Thursday, April 28, 2005

Attention Span

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, now retired, wrote the following paragraph not too long ago. I got it yesterday and his words struck me.

Religion is born out of the very nature of what it means to be human, our gift of self-consciousness. The human psyche is suspended, as it were, between a constantly changing natural world out of which we have emerged, and the appeal of an unchanging reality that we have the ability to imagine and to which we believe we belong. Without this sense of being related to a transcendence, that we normally call God, human life faces the trauma of meaninglessness. We become no different from the animals going through the cycles of birth, maturation, mating, reproducing and dying. Animals tolerate that meaningless cycle because they are not self-conscious and do not live in the medium of time and thus do not know mortality. That is however, not a possibility for self-conscious human lives whose minds remember the past and plan for a future that includes their deaths. Self-consciousness is thus the source of the human drive to connect with something eternal, something not bound by time and space. That is what makes us religious beings. Our images of God are, however, never static. When human life changes, our religious understandings must also change or they become either irrelevant or unbelievable. That is the moment when our god images die and the anxiety present in the human soul becomes palpable. A brief look at religious history makes this obvious. (from "Understanding the Divided Electorate")

It is nicely said, I think, and it represents a sort of bedrock of understanding among huge numbers of people. There are several things I disagree with in this single paragraph, though. Probably the most important is that self-consciousness may extend to other forms of life on this planet to one degree or another, perhaps dolphins, parrots, whales, Border collies, but probably not ancient mesquite trees or sequoias or earthworms or even tyrannosaurus rex. And, it may not be a "gift" but merely(!) one of those steps in evolution.

Another thing with which I disagree is that we have emerged from the "natural world" and somehow are able to imagine our way clear of its demands, not just the cycles of birth, maturation, procreation, and death, but larger scale realities like plate tectonics, ecological systematics, the dynamics of the objects assembled around our sun, to name but three.

To be sure, we have imaginations and, clearly, our imaginations lead us toward a quest for meaning for our lives and quickly into provisional explanations of it all, some less provisional and more, shall we say, "institutionalized." A brief look at human history makes this obvious.

It may be, and I have argued the point endlessly, that the idea of emerging from nature, rather than continuing to be a part of it both ecologically and, if you will, spiritually, seems to be required by our first faltering institutionalized explanations of life and the universe. It may be that in order to set out a "theory of everything" that one must eventually ignore most of the evidence and replace it with assertions.

This is an important point for it is clear enough at the beginning of the twenty-first century that humanity is evolved to make quick judgments, carry them provisionally for days and weeks even years out of harm's way, and to generalize from them. We are capable, to use the language of Aristotelean logic (or that of John Stuart Mill or Quine or Ayer or virtually any philosopher of logic), of arriving at reasonably firm judgments about things quickly, inducing from very few particulars to helpful generalizations or deducing from evidence for which we have established a reliable context the probability of an event. In this way we took shelter from sabre-toothed tigers and violent storms, in this way we undertook agriculture and industry. In this way we saw the benefit of communal life and avoided, as do most animals, death struggles for opportunities of procreation. In this way we observed the natural world of which we are a part and decided that we understood it well enough to survive its worst elements and to harness its shorter term phenomena for our own short-term benefit.

And, as an epiphenomenon of these practical questions, we invented institutionalized answers to larger questions, ones for which we had no real notion of cause and effect. We invented Thor and Hephaestus. We invented Cupid and Eros. We invented myths to fill in the gaps of our inductive and deductive powers of reason. We reified these myths and soon we had institutionalized the manner in which we addressed certain questions. We established cultural habits of mind.

This essay is not really about religion, though, it is about our habits and hubris, our centuries and millennia-old habits of mind that tell us we will survive the worst elements that nature throws our way—including global warming—and that the coincidence of running out of energy just as global warming is looming over us is that—a coincidence. We do not see the cause and effect inter-relationships because they are long term phenomena and we are generally short term thinkers.

A species that lived to an old age of forty does not improve its ability to deal with long-term phenomena by doubling its life-expectancy. It does not work that way. We learn to understand plate tectonics by organizing human knowledge in such a way that one generation can pick up where the last left off and pursue the same quest of understanding. We understand climatological change only by appreciating a wealth of what in the short-term seems like circumstantial evidence.

We survive long-term phenomena in the same way we understand them, by organizing humanity into units of response that make sense over long periods. But we have not survived all long-term phenomena. We have walked away (migrated) away from or starved to death because of climatological changes, and we have been destroyed by volcanism, earthquakes, tsunamis, and even meteors plunging to earth.

Building nuclear reactors and more petroleum refineries is a short-term response to one of several serious long term problems we have created for ourselves by being short-term thinkers. Ultimately, we are part and parcel of nature; our destiny is irretrievably linked to near-earth orbiting debris in space, to the chemical composition of our seas and atmosphere, to the character of the land forms and the flora and fauna upon it and in the seas. We know now that removing the major predators from a region results in overpopulation of their prey and then, inevitably, a population crash as sustenance is reduced below the amount necessary to support the population. And, we know that reducing sustenance can change the landscape, reducing soil-holding plants, giving rise to dust bowls, chaotic meanders of rivers, and long term damage through which life must struggle at primitive levels of existence. At least some of us know these things.

But, we have long-term thinkers and we have the ability to organize the enterprises of humanity toward long-term answers to long-term problems. It takes a remarkable leap of courage to do this, but it is now time. Look around you. Slowly look around and tell yourself one more time that myths will snatch us from the jaws of destruction or that by the skin of our teeth we will survive. Don't you get an uneasy feeling? Don't you get it? You must break loose from false premises and bad habits of mind! George doesn't, but we must!