The 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight was just commemorated. Shortly afterward, in 1962, John F. Kennedy said America would “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
In 1968, the philosophically challenging and cinematically groundbreaking film “2001: A Space Odyssey” conveyed a vision of human transmutation. In it, evolutionary leaps in hominids, including humans, are initiated by a mysterious external intelligence, operating at crucial junctures in our evolutionary history.
For all its originality, “2001” contains the same core ideas about man and God at the heart of monotheistic religions. The human mind’s dualism of inner and outer, which has plagued humanity at least since the beginning of civilization, still holds sway. Can we go beyond it?
To monotheists, God is an outside agency that cares about the fate of humankind. Believers see the supreme intelligence as an all-seeing deity that willed the universe into existence, and intervenes every now and then in its mechanisms, especially where man is concerned.
Substitute the mysterious black monolith, emitting a burst of transformative energy at certain stages of human evolution in “2001,” for a Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic God. It’s the same basic idea of outside agency.
That External God, the God of civilization’s childhood, no longer serves humankind’s development. But the urge to understand humankind’s place in the universe remains; indeed, it’s now imperative to our survival.
With the collapse of religions (except in reactionary form), and the belief in a separate God, modern man replaced monotheism with science’s belief in a coldly indifferent and completely random cosmos. It’s a short step from there to the misanthropic notion that man is just a cancer on this planet.
Thanks to science, most people now believe that there is no intelligence in the cosmos, and that humankind doesn’t matter anymore than any other life form. So we’ve gone from putting man at the center of creation, placed there by a separate Father God, to the equally inane idea that humanity is merely an unfortunate accident of random formation.
Ironically, the belief in a completely random universe leads to viewing nature as a thing to be manipulated even more than the belief in man as God’s special creation.
Scientists and philosophers who espouse radical randomness insist that they are merely ‘restoring’ man to his rightful place in nature. But randomness is even worse than monotheism because without a spiritual insight into humanity (in the age of science one that eschews man’s specialness), nothing matters but ‘me.’
Few feel the urge to even ask the big questions anymore. For example: Given that man evolved along the same principles as all other life, which fit and flow together in nature’s seamless whole, why does man operate so separatively and destructively?
A much more accurate way to conceive of nature and the universe is as an undivided movement of energy and matter. Where then do sentience and spirituality fit in? Hasn’t energy/matter become aware of itself with the emergence of sentient creatures?
But that only begs the question: What is the source of man’s divisiveness and fragmentation? That question can be addressed, both evolutionarily and spiritually.
The human adaptive strategy is based on the evolution of so-called higher thought, which removes ‘things’ from nature and manipulates them for man’s use, and abuse. Such an adaptation was obviously an extraordinarily powerful quantum leap in the development of life on earth. Indeed, the adaptive strategy of symbolic thought is so powerful that it seems incredible that it could be confined to the earth alone, anymore than life itself could be confined to the earth alone.
We don’t need a new conception of God; we need a new conception of humanity. We need a new insight into man’s anomaly on this beautiful earth, into the how and why of our existential contradiction in nature and the universe.
Even as we are inextricably part of nature and the universe, we are separate from it. How can that be, and what rectifies it? Science cannot provide such an insight, though it can verify it.
Nowhere is it written that humanity will meet its self-made crisis and continue to succeed as a species. Sentient species can fail to change as any other species, and humankind is failing in its super-adaptiveness.
Just as the space and habitat for animals everywhere on earth are being destroyed, so too the space for people to grow into human beings is being destroyed. There aren’t an infinite number of chances to change course.
As things stand, humans are using ‘higher thought’ to wreak havoc on the earth, and ourselves. And no amount of transplantation of Buddhist philosophy can do anything but provide a fig leaf for what has become the naked truth about man.
So the question arises: Do innumerable wars, planetary destructiveness, and social pathologies of all kinds inevitably accompany the evolution of symbolic thought?
Perhaps, but the beauty of the equation is that the spiritual capacity of species such as ourselves is as great as our destructive capability. That’s because the evolution of symbolic thought also gave the brain the neural potential for direct, non-mediated awareness of death, creation, and love, which are the essence of the universe.