And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.”-Genesis 1:26-31

“I say that man must be serious with the serious. God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him…What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play.”  -Plato, Laws

“He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio sees himself only. Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.” -William Blake, There Is No Natural Religion

“The life of God and divine wisdom…can…be spoken of as love disporting with itself; but this idea falls into edification, and even sinks into insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.” -G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit

Introduction

The epigraphs quoted at the start of this essay are meant to remind my reader of the meaning of life and the reason given for the creation of the world by the religions of the West. God creates and maintains the universe because He delights in doing so, and our role as His most imaginative creatures is to take seriously His love of play by organizing our lives, and the life of all creation, accordingly. To be made in the image of God is not merely to be capable of thinking His plan after Him, but to be co-creator with Christ of the Kingdom, on earth, as it is in heaven.

In our secular age, when the hands of humans are reshaping the earth to their liking, it has become difficult for us to read of the ways of our ancestors without incredulity. Their prophecies of God’s gift of grace do not in any way cohere with the profiting and purchasing that constitutes our everyday labors. Their way of speaking with and about the universe no longer make sense to the modern mind. Our eyes can no longer see, nor our hearts hear, the logic with which the ancients weaved the world.

This ignorance of the old ways has grown alongside the rise of a new kind of knowledge. Modern science continues to reorient humanity’s understanding of and relation to earth and the larger universe. Its discoveries and inventions have fundamentally altered our conception of how the universe evolved thus far and how it will evolve in the future. Left unanswered, if not also unasked by the scientific perspective is the age old question of why the universe was created and why it continues to unfold creatively.

The ancients of Athens and Jerusalem alike perceived an eternal Wisdom to be at work shaping the course of the visible cosmos. They believed Her fruit was better than the choicest gold or silver.1 They sought a way of life in concert with this universal intelligence responsible for creating and sustaining all temporal things. Further, they assumed that “their portrayal of an ordered cosmos helped to create one, and their liturgies maintained it.”2

Moderns, in contrast, have become alienated from their origin in and forgetful of their responsibility toward the Wisdom of creation. Science, in the modern age, has lost sight of Wisdom and the moral vision She provides. It has wed itself instead to the instrumentalism of market-driven technology, replacing an understanding of the names of angels3 with an ever-accumulating body of specialized knowledge and the earthshaking power it makes possible. Man-made models of nature have come to obscure modern humanity’s vision of the glory of creation as the artwork of angels.

The laws of the market are opposed to the Laws of the Creator. The accumulation of wealth has come to replace Wisdom as the most important aspiration in human life. Money has become the source of all value and meaning. “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and money.”4 Not the beautification and celebration of Gaia and Her creatures in the Name of God, but the production and consumption of Her resources in the name of the dollar is now the normal, “the good,” way of life.

Modern intellectuals, taught to think according to the values of the age, take for granted the ontological chasm separating questions of meaning and morality from those of mechanism and motion. Economics, now considered a positive science and therefore beyond the pay grade of philosophers and theologians, was once defined as the science of morality.5 It stands today, rather awkwardly, at the helm of our techno-capitalist civilization. Not philosopher-priests, but capital engineers rule over the contemporary geopolitical arena. Citizens of more progressive leanings are uncertain whether economic “science” is not just the purveyor of an oppressive upper class ideology.6 Ecology, similarly, is dismissed by many conservatives as a front for socialism.7 Because of these widespread uncertainties, humanity’s sense of the purpose of life–of the way we ought to live–has become increasingly fragmented and privatized, relegated to personal opinion and banished from reasoned political discourse.

Ecology is no doubt another fundamental scientific reorientation, “a revolution in self- and cultural understanding that matches, if not exceeds, in importance the sixteenth-century Copernican astronomical revolution.”8 Unfortunately, the influence of ecological science on public policy has been superficial, leading only to slightly more efficient light bulbs and hybrid gas-electric automobiles. So long as ecology remains narrowly scientific in the secular sense, concerned with how and not why, it can penetrate no deeper into humanity’s dysfunctional cosmopolitical orientation. “Home,” in the individualized techno-capitalist context, means my home or your home; Gaia–our home–has receded into the neglected background of human life.

I believe the eco-social crisis of our age has its roots in the rupture between religion and science, especially the science of economics. In order to reunite the how with the why, humanity must remember its proper relation to creation and its Creator. Ecosophy is the fruit of such memory, the wisdom of home that, when watered, grows as a great tree from the soil of every earthly soul.

“The Gods of the earth and sea,

Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the Human Brain”9

Ecosophy brings economics back to its roots in moral science and theology, and enchants ecological science so as to renew humanity’s connection to a living creation.

Our species has a wealth of wisdom traditions from which to draw in service of this call to remember, and those concerned to answer it have a dual responsibility: to give what they have drawn from the deep well of their own tradition and to receive the living waters others have likewise drawn up from theirs. We must all drink together, since Gaia has but one ocean, one climate, and one life.

The Christian religion is an especially important well to explore in relation to the contemporary eco-social crisis, since modern Western science and technology were born out of its cultural matrix.10 Secularity, in other words, can itself be understood as an inevitable moment in the historical unfolding of Christ’s incarnation.11 Without historically situating modern Western civilization in the context of Christianity, secularity is all too easily misunderstood. As radical a break with the past as it may appear to be, Enlightenment secularism is evidently not best characterized as the rise of individual rationality above commonly held myths, nor as the firm grasp of scientific truths and technological powers that can replace religious delusions and magical incantations. The evidence of the inadequacy of such a triumphant characterization of modernity is legion: the isolated modern consumer is ruled over by perhaps the most deceitful, destructive, and oppresive myth of all, the myth of the market; Kantian philosophers have come to impose epistemic limits upon the study of reality, creating an intellectual culture of skepticism too embarrassed to authoritatively address matters of ultimate concern; and the fetishization of both money and industrial machines has so completely alienated consumers from the concrete materiality of life that such technologies now function in a way indistinguishable from black magic.12

Secular philosophy’s failure to engage the market-driven metaphysics of techno-capitalism for fear of trespassing into theology has allowed the “science” of capitalist economics to upstage the Wisdom of creation. Any hope of finding orientation in these chaotic times depends upon a renaissance of the poetic science of God:

“For beyond the nostalgia for a premodern grandeur or the doomed utopias of modern reason, what is the actual work of theology–but an incantation at the edge of uncertainty?…In this gathering space, religious discourse as a spiritual and social practice offers a unique depth of history and future…At its shore, the very edge of [chaos], the ancient oscillation of religious language between assertion and negation, utterance and silence, takes on a tidal rhythm.”13

It is not merely the knowledge of God that must be reborn, but the practice of His Wisdom. The human, as the imago dei, is tasked with the renewal and maintenance of the creation covenant. Genesis 1:28 calls us to “subdue” and to “dominate” that is, “to harness or to bind” heaven and earth, to “maintain the bonds of creation.”14

“Dominion must always be tied to the gratitude that follows from seeing everything in its relation to God. It must share in and be patterned on the grace and delight manifest in God’s creation of the universe. As our practical lives reflect gratitude back to God, we will at the same time transform the look of the creation of which we are a part.”15

As the children of Wisdom, we are called upon by our Creator to be co-creators with Her in all our deeds and all our speech.16 To be made in the image of God is to be God’s poet, the namer and storyteller of creation.

“The storytellers of ancient Israel knew that our attitude to the creation is shaped by the way we speak about it…Only time will show the impact on society, and on the whole creation, of [secular humanity’s] refusal to use theological or even moral language. So far, the signs are not good.”17

The Rise and Fall of the Myth of the Market

In a recent op-ed published in the New York Times, Greg Mankiw, former economic adviser to George W. Bush, responded to students of his introductory economics course at Harvard after they staged a walk-out in solidarity with the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.18 The students cited the increasing corporatization of their education and the conservative slant of his perspective on the economy as their reasons.

“Like most economists,” Mankiw responded, “I don’t view the study of economics as laden with ideology.” He then cites the words of John Maynard Keynes: “[Economics] is a method rather than a doctrine, an apparatus of the mind, a technique for thinking, which helps the possessor draw correct conclusions.” Mankiw goes on to admit that economists don’t “understand everything” and “still have much to learn,” as is evidenced by the recent financial crisis. The implication of his response is clear: the financial crisis was not caused by the inherent immorality of the logic of the market; rather, it was caused by a technical oversight that can only be solved using the scientific method.

No soul-searching required.

It is no surprise that modern day economists fail to recognize their own ideology at work; as Marx suggested, “Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es“–“They do not know it, but they are doing it.”19 The goodness of the market is always assumed; its technocrats merely crunch the correct numbers designed to keep the monetary machine running smoothly. Unfortunately, the more efficient the machine becomes, the more quickly the planet and her people are ravaged. Gaia groans in bondage, waiting for the Logos to remember His Name and save Her from the logic of the beast.20 Lacking the eternal vision of Wisdom, the human heart remains vulnerable to the secular myth of the market, now the most formidable rival of traditional religions.21

Following the financial crisis of 2008, the thought of Ayn Rand, perhaps the world’s most popular purveyor of the myth of the market, saw something of a resurgence. Sales of her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) went through the roof as American business leaders struggled to hang on to their dream.22 The dystopian story’s mysterious protagonist, John Galt, along with other captains of American industry, decide to go on strike to protest government regulation, bringing the country to a standstill. The core of the novel is Galt’s 70-page speech, wherein Rand’s entire philosophy is laid out. In it, she denounces the Christian morality of love of one’s neighbor, calling it a “morality of sacrifice,” while championing a “morality of life” based upon egoism and the sovereignty of the individual rational mind over the human community and the raw materials of nature.

“We will open the gates of our city to those who deserve to enter,” she has Galt say,

“a city of smokestacks, pipe lines, orchards, markets and inviolate homes. With the sign of the dollar as our symbol, the sign of free trade and free minds, we will move to reclaim this country once more from the impotent savages who never discovered its nature, its meaning, its splendor.”23

It would be difficult to come closer to John’s vision of Babylon in the book of Revelation, where all wear the mark of the beast.24

Former chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, who joined Rand’s circle in the early fifties, helped her do research for Atlas Shrugged.25 In early 2010, Greenspan was asked if the financial crisis signaled an indictment of Rand’s free-market ideology. His answer is instructive:

“Not at all…There is no alternative [to competitive markets] if you want to have economic growth and higher standards of living in a democratic society…If you merely look at history since the Enlightenment…when all of those ideas surfaced and became applicable in public policy, we’ve had an explosion of economic growth, especially in developing countries, where hundreds of millions of people have been pulled out of extreme poverty and starvation…”26

No one can deny the good that came of the political and economic transformations of the Enlightenment, but in the decisive shift from a society ordered by the revealed authority of God to one remade by the rational autonomy of man, much has been bent out of proportion. Greenspan and Rand are of course right about the explosion of economic growth resulting from global capitalism, but they appear blind to the eco-social costs of this growth, past and present. I could spend the rest of this essay listing present market-generated global injustices, but for the sake of space, I will list only a few telling examples: half of the world’s 2.2 billion children currently live in poverty,27 almost a billion people lack access to safe water supplies,28 about 25 million acres of crop land are lost every year due to soil erosion,29 and 50% of the world’s non-human species may be extinct by 2100.30 “They have rejected the law of the Lord [and] have been led astray by false gods…They sell the innocent for silver…They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground.”31

Further, global climate change resulting from “free market” industrial capitalism is threatening to make all these injustices far worse, in addition to other consequences. As Naomi Klein argued in her own recent op-ed in The Nation, “responding to the climate threat requires strong government action at all levels,” which is exactly what “free market” ideologues find so appalling. Such action is necessary for any globally coordinated transition into a more eco-socially sustainable economy, where “justice [rolls] down like the waters.”32 However, government takeover of industry is not the desired goal, but the initiation of “a new civilizational paradigm” grounded in a “respect for natural cycles of renewal.”

Klein continues:

“Real climate solutions are ones that steer [government] interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.”33

As for past injustices, Rand’s celebration of the genocide of the native population (“impotent savages”) that once called Turtle Island home is a telling reminder that capitalism has always been wed to colonialism. In order to achieve perpetual growth, capitalist markets had to continually expand into untapped territories, there exploiting the labor and land of conquered peoples to turn a profit back at home. From Rand’s perspective, such exploitation was perfectly justified, since indigenous populations are not made up of free individuals, having no concept of rights or property ownership.34 Nor does Gaia or any of Her non-human creatures deserve the respect of properly rational individuals, since, following Lockean theories of property ownership, their value is inferior until produced for consumption in the human marketplace.35 The myth of the market reigns. “Alas, alas, thou great city…for thy merchants were the great men of the earth, and all nations were deceived by thy sorcery.”36

Another myth, that of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, teaches us that humans “have been created with free will, but not with freedom.”37 Adam was deceived by Satan, being promised the total freedom of secular knowledge and power over the earth when all that could be delivered is shame, guilt, and death. Similarly, Rand’s is no morality of life, but of death, since it lacks the Wisdom of a higher authority, of the Creator of all things.

“Adam was created with free will–it was possible to choose the forbidden tree; but Adam was not created free, he did not create the system within which he exercised his free will.”38

The freedom of human beings is in our capacity to love and to serve, to do the work of Christ whose life is eternal. Any other freedom humans attempt to steal comes at the cost of death, since the rules of creation are not designed by human desires.39

These are two competing visions, that of the life of the market versus that of the miracle of life. The life of the market is that of ruthless competition, the struggle for existence between selfish animals, who come from dust and to dust return.40 The miracle of life is that of spiritual communion, the joy of co-creation amongst loving angels. The former is a morality rooted in the shallow pleasures of private accumulation, while the latter calls humanity to participate with Christ in the renewal of all creation.

The miracle of life can be understood through an ecosophic perception of the sacramentality of creation. Consider Gaia’s relationship with the Sun, that most generous of celestial beings. The Sun sacrifices its own body to give away vast quantities of energy to Gaia without any expectation of return.

“Men were conscious of this long before astrophysics measured that ceaseless prodigality; they saw it ripen the harvests and they associated its splendor with the act of someone who gives without receiving.”41

Not a single quantum of energy could be transacted between living beings upon the surface of earth without the Sun’s primordial generosity. This is as true of the monetary transactions of the human economy as it is of the ecological transactions of soil and plants. Life is a gift, not an earning, a celebration of divine surplus, not a competition amidst material scarcity.

Contrary to Rand’s racist ideology, the native populations of pre-conquest America understood the meaning of the Sun’s splendor deeply enough to ritually organize their lives on earth to reflect the same patterns it was performing in heaven. Extravagant potlatch celebrations were held in honor of births, weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. Natives would gather together for great feasts gifted by wealthy families, and to sing and dance in honor of their divine ancestors. These ceremonies provide evidence that not barter, as classical economists assume, but gifting was the earliest form of exchange.42

Potlatch celebrations were outlawed by both Canadian and US governments in the late 19th century, and remained so until 1951. Christianity’s influence upon such legislation is complex. Protestant missionaries like William Duncan wrote in 1875 of the celebrations that they were “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized.”43 On the other hand, by the 1950s, many churches openly integrated potlatch into their liturgies.44

Max Weber’s analysis of the complicity of Protestantism in the rise of capitalist economies is well known.45

“Weber deserves credit for having rigorously analyzed the connection between a religious crisis and the economic turnover that gave rise to the modern world…It seems that there is an affinity between the frame of mind of a hard-working, profit-calculating industrialist and the prosaic severity of the reformed religion.”46

Not only does potlatch present a challenge to standard histories of economics, much like Weber’s analysis of Protestantism, it “enables one to perceive a connection between religious behaviors and economic ones.”47 By emphasizing humanity’s nearly irredeemable fallenness and God’s incomprehensible transcendence, Protestant theologies succeeded in separating the physical/economic sphere of works from the spiritual/religious sphere of grace. This meant that one could not hope to find God’s favor through outward deeds like gifting, since salvation was won through inward faith alone. This was, no doubt, an important critique of the Catholic Church’s pompous hypocrisy,48 but as with many of the Enlightenment’s later reforms, the Reformation ended up distorting the West’s moral and ontological bonds with creation as much as it may have advanced it spiritually (through intensified inwardness of faith) and epistemologically (through rational criticism of received belief).

As modernity unfolded, traditional sacraments were increasingly considered to be culturally constructed symbolic performances, rather than theurgic events opening an economy between creature and Creator.49 Skepticism of inherited norms and revealed truths steadily increased as individuals turned to their own reason and values for guidance concerning ultimate matters. Weber famously argued that it was the downplaying of communal ritual among the Protestant laity that first made possible the disenchantment of the world, the formation of the private modern subject, and the subsequent rise of techno-scientific capitalism. God, even if not quite dead, had all but fled the realms of space and time. Free of the sacred places and liturgical calendars of traditional sacramental religion, the modern individual no longer mirrored the celestial economy of angels, but remade the earth in his own fallen image.

“It can doubtless be said of the Protestant critique of saintly works that it gave the world over to profane works, that the demand for divine purity only managed to exile the divine, and to complete man’s separation from it. It can be said, finally, that starting then things dominated man, insofar as he lived for enterprise and less and less in the present time.”50

Potlatch was practiced by native communities as a form of ritual participation in the divine effulgence of creation. Sharing in Gaia’s bounty, they lived like the Sun, for glory rather than for greed. Protestant capitalists found the practice wasteful, and sought to eliminate such rituals from the American continent because they were based upon the impure mixing of the Great Economy of God with the profane economy of the market. The Great Economy is “reflected in God’s Sabbath delight, a celebration of all life, an affirmation of the right of all to be and to thrive.”51 The profane economy of the market, on the other hand, reflects the sinful nature of an alienated humanity, more interested in its own shortsighted pursuits than the flourishing of all creation. The Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment are not here being blamed for the eco-social crisis; rather, they are being read as moments in the historical dialectic of Christ’s incarnation. They are birth contractions, the divine labour pains that Hegel refers to in the epigraph above while insisting upon the necessity of the negative to avoid a shallow conception of salvation.

Reintroducing theologically grounded and ecologically sensitive morality into the norms of the marketplace will require an initially painful reorientation of modern human life, the crucifixion of the old to make way for the new.52 In order to come into alignment with the Wisdom of creation so as to participate in God’s ongoing artistry, everything from our scientific understanding of life and energy to the time-anxiety underlying our socio-economic commitment to work must be reimagined.

Imagining the Great Economy

Ritual practices like potlatch break down the dichotomy that normally exists between work and play. The Jubilee year and Sabbath commandment provide Biblical parallels to potlatch. On the 7th day of creation, God rested.53 Our human “holy days” call us to rebalance creation by making time for rest and re-creation.54 In Jesus’ time, Genesis was understood as the pattern of world history: the 6th day was considered the human age, the time when Adam is called to work with the Wisdom of the Creator to bring about the completion of the creation, so that all may rest on the 7th day. The completion of creation on the 7th day is the coming of the Kingdom55 wherein God becomes “all in all,”56 bound up in relational joy with creation.57

In order to imagine, and to co-create, the Great Economy of the Kingdom, it is first necessary to free ourselves from the anxieties of the world of working. Anxiety makes the problems of the market apparent to us, but uncovering their solution requires that we release ourselves from its world-distorting grip.58 Unlike the anti-religion of the market ruling over the world of working, wherein “time is money” as Ben Franklin famously quipped, the religion of Jesus calls us to observe the birds of the air and the lilies of the field living without toil: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?”59

Play, like the perception of Wisdom, opens up a non-ordinary reality, allowing us to transcend the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that are engaged with during a full 24-hour cycle of earth’s rotation (sleep, dreams, etc.), or the full span of a mortal life (birth, love, near death, death, spiritual vision, etc.). Work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains: why survive? If not to play, then for what?

Ritual performance, and the creative efflorescence it encourages, is at the existential core of our lives, and indeed is the beating heart at the center of creation.

“We might sometimes reflect and recall that the purpose of all our science, technology, industry, manufacturing, commerce, and finance is celebration, planetary celebration. That is what moves the stars through the heavens and the earth through its seasons. The final norm of judgment concerning the success or failure of our technologies is the extent to which they enable us to participate more fully in this grand festival.”60

The meaning of the world and the order of the cosmos must be enacted, or imaginally bodied forth. The human imagination, the Seal of creation, does not receive the world’s meaning ready-made, but must participate in its making: “The creature of earth and heaven [upholds] within his own being the bond that [joins] the material world to its source of life.”61 The meaning of earthly life soon dissolves unless we are willing to play, to make imaginally present what would not otherwise be so. Imagination is the soul’s temple, the holy of holies within which immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. In this way, everyday is made holy, and all our work becomes a form of worship.62 Religion, science, art, and indeed, culture in general, are all born out of playfulness.63 Humans may not be the only creatures who play, but surely only we take play seriously enough to die for it.

Contrary to this vision of creation rooted in play, biologists since Darwin have tended to understand evolution primarily as a competitive “struggle for existence” amidst scarcity, where only the fittest survive. More recently, the work of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis has entirely transformed Darwin’s picture of the biosphere, a picture that perhaps reflects the economic conditions holding sway in 19th century England more so than the natural conditions of earthly life.64 Lovelock’s Gaia theory has shown that life is necessarily a planetary affair, constituted by a massively interconnected web of biotic and abiotic feedback loops.65 Margulis’ research on the bacterial basis of all life and her theory of the origin of species via symbiogenesis reveal that lateral gene transfer (gene gifting) and cooperative symbiosis are the primary engine of evolution.66

Another 19th century science, thermodynamics, was developed to increase the efficiency of industrial machinery. It defined energy as the ability to do work,67 a socio-economic concept. A few decades earlier, William Blake wrote of his eternal vision–“Past, Present & Future, existing all at once”–of industrializing Europe:

“And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire

Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth

In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works

Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic

Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which

Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”68

Blake’s phrase, “cogs tyrannic/Moving by compulsion each other,” perfectly sums up the picture provided by mechanistic science of creation, the same picture underlying techno-capitalist industrialism. From Blake’s poetic perspective, energy is not compulsive work, but “Eternal Delight.”69 Nor is God’s ongoing creative artistry tyrannic or compulsive, but persuasive:

“The action of God is its relation–by feeling and so being felt, the divine invites the becoming of the other; by feeling the becoming of the other, the divine itself becomes…[affirming] an oscillation between divine attraction and divine reception, invitation and sabbath…”70

This is a perspective contrary to the logic of creatio ex nihilo, be it God’s creation by fiat of the cosmos out of chaos, or humanity’s of property out of the purposeless matter of earth. Genesis’ acts of creation must be read in concert with the wisdom of Proverbs and the passion of the Gospels. God did not create the world out of nothing, but beget it and suffered it with Wisdom.71

Modern techno-capitalism, rooted in a disenchanted science, has made humanity forgetful of the Names of the angelic powers animating the cosmos. Lacking such an ecosophic perception of the true nature of reality has left modern humanity ignorant of why Gaia is the way She is: “ever hearing, but never understanding…ever seeing, but never perceiving.”72 This ignorance hardly stopped us from learning how many of Her seemingly isolated parts worked, and how we might manipulate them for our own profit. Cunning power became our knowledge, following Kant’s maxim: “He who would know the world must first manufacture it.”73 Isaiah perceived the result in the Israel of his day: “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands.”74 Jeremiah, as well: “They burned incense to other gods and worshipped the works of their hands.”75

The Great Economy of the Kingdom “is in our midst,” as Jesus said.76 Wisdom, too, is all around: “He who has ears, let him hear.”77 If the heart be reached, not through reason, but through imagination,78 then healing humanity’s eco-social wound must begin there. Enlightenment conceptions of the “state of nature” must be entirely re-envisioned, such that Gaia’s values become the soil out of which the human soul imagines its own. Without resurrecting the imagination–“the divine body of the Lord Jesus, blessed forever”79–our senses will remain dulled80 to the power of angels wisely weaving the world together in God’s Name.

“Blessed be the praise of Your Name and the song of Your strength and Your remembrance in eternity and forever. In the praise of Your Name is revealed the secret of Wisdom and in the song of Your remembrance are disclosed the mysteries of mysteries and the gates of understanding, so that the creatures of heaven and earth acknowledge before You: Blessed be You, Lord, wise of the mysteries and ruler of all that is concealed.”81

 Endnotes

1 Proverbs 8:19

2 p. 20, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker.

3 “Angel lore was in effect the natural science of that time,” see p. 79, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

4 Matthew 6:24

5 See James E. Alvey’s essay “A Short History of Economics as a Moral Science” (1999). As Alvey points out, even Adam Smith, the intellectual architect of capitalism, understood economics to be subject to a moral framework of virtues, namely, justice, prudence, and benevolence.

6 See, for example, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. More on p. 8.

7 See, for example, the Heartland Institute: http://www.globalwarmingheartland.org/; “It is a painful irony that while the Heartlanders are busily calling climate change a left-wing plot, most leftists have yet to realize that climate science has handed them the most powerful argument against capitalism since William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills” (and, of course, those mills were the beginning of climate change).” -“Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein in the Nov. 28th edition of The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/164497/capitalism-vs-climate?page=0,5 (retrieved 12/9/2011).

8 p. 93-94, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (2003) by Norman Wirzba

9 lines 21-25, “The Human Abstract” in Songs of Experience (1794) by William Blake

10 Wide consensus among scholars has been reached on this point. See especially Lynn White’s essay “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” (1967) and more recently, Donna Haraway’s Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium (1997).

11 See Sean Kelly’s Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era (2010). Kelly argues that secularity is dialectically woven into the Great Code at the core of the Christian mythos.

12 Machines do not magically create growth and increase efficiency at the industrial centers ex nihilo, but are animated by land and labor that has been exploited on the periphery. Economics, like ecology, is a zero sum game. See p. 147 of Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine: Global Inequities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001).

13 p. xviii, Face of the Deep: a theology of becoming (2003) by Catherine Keller. Keller is at the forefront of a promising new field called “theopoietics.”

14 p. 122, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

15 p. 138, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (2003) by Norman Wirzba

16 p. 210, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

17 p. 21, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

18 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/business/know-what-youre-protesting-economic-view.html?sq=harvard%20economics&st=cse&adxnnl=1&scp=1&adxnnlx=1323047019-jVyFPOfBIdOYaAIgzNU3NQ (retrieved 12/4/2011)

19 From Capital, quoted on p. 28, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) by Slavoj Zizek

20 See Revelation 13

21 See p. 55, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

22 http://articles.cnn.com/2009-04-27/entertainment/ayn.rand.atlas.shrugged_1_john-galt-ayn-rand-institute-atlas?_s=PM:SHOWBIZ (retrieved 12/2/2011). To date, nearly 30 million copies of her books have been sold.

23 p. 957, Atlas Shrugged (2005)

24 See Revelation 18

25 p. 6, Alan Greenspan: the oracle behind the curtain (2006) by E. Ray Canterbery

26 http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/video/interview-alan-greenspan-10281612 (~7:00 mins, retrieved on 12/2/2011)

27 http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats (retrieved 12/2/2011)

28 http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/monitoring/jmp_report_7_10_lores.pdf (retrieved 12/5/2011)

29 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/feb/14/science.environment (retrieved 12/5/2011)

30 See The Future of Life (2002) by E.O. Wilson

31 Amos 2:4-7

32 Amos 5:24

33 “Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein in the Nov. 28th edition of The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/article/164497/capitalism-vs-climate?page=0,5 (retrieved 12/9/2011).

34 See p. 102-104, Ayn Rand Answers (2005).

35 “The ‘labor’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” -“The Second Treatise on Civil Government” (1690) by John Locke

36 Revelation 18:23

37 p. 230, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

38 p. 230, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

39 In secular terms, the mathematical laws governing ecological energy exchange cannot be remade by even the most powerful technologies.

40 Genesis 3:19

41 p. 28-29, The Accursed Share (1967) by Georges Bataille

42 See p. 67, The Accursed Share (1967) by Georges Bataille

43 p. 207, Contact and Conflict: Indian-European Relations in British Columbia, 1774–1890 (1977) by Robin FIscher Vancouver, University of British Columbia Press

44 p. 78, Aboriginal Peoples and Politics: the Indian Land Question in British Colombia, 1849-1989 (1990) by Paul Tennant

45 See The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905)

46 p. 114-115, The Accursed Share (1967) by Georges Bataille

47 p. 68, The Accursed Share (1967) by Georges Bataille

48 “Catholic theologists enjoy dwelling in scholastic juridical arguments about how Christ paid the price for our sins, etc.–no wonder that Luther reacted to the lowest outcome of this logic, the reduction of redemption to something that can be bought from the Church.” -“Only a Suffering God Can Save Us” by Slavoj Zizek (http://www.lacan.com/zizshadowplay.html [retrieved 12/9/2011])

49 I would add that the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura forbid any poetic interpretations of or apocryphal additions to Biblical scripture, thereby marginalizing the creative role of humans as God’s earthly imagineers.

50 p. 133, The Accursed Share (1967) by Georges Bataille

51 p. 163, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (2003) by Norman Wirzba

52 James Lovelock coined the apt phrase to characterize the needs of our moment: “sustainable retreat.” See The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back–And How We Can Still Save Humanity (2006)

53 Genesis 2:2, “On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.”

54 See p. 58, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

55 See p. 182, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

56 1 Corinthians 15:28

57 See p. 245, “God at the Crossroads: A Postcolonial Reading of Sophia” by Mayra Rivera in The Postcolonial Biblical Reader (2006), ed. by Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah

58 See p. 14, The Accursed Share (1967) by Georges Bataille

59 Matthew 6:26-28

60 p. 69, The Dream of the Earth (1988) by Thomas Berry

61 p. 230, Creation: A Biblical Vision for the Environment (2010) by Margaret Barker

62 See p. 171-174, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (2003) by Norman Wirzba

63 See Religion in Human Evolution (2011) by Robert N. Bellah

64 p. 418, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1962) by G. Himmelfarb: “…natural selection arose…in England because it was a perfect expression of Victorian ‘greed-philosophy,’ of the capitalist ethic and Manchester economics.”

65 See The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of our Living Earth (1988) by James Lovelock

66 See The Symbiotic Planet (1999) by Lynn Margulis

67 “Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire” (1824) by Sadi Carnot

68 plate 15, line 15, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804)

69 plate 4, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793)

70 p. 198, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003) by Catherine Keller (summarizing Alfred North Whitehead’s dipolar divinity).

71 Proverbs 8:22

72 Isaiah 6:9

73 p. 240, Opus Postumum (1993); “Manufacture” from the Latin manus meaning “hand.”

74 Isaiah 2:8

75 Jeremiah 1:16; Compare with the words of a 19th century business man “Smoke is the incense burning on the altars of industry. It is beautiful to me. It shows that men are changing the merely potential forces of nature into articles of comfort for humanity.” -W. P. Rend, quoted on p. 385 in “Businessmen against pollution in 19th century Chicago,” by C. M. Rosen, Business History Review 69 (1995)

76 Luke 17:21

77 Matthew 11:15

78 p. 89, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Ascent by J. H. Newman (1870)

79 plate 5, line 59, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804) by William Blake

80 2 Corinthians 3:14

81 section 676, Hekhalot Rabbati; quoted on p. 98 of The Hidden and Manifest God (1992) by Paul Shafer


Work and Play in Human Evolution

At the center of Robert Bellah‘s 700 page account of the axial turn in the evolution of religion (Religion in Human Evolution, 2011) is a theory of play. The relaxed field generated by playfulness, according to Bellah’s richly empirical story, is the source of all human ritual and religion, and indeed of culture more generally. Play is symbolic, which is to say that when we are engaged in play, we are pretending, stepping out of the normal, ordinary course of daily life into an imaginal realm with no necessary connection to the world of biological survival. In the course of daily life, the so-called serious world, we are obliged to work, to “bring about [a] projected state of affairs by bodily movements” (Bellah quoting Alfred Shultz on p. 2). In the anxiety-free space of play, ends and means unite to produce a self-justifying, inherently enjoyable state of peace and mutual fulfillment. “Play,” says Bellah, “emerged in the evolution of mammals as a sphere sheltered to some degree from selectionist pressures, having its end internal to its practice, however much it may have proved adaptive in secondary and tertiary forms” (p. 112).

One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Gobekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in 2008, provides us with a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to domesticated modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.” The great deal of detalied planning and hard work required to construct such a temple–a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually protected relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play–makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the jovial. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for play. As cultural beings, we take play very seriously.

Bellah quotes Plato:

“I say that man must be serious with the serious. God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly and play the noblest games and be of another mind from what they are at present… For they deem war a serious thing, though in war there is neither play nor culture worthy the name which are the things we deem most serious. Hence all must live in peace as well as they possibly can. What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play. Playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies and win in the contest” (Laws 7.796).

As we can see, for Plato and for Bellah, play is quite a serious matter. Bellah connects play to the axial phenomenon of “renunciation.” A “renouncer” is one who, for spiritual reasons, rejects the political and economic roles assigned them by society. In rejecting society, they seek to establish schools (from the Latin, scola, and the Greek, skole, meaning “leisure”) of various kinds in order to teach and preserve their spiritual insights without being subject to the field of anxiety and toil ruling over the ordinary reality of the work day (the Greeks established schools, the Buddhists made monasteries, etc.). Perhaps the best examples of such renouncers in our own Western tradition are Socrates and Plato: they were both “in but not of the city and also criticized it from the outside,” says Bellah (p. 575). Renouncers are found in every axial culture; they are able to find support in their respective cultures, despite largely rejecting the premises of these same cultures, because everyone, even the ruling elite, have had a general sense of unease about the state of the world in which they live since about the axial age. Not until the irruption of linear time characteristic of this age was an apocalyptic end to the world readily conceivable; nor, for that matter, was the coming of a utopian future easily imaginable.

Religion, it seems, has had a complex series of effects on its human practitioners. It was perhaps the initiator of civilization, convincing us to give up our nomadic wandering to settle near the numinous power of elaborate temples, where, through the playfulness of ritualistic art and music, humans and gods transacted in a “time out of time.” The agricultural revolution demanded by such settlement, and the surpluses it created, then lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized chiefdoms, and eventually, to full-blown states. Societies organized around kinship–wherein everyone was somehow related to the primordial semi-divine ancestors–were increasingly replaced by kingship–wherein the king became the only link between peasants and the divine, and only an elite group of priests were permitted the free time for ritualized play. Amidst such injustice, the religious instincts of humanity erupted once again in the form of the great axial ethical critiques of civilized empire (e.g., the Jewish prophets, the Greek tragedians and philosophers, the Chinese Confucians, the Buddha…).

Play is symbolic, because as Bellah defines it, symbolism is the possibility latent in ordinary objects, persons, and events in the world of daily life to become “[meaningful] in another reality that transcends the world of working” (p. 8). The renouncers of empire who have emerged in the last 2,500 years or so have all critiqued the world of daily life, of working, by pointing to a transcendent realm beyond the immoralities of worldly politics and economics.

Today, as the global capitalist economy continues to convulse, the ideological bankruptcy of its supporters is becoming all the more transparent. Watch former mayor of NYC Rudy Giuliani speak to the conservative crowd at a recent meeting of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the “laziness” of those responsible for the Occupy movement:

“How about you occupy a job? How about working??” Giuliani goes on to compare the occupation of Wall Street to Woodstock, suggesting that protestors would rather have fun than work. In his mind, school is not an end in itself (as it was for students of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum); rather, school is a means to an end: a job. The truly insidious thing about capitalism is that it commodifies everything, placing a monetary value even on time itself. Of course, time must first be falsified into a measurable quantity, namely industrial clock-time, before it can be monetized (see the work of Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin). The time-anxiety experienced by the modern working person is a direct result of this falsification. Leisure time and recreation, when measured in terms of clock-time, is impossible, since genuine play is always an end in itself, never a means (for better performance at work, relieving stress, etc.).

One of the core cosmopolitical issues beneath the Occupy movement concerns the relationship between work and play. Has not our capitalist civilization become imbalanced in respect to the activities associated with these two modes of consciousness? I quote Bellah at length:

“In our society, [playful activities] tend to be viewed as ‘less real’ than the world of daily life, as fictional and ultimately as less important than the world of working… Yet one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time. Some people can’t stand to live in it at all–they used to be sent to mental institutions, but today in the United States they can be found wandering the city streets. All of us leave the world of daily life with considerable frequency–not only when we are sleeping and dreaming (the structure of dreams is almost completely antithetical to the structure of the world of working), but when we daydream, travel, go to a concert, turn on the television. We do these things often for the sheer pleasure of getting out of the world of daily life. Even so we may feel guilty that we are shirking our responsibilities to the real world. However, if we follow the analysis of Alfred Shultz [mentioned above], the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed… [It is usually] seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need, [and as such] is a world of mechanical necessity, not radical autonomy. It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding [Kenneth Burke’s term], that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances”(p. 3,9).

Bellah points to art, science, and religion as practices and modes of consciousness equally capable of lifting us out of the world of daily life to reveal something beyond, something more real, in fact, than working. The world of working is a world of lack, of deficiency. The world of play is one of fullness, a plenum, wherein everything becomes symbolically possible. It is not only a culturally instilled sense of guilt that prevents us from breaking free of the world of work, though it is surely that, too. There is also the fear of death. Religion in its degenerate forms has not done much to assuage this fear. In its perennial forms, however, religion is the surest expression of humanity’s faith in the immortality and universality of the soul. I would argue that, until individual human beings are released from the egoic anxiety resulting from their consciousness of death, we will never come close to realizing a cosmopolitics of play, where communal celebration, rather than private capital accumulation, becomes the norm. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the various #Occupy encampments represents a pre-linguistic, almost mimetic/enactive cosmological critique of capitalism. The drumming, dancing, and playfulness are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the world of working.

Cosmopolitical Reflections upon leaving for Black Rock City

Since the dominant narratives bringing forth the ongoing misadventure of industrial capitalism fail to properly situate the human soul in its actual time and place, any serious inquiry into the nature of our individual and collective situation must begin with an act of counter memory: we must ask afresh in each generation, who are we, and where did we come from? As Emerson suggested in his lecture on the American Scholar, we must discover an original relationship with the universe.

This does not mean we should jettison tradition. The “chronological snobbery” (Owen Barfield‘s phrase) of the progress-obsessed modern world is nothing to be emulated; rather, tradition must be consciously integrated instead of reactively rejected or habitually assumed.

In a cosmological sense, we are star stuff come to life upon a planet of immense but limited means. Our existence has taxed to the point of bankruptcy the potential energy of earth’s systems. Ecological entropy now threatens to destroy the monetary meaning that has replaced culture with commodities and nature with machines. Absent this monetary meaning, many of us no longer know how to eat or how to sleep, nor how to love, and especially not how to die.

Life on earth in 2011 is precarious, even doomed. And yet, isn’t this message of doom now also woven into our official narrative? Isn’t apocalypse the best selling plot in today’s mass media market? Everybody knows the old world is coming to an end, but because the horror of this reality is too much to take responsibility for, the majority of us sit on the couch and pretend it is all just another form of entertainment. Fantasy has replaced forthrightness, and imagination has withered to make way for shallow ideological affiliation with merely symbolic causes.

Of course, symbolism is no mere trifle: our sense of meaning is precisely what is at stake. How are we to conceive of the human presence on the planet? Are we a cancerous growth, or the incarnation of God on earth? Are we to become once again a spiritual instead of a consumptive and pleasure-driven species? Are we to replace industrial with initiatory cosmology? Is our role to worship, celebrate, and create, or to use, abuse, and destroy?

These are questions of the ultimate meaning of the universe, and their answers determine how we inhabit the earth. As the geologian Thomas Berry put it, ecology is simply functional cosmology. An integral ecology implies an awareness of the way our images of the cosmos quite literally come to transform its material reality: the mechanistic and disenchanted imaginary of industrial cosmology, for example, has pushed the planet into climate change and mass extinction, forever altering the future course of every species’ evolution. Clearly, such a cosmology does not function adequately as an ecology. It is based upon the mistaken assumption that profit is genuinely productive, when in fact, rising corporate profits are perhaps the best indication of declining ecosystemic vitality. Only plants are truly productive, since only they are capable of eating the celestial energy of the sun that produces and sustains all life on earth. All other biotic activities, human and otherwise, function only by transforming terrestrial energy originally captured by plants.

“Like all structures,” writes Alf Hornborg,

“the biosphere is composed of differences. If it is humankind’s mission to devise a coded system of signals to integrate this most inclusive of living systems, our monetary system must recognize those differences or continue to annihilate them” (p. 174, The Power of the Machine).

Modern industrial cosmology has lead to the dissociation of the human economy and the earth economy. Earth is a diverse community of organisms delicately balanced by millions upon millions of years of co-adaptation. This variety is crucial to its ongoing resiliency. Capitalism seeks to homogenize culture and nature in order to more effectively market its mass produced products everywhere on the globe. It has entirely transformed Gaia too quickly for Her species, including the human, to adapt. We are increasingly threatened by the worldlessness produced by an economic system that values profitability (the replication of money) over productivity (the recreation of life).

Only the “subversive implications of genuine spirituality” can reverse the spread of worldlessness, since, says Hornborg,

“the concept of sanctity is diametrically opposed to the notion of generalized interchangeability on which modernity is founded. To suggest a mountain or a person’s time are not for sale is incongruent with the basic premises of the modern project” (p. 236, ibid.).

In my presentation at Burning Man this year (2pm on Tuesday, Aug 30th @ Camp Cosmicopia located ~ 8 A), I want to suggest that ancient cosmology, specifically that emerging out of the Platonic tradition, has much to teach the modern mind about what it means to be human on planet earth. Modern cosmology is disenchanted, which is to say that it no longer integrates the reality of soul, whether that of the individual or that of the universe. Each human being is conceived of as an isolated atom of tragic identity lost in an immense storm of random, chaotic change. To even call this a cosmology is to stretch the meaning of the term, since industrialism offers no explicit vision of the universe as a whole. It denies wholeness, instead encouraging each separate individual to pursue its own selfish ends in the hope that its sense of dissatisfaction with life might find some temporary reprieve in the fleeting pleasures of consumption.

Platonic cosmology, in contrast, situates the human being in a living and intelligent universe. The life of the individual soul is understood to participate in the life of the World Soul. Though the trauma of birth makes it forgetful, the individual soul is said to be capable of remembering its origin in the everlasting Soul of the World by looking skyward and contemplating the holy rhythms of the circling stars above. The movements of the heavenly bodies are the visible signs of the World Soul’s invisible formative power. The heavenly motions reflect the earthly soul’s emotions, mirroring (not determining) its inner life.

Plato’s vision of the universe is initiatory, since it is a cosmology –a way of speaking the cosmos– that goes beyond mere secondhand description to direct participation in the meaning of the world. Modern cosmology tends to speak at or about the universe, while Plato sought to speak to and with the universe. The earth and the other planets are not merely chunks of rock, but ensouled creatures — gods, even. It is my opinion that we are approaching a crisis in scientific cosmology not seen since the time of Copernicus. We are on the verge of a new consciousness of a new cosmos, a transformation in our fundamental image of the world no less profound and earth-shaking than the emergence of the heliocentric theory. With this new cosmology will come a new culture, a new way of being human, based not on work and the replication of money, but on play and the recreation of life. Perhaps Burning Man provides a small a preview of the possibilities…

[Update: Sam Mickey over at Becoming Integral has recently posted on the religious significance and ecological impact of Burning Man]

From Means to Ends, From Work to Play, From Number to Pneuma

When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the standard of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased $2.5 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector (the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world)? When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth economy. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, the technoindustrial machine within which our daily lives take place must seek out ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) extracted from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.) in order to sustain its constant growth. The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth economy.

Perhaps it does not matter when money became an idol. It may be more important to recognize how it is that such a fetish is able to take root and sustain itself in the collective psyche. To do this, let us examine the categories through which we perceive the world we live in. Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society mediated by monetary instruments. This mediation takes place primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Among the first questions asked in polite conversation among newly aquatinted strangers is “what do you do?,” as in “what do you do for work?” Work is what earns us money, and money is what makes the world go round. Or so it seems.

Even in physics, the very stuff, or process, out of which everything is “made”–that is, energy–is defined in socioeconomic terms as the ability to do work. Wouldn’t it make more sense–and in fact, wouldn’t it have world-shaking effects–to redefine energy as the ability to play and to creatively reproduce?

Why would it make more sense to say this? Because energy, as Blake put it poetically, is eternal delight; which is to say that energy is not merely the mechanical transfer of force, but the spiritual and emotional conveyance of value.

How would an economy of play work? This has always been the question, if energy is truly disporting in its own light. The human economy has never truly separated from the earth, though it may have made the pretense of such a separation the basis of an imperial fantasy. How can money continue to breath life into the human adventure if its value is detached from the cosmos, from something alive and real? How can merely working for a living motivate us to wake up and bring forth civilization each morning? The ends of all work should always be to secure more time to play. Money is not an end in itself, unless it has become an idol. Working for money is worshiping a false idol. No amount of money or number of notes will ever buy us the pneumatic gnosis we seek.