“People felt a yearning for the absolute, intuited its presence all around them, and went to great lengths to cultivate their sense of this transcendence in creative rituals. But they felt estranged from it. Almost every culture has developed a myth of a lost paradise from which men and women were ejected at the beginning of time. It expresses an inchoate conviction that life was not meant to be so fragmented, hard, and full of pain. There must have been a time when people had enjoyed a greater share in the fullness of being and had not been subject to sorrow, disease, bereavement, loneliness, old age, and death.”Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. (Vintage Canada Edition, 2010), p. 14.
Like H.G. Wells in our second instalment of this series, Karen Armstrong offers a speculative account of the rise of religion in early humans. Neither the Modernist nor Postmodernist view of reality has a satisfactory or convincing answer to what Karen Armstrong calls humanity’s innate “yearning for the absolute” and our “sense of… transcendence”. As we observed in our previous post, the human feeling of “estrangement” from the absolute and the desire to know the transcendent is virtually universal and has existed throughout our recorded history as a species. It relates to what Ms. Armstrong aptly calls “a myth of lost paradise from which [we] were ejected at the beginning of time”. A word of caution about the word “myth” before we go on. “Myth” does not mean untrue; rather it is a quest to put into words that sense of the transcendent which, at some point in life, almost every human being experiences. It may very well be based on experienced reality, but its source has faded into the deep recesses of our “collective memory”, as Carl Jung expressed it.
How could such convictions evolve? Why could we possibly develop a need, let alone an ability, to “intuit’ them? What possible advantage in the evolutionary struggle could this bestow upon homo sapiens sapiens over against our rival species for primacy in a contest of “survival of the fittest” and the process of natural selection? From a strictly survivalist perspective, it would seem a pointless diversion of focus and energy, subtracting from seeking definite and powerful practical advantages over other competing species.
It is a completely inadequate response to say that “primitive” civilizations needed religion and superstition to ensure group organization and hierarchical authority structure which gave us a collective, cooperative power no other species can match. There are surely other, more direct methods of organizing hierarchy, especially for intelligent, self-aware beings, than a massive diversion of energy and resources into “creative rituals” to cement community identity.
Interestingly, as secular, culturally logical, and mature beings, as we now fancy ourselves to have become, we still adhere to group rituals and ceremonies and identity rites as much as the “superstitious primitives” ever did. We have different, more “enlightened” and sophisticated ways of explaining such things through sociology and anthropology, but we still look for something greater than ourselves beyond our crass, material limitations. It seems that the hunger for the absolute and the transcendent, as a quest to take ourselves out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, and to connect with some ‘Higher Reality”, is as alive as ever in the human psyche.
But, having outgrown “religion” and the “supernatural” as the road to connect with such realities, inasmuch as they may exist outside of our subjective minds, we now look to ideologies and concepts such as the “nation”, the “people”, the “human spirit”, or the “New Humanity”. It is proposed that we are evolving a higher consciousness and deeper unity with the “One” which subsumes and connects all things. Quite simply, however we choose to “explain it” by naming it differently, we are still “yearning for the absolute”.
The deep sense of our estrangement from some vital transcendent truth remains, no matter how we strive to mask it and drive it underground. It is more obvious than ever to almost everyone alive that we are estranged from nature, of which we conceive ourselves the pinnacle in terms of evolutionary development.
We talk of nature as of something apart and separate from ourselves, even as we insist we are but one aspect of it. No matter how we idealize it and speak of reintegrating with it, we cannot get there. We have too much power over it, power to manipulate it and control it and change it. Thus, all pious protestations to the contrary aside, we actually do not believe in our innermost soul that we are merely another part or facet of it, not essentially greater than an insect, with no more right to be than a microbe, a mouse, a fish, or a sparrow. We can intellectually declare such things, but we don’t and can’t really believe them.
Our ideas and words betray us at every turn. Our interventions in it, from the least (recycling) to the greatest (even now as we speak of our ability to “scrub” the very atmosphere) demonstrate it. Even by evolutionary calculations we are “above” nature. We have not outgrown it yet, but we rise above our own natural limitations. We use nature and what we find there to do extraordinary and even “miraculous things”. We travel on the ground at speeds multiple times faster than the fastest human or horse can run. We fly, despite not being biologically evolved to do so. We travel in space, we explore the macrocosm and microcosm with means we have made to “astronomically” exceed what our unaided physical senses could ever do.
While mortal and limited, we are godlike. In old Biblical terms, we are “made in the image of God”, and other faiths have very similar concepts. We have powers and abilities to remake and refashion this world that so far exceed any other living being of this planet (the only one we know which actually has life on it), that it is dishonest to say we are “just another creature among many”. We are not. We are creators and destroyers, preservers and remakers. To pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous, or perhaps downright dishonest because we deliberately deny what we know in our hearts, beneath all the false humility.
Why then do we “yearn for the absolute”? Because, as Kohelet said (see previous series), we are beings that, as part of our very nature, “have eternity in our hearts”. Why do we “intuit its presence all around us”? Because we can perceive that there is a reality that is far more than anything our mere physical senses can tell us. We have “intuition” or some sort of “sixth sense”, an immaterial side or “sense” tuned to what we know is actually there, even if unseen, even though our bodily senses do not register it. And it is not hocus-pocus.
Why do we spend so much energy and effort and resources on “creative rituals” to “cultivate” this sense of the transcendent aspects of reality? Because we somehow know that we are connected with this transcendent reality, this source of the absolute. Because we know that we were made or have been evolved to be connected to this absolute transcendence that lies within and above and beyond the limitations of what we can know and experience through these limited physical bodies.
Whether we were created directly with this need and sense or evolved into this state of intuitive awareness is, at this point, irrelevant to our discussion. Here we are. As far as we can tell, thus has humanity ever been since humans as we know them first appeared on Planet Earth.
Until this is accepted, we cannot even begin to recover from our “estrangement”.