6.22.2017 Doc of the Day

1. Julian Huxley, 1964.
2. Michael Egan, 2003.
3. Bianca Salvant, 2017.

sistine chapel michelangelo art church italy rome
Numero Uno“The Bishop of Woolwich’s courageous book, Honest to God, is impressive evidence not merely of what he calls our present theological ferment, but of the general ideological ferment and indeed of the revolution of thought through which we are struggling.


This is the inevitable outcome of the new vision of the world and man’s place and role in that world — in a word, of man’s destiny — which our new knowledge has revealed.  This new vision is both comprehensive and unitary.  It integrates the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework, the pattern of all-embracing evolutionary process.  In this unitary vision, all kinds of splits and dualisms are healed.  The entire cosmos is made out of one and the same world-stuff, operated by the same energy as we ourselves.  ‘Mind’ and ‘matter’ appears as two aspects of our unitary mind-bodies.  There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution.  There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both organs of evolving humanity.

This earth is one of the rare spots in the cosmos where mind has flowered.  Man is a product of nearly three billion years of evolution, in whose person the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities.  Whether he likes it or not, he is responsible for the whole further evolution of our planet.

Dr Robinson describes the current image of God as follows: “Somewhere beyond this universe is a Being, a centre of personal will and purpose, who created it and sustains it, who loves it and who ‘visited’ it in Jesus Christ. But I need not go on, for this is ‘our’ God. Theism means being convinced that this Being exists: atheism means denying that he does.” However he continues as follows: “But I suspect that we have reached a point where this mental image of God is also more of a hindrance than a help. … Any image can become an idol, and I believe that Christians must go through the agonizing process in this generation of detaching themselves from this idol.” He even writes that he heartily agrees with something I wrote many years ago in my Religion without revelation — “The sence of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a superhuman being is enormous.”

And yet he clings to the essential personal concept of God — “nothing,” he writes, “can separate us from the love of God”; and sums up his position in the following assertion, that “God is ultimate reality… and ultimate reality must exist”.

To the implications of these statements I shall return. Meanwhile let me state the position as I see it. Man emerged as the dominant type on earth about a million years ago, but has only been really effective as a psychosocial organism for under ten thousand years. In that mere second of cosmic time, he has produced astonishing achievements — but has also been guilty of unprecedented horrors and follies. And looked at in the long perspective of evolution he is singularly imperfect, still incapable of carrying out his planetary responsibilities in a satisfactory manner.

The radical evolutionary crisis through which man is now passing can only be surmounted by an equally radical reorganisation of his dominant system of thought and belief. During human history, there has been a succession of dominant systems of thought and belief, each accompanying a new organisation of social, political and economic activities — agriculture with its rituals of rebirth as against hunting with its magic; early civilization with its cities and sacred kings, its written records and its priesthoods; universal and monotheistic religion; later, the scientific, the industrial and the technological revolutions with their corresponding patterns of thought; and now the evolutionary and humanist revolution, whose ideological and social implications have still to be thought out.

What has all this to do with Dr Robinson’s views on God, or indeed with religion at all? The answer is, a great deal. In the first place, religion in some form is a universal function of man in society, the organ for dealing with the problems of destiny, the destiny of individual men and women, of societies and nations, and of the human species as a whole. Religions always have some intellectual or ideological framework, whether myth or theological doctrine; some morality or code of behaviour, whether barbaric or ethically rationalized; and some mode of ritualized or symbolic expression, in the form of ceremonial or celebration, collective devotion or thanksgiving, or religious art. But, as the history and comparative study of religions make clear, the codified morality and the ritualized expression of of a religion, and indeed in the long run its social and personal efficacy, derives from its “theological” framework. If the evolution of its ideological pattern does not keep pace with the growth of knowledge, with social change and the march of events, the religion will increasingly cease to satisfy the multitude seeking assurance about their destiny, and will become progressively less effective a a social organ.

Eventually the old ideas will no longer serve, the old ideological framework can no longer be tinkered up to bear the weight of the facts, and a radical reconstruction becomes necessary, leading eventually to the emergence of a quite new organisation of thought and belief, just as the emergence of new types of bodily organization was necessary to achieve biological advance.

Such major organizations of thought may be necessary in science as much as in religion. The classical example, of course, was the re-patterning of cosmological thought which demoted the earth from its central position and led to the replacement of the geocentric pattern of thought by a heliocentric one. I believe that an equally drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a god-centered to an evolutionary-centered pattern. Simplified down to its bare essentials the stepwise reorganization of western religions thought seems to have proceeded as follows. In its early, paleolithic stage religion was magic-centred, based on the ideas of magic force inherent in nature, in personages such as “medicine men” and shamans, and in human incarnations, spells and other magic practices, including witchcraft. This type of belief developed gradually into animism and so to polydaimonism and polytheism; while with the coming of agriculture a new pattern was imposed, centering on the ideas of fertility and rebirth, and leading to the rise of priest-kings and eventually divinized monarchs. The next major revolution of religious thought came in the first millennium B.C with the independent rise of the monotheist and/or universalist religions, culminating in Christianity and later branching off into Islam. The last two thousand years have seen the development of elaborate monotheistic theologies; but in the process their single God has broken into many, or at least has assumed a number of distinct and indeed sometimes actively hostile forms; and their nominal universalism has degenerated into competition for the possession of absolute truth.

Of course a great deal of magic survived into the polytheist priest-king stage, and some persists in thinly disguised form in Christian and Mohammedan practices and ideas today. Similarly, elements of polydaemonism and polytheism persists in the nominally monotheist religion of Christianity, in the doctrine of the Trinity (with the virtual divinization of the Virgin in Catholicism), in the multiplication of its Saints and Angels, and in so doing has increased its flexibility.

But to come back to DR Robinson. He is surely right in concentrating on the problem of God, rather than on the resurrection or the after-life, for God is Christianity’s central hypothesis.

But he is surely wrong in making such statements as that “God is ultimate reality”. God is a hypothesis constructed by man to help him understand what existence is all about. The god hypothesis asserts the existence of some sort supernatural personal or superpersonal being, exerting some kind of purposeful power over the universe and its destiny. To say that God is ultimate reality is just semantic cheating, as well as being so vague as to become effectively meaningless (and when DR Robinson continues by saying “and ultimate reality must exist” he is surely running round a philosophically very vicious circle).

Dr Robinson, like Dr Tillich and many other modernist theologians, seems to me, and indeed to any humanist, to be trying to ride two horses at once, to keep his cake and eat it. He wants to be modern and meet the challenge of our new knowledge by stripping the image of God of virtually all its spatial, material, Freudian and anthropomorphic aspects. But he still persists in retaining the term God, in spite of all its implifications of supernatural power and personality; and it is these implifications, not the modernists’ fine-spun arguments, which consciously and unconsciously affect the ordinary man and woman. Heads I win, tails you lose: humanists dislike this elaborate double-talk. The ambiguity involved can be simply illustrated by substituting some of the modernists’ definition of God for the plain word [I think it should read world, not word — Fredrik’s comment] itself. I am sure that many opponents of freer divorce use the phrace “whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder”. If they were to proclaim that “whom universal reality has joined together, let no man put asunder”, it would not carry the same weight.

Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable, has lost its explanatory value and is becoming an intellectual and moral burden to our thought. It no longer convinces or comforts, and its abandonment often brings a deep sence of relief. Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. But it does mean, once our relief at jettisoning an outdated piece of ideological furniture is over, that we must construct some thing to take its place.

Though gods and God in any meaningful sence seem destined to disappear, the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains. This religious raw material consists of those aspects of nature and those experiences which are usually described as divine. Let me remind my readers that the term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interprete man’s experiences of this quality.

Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience. They inspire awe and seem mysterious, explicable only in terms of something beyond or above ordinary nature.

Such magical, mysterious, awe-inspiring, divinity-suggesting facts have included wholly outer phenomena like volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricanes; biological phenomena such as sex and birth, disease and death; and also inner, psychological phenomena such as intoxication, possession, speaking in tounges, inspiration, insanity, and mystic vision.

With the growth of knowledge most of these have ceased to be mysterious so far as rational or scientific explicability is concerned (though there remains the fundamental mystery of existence, notably the existence of mind). However, it is a fact that many phenomena are charged with some sort of magic or compulsive power, and do introduce us to a realm beyond our ordinary experience. Such events and such experience merit a special designation. For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truely supernatural but transnatural — it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his awe.

Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safe-guarding of divinity in this sence, and seeks contact and communication with what is regarded as divine. A humanist evolution-centered religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God. It must strip the divine of the theistic qualities which man has antropomorphically projected into it, search for its habitations in every aspect of existence, elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its manifestations. Divinity is the chief raw material out of which gods have been fashioned. Today we must melt down the gods and refashion the material into new and effective organs of religion, enabling man to exist freely and fully on the spiritual level as well as on the material.

What precise form these new agencies of religious thought will take it is impossible to say in this period of violent transition. But one can make some general prophesies. The central religious hypothesis will certainly be evolution, which by now has been checked against objective fact and has become firmly established as a principle. Evolution is a process, of which we are products, and in which we are active agents. There is no finality about the process, and no automatic or unified progress; but much improvement has occured in the past, and there could be much further improvement in the future (though there is also the possibility of future failure and regression).

Thus the central long-term concern of religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realise new possibilities; and this means greater fulfilment by more human individuals and fuller achievement by more human societies

Human potentialities constitute the world’s greatest resource, but at the moment only a tiny fraction of them is being realized. The possibility of tapping and directing these vast resources of human possibility provide the religion of the future with a powerful long-term motive. An equally powerful short-term motive is to ensure the fullest possible development and flowering of individual personalities. In developing a full, deep and rich personality the individual ceases to be a mere cog or cipher, and makes his own particular contribution to evolutionary fulfilment.

In a way most important of all, an evolution-centered religion can no longer be divided off from secular affairs in a separate supernatural compartment, but will interlock with them at every point. The only distinction is that it is concerned with less immediate, less superficial, and therefore more enduring and deeper aspects of existence.

Meanwhile, religious rituals and moral codes will have to be readapted or remodelled. Besides what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values, we shall need a transfiguration of thought, a new religious terminology and a reformulation of religious ideas and concepts in a new idiom. A humanist religion will have to work out its own rituals and its own basic symbolism.

In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process; in place of salvation in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace.  There will be no room for petitionary prayer, but much value in prayer involving aspiration and self-exploration.  A religion of fulfilment must provide bustling secular man with contacts with all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence; indeed, with every possible opportunity of transcending the limitations not only of his day-by-day existence in the equivalents of shared worship, but of his little secular self in acts of meditation and self-examination and in retreats from the secular world of affairs.  It will of course continue to celebrate the outstanding events of personal and national existence (already in some countries there are humanist wedding and funeral ceremonies).  Furthermore, it will enlist the aid of psychologists and psychiatrists in helping men and women to explore the depths and heights of their own inner selves instead of restlessly pursuing external novelty, to realize more of their mental and spiritual possibilities, to utilize even their repressed and guilty urges, and to transcendent the limitations and the internal conflicts of the unregenerate self in a constructive wholeness and a sense of achieving contact or union with a fuller reality.

Christianity is a universalist and monotheist religion of salvation.  Its long consolidation and explosive spread, achieved through a long period of discussion and zealous ferment, released vast human forces which have largely shaped the western world as we know it.  An evolutionary and humanist religion of fulfilment could be more truly universal and could release even vaster human forces, which could in large measure shape the development of the entire world.  But its consolidation and spread will need a period of discussion and ferment, though with modern communications this is likely to be much shorter than for Christianity.

The evolutionary vision of man’s place and role in the universe which science and scholarship have given us, could be the revelation of the new dispensation.  Dr Robinson’s article is evidence of its effectiveness in changing ideas.  What we now need is a multitude of participants to take part in the great discussion and to join in the search for the larger truth and the more fruitful patterns of belief which we confidently believe is waiting to be elicited.”     Julian Huxley, “The New Divinity;” 1964

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Numero Dos“How quickly we forget history’s lessons.  For a country that puts so much stock in its history and heritage, it seems ironic that Americans so rarely tend to heed history what history might tell them.  Put aside for a moment the illegality of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the deceit of the current administration, and its current backtracking and finger pointing, and consider the immediate tragedy that is Iraq and the ongoing failure of American policy in the Middle East, which can only escalate with distrust growing in Iran.Once again, an American administration is hurt and confused by the lack of gratitude expressed by peoples it has ‘liberated.’  To hear Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or his deputy Paul Wolfowitz tell it, the Iraqi people are callously ungrateful and wholly undeserving of the great gift of American democracy.  Rather than listening to the whining arrogance of the hawks, whose victory in Iraq has not been as glorious or as shiny as anticipated, Americans might turn to the history books and learn that this is a common refrain that stretches back at least as far as the end of the nineteenth century.

In his classic 1959 study, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, the eminent historian William Appleman Williams suggested that in spite of its best intentions American foreign policy was based largely on a one-dimensional American belief that Americans and American democracy had all the answers. The sad truth is that that belief might not be far wrong, but the inflexibility of the administrators in charge of its application has contributed to a century of failure in foreign relations.

According to Williams, American diplomacy was based on three premises, which, for all intents and purposes, have not changed and maintain a contemporary validity and relevance. The first is the humanitarian impulse to help other people solve their problems. The second principle encourages self-determination, which insists that every society have the right to establish its own goals or objectives, and to realize them internally through the means it decides are appropriate. Third-and here’s the kicker-American diplomacy has typically insisted that other people cannot really solve their problems and improve their lives unless they follow the American formula. The contradiction evident in this third premise effectively nullifies the genuine best interests of the first two, but it also speaks volumes about the global perception of American arrogance.

To understand American diplomacy, we need to make sense of this arrogance. In a recent column in the Manchester Guardian, George Monbiot referred to Clifford Longley’s important study, Chosen People, which argued that America’s founding fathers believed that they were guided by divine purpose. As Longley put it, the formation of a righteous Americanism evolved as part of a Western evolution of who God’s chosen people were. The Roman Catholic church claimed that mantle from the Jews, Longley contends, after the Jews were repudiated by God. After centuries of corruption, the Catholics surrendered the mantle to the English Protestants, who in turn lost it to the American Revolutionaries, who believed that the British had broken their covenant. For more than two centuries, American citizens have been the chosen ones, and their dominance in global political and economic affairs would seem to suggest they might even have a case. Highlighting its contemporary relevance, Monbiot noted that President Bush recently referred to Woodrow Wilson’s statement that “America has a spiritual energy in her which no other nation can contribute to the liberation of mankind.” But taking such Christian fervor and self-righteousness back to the Middle East to subdue the “infidels” seems to be a recipe for disaster.

And while media analysts have already started to compare the quagmire in Iraq-and please let us not forget Afghanistan-to Vietnam or the Philippines or Haiti or Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic, perhaps a more fitting comparison might be made closer to home. The sixty year relationship with Cuba between the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Cuban Revolution (1959) illuminates so many of the shortcomings in American diplomacy that its history should become required summer reading for the Bush administration. After a lengthy build-up, the United States declared war on Spain on 21 April 1898 after the U.S.S. Maine exploded and the Spanish were blamed (think of it as the nineteenth century version of flawed evidence to galvanize popular support for a war). The objectives of the war from the American standpoint were to free Cuba from Spanish tyranny, to establish and underwrite the independence of the island, and to support Cuba’s development toward political democracy and economic independence.

As Williams observed in the 1972 edition of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, the United States exercised considerable and uninterrupted influence in and over all aspects of Cuban affairs for the following six decades, during which time Americans were quick to point out that Cuba enjoyed some modest progress. The advantages Cuba enjoyed as an American protectorate rather than a Spanish colony were notable. So, too, was the modernization of and increase in sugar production. So, too, relatively speaking, was the very modest move toward representative government. But therein rested a disparity between the progressive rhetoric and the actuality of events. Americans dominated the economic life of the island by controlling the sugar industry and by preventing any dynamic modification of Cuba’s one-crop economy, ultimately compelling the Cuban people to revolution.

Williams drew four conclusions from the Cuban experience, which might appear eerie if put in a contemporary context.  The United States possessed an overweening power in relation to Cuba, which it exercised vigorously and persistently.  Use of that power prevented the implementation of the ideals avowed as the objectives of power, namely encouraging self-determination on the part of the Cubans, while failing to modernize the Cuban economy.  By maintaining their dominant relationship over Cuba, Americans galvanized Cubans into forming a coalition of groups committed to realizing important societal changes.   And lastly, American rejection of the Cuban coalition’s interests resulted in strengthening the resolve of and popular support for radicalism on the island.  Again: American antagonism resulted in a militant reaction against the American presence.  After sixty years of American oppression, the Cubans rose up in a militant social revolution that sought to establish the kind of Cuban society and development that American diplomacy had promised since 1898.

So, too, in Iraq.  Even with expenditures of $4 billion a month, American occupation in Iraq can’t even ensure electricity and running water.  Iraqis are no closer to realizing the fruits of democracy and currently appear years away from any kind of self-determination, and American interests are clawing their way into Iraqi oil.  Their reaction to following the American model speaks for itself.

I cringe when people suggest that history repeats itself.  The notion is utter nonsense, but that does not mean that we can’t learn important lessons from the past.  A more compassionate and less righteous approach to its humanitarian principles would help to make the United States of America the benevolent world neighbor that we want it to be and know it should be.”      Michael Egan, “History and The Tragedy of American Diplomacy;” Counterpunch, 2003. 

Numero Tres“I was a teenager when I first read Octavia Butler and had recently begun rebelling against my mother.  Deeply rooted in her Christian faith, she forbade me to watch certain movies, read certain books, or participate in certain activities.  In her eyes, she was protecting me from temptation, showing me the path, and working toward keeping me focused on it.  I, on the other hand, felt limited and emotionally abused.  I wanted to read and watch everything she said would reserve me a one-way ticket to hell.When I left home for college, I started asking questions without the guilt of being punished by The Almighty and fell in love with stories that challenged my perception of reality.  I lived for the likes of Harry Potter, Underworld, and ‘Inception.’  But I eventually noticed that none of the characters looked much like me.  So I ventured on a new hunt to discover black science-fiction writers, and that is when I discovered Octavia Butler.  To me, her literary imagination is filled with incomparable creative power.

Octavia Butler was the first black American woman science-fiction writer to achieve international acclaim. She was also the first science-fiction writer to receive the “Genius Grant,” better known as the MacArthur Fellowship. Butler began her writing career because of a conviction to see herself in stories that weren’t oppressive or harmful.

DAWN is the first book in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series, which starts when humans are no longer living on earth but instead are forced to make a life on a ship steered by aliens called the Oankali. By the end of the third book, the story has progressed many decades and forces its reader to imagine a world dominated by others.

Meet Lilith, a woman who wakes up in a strange white room with no doors or windows and later discovers she’s been abducted by an advanced alien race from an Earth dying at the hands of war. We are witnesses to Lilith’s confusion, apprehension, and fear as she is forced to adapt in a world with creatures who don’t claim a planet as home but instead travel through the universe seeking other forms of life to trade with. Imagine yourself in Lilith’s shoes for a moment: you are no longer at the top of the food chain; you are no longer the smartest being to cross the land.

As we learn about her abductors (or saviors, depending on your perspective), Lilith experiences a blow to her ego as she discovers the dearth of her knowledge about them. After all, it is a little embarrassing to discover your own stupidity. Butler writes, “You are hierarchical. That’s the older and more entrenched characteristic. We saw it in your closest animal relatives and in your most distant ones. It’s a terrestrial characteristic. When human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all . . . That was like ignoring cancer. I think your people did not realize what a dangerous thing they were doing.”

Part of Butler’s talent is being able to carve out space within the narrative for her reader to reside.  If the story didn’t feel possible, I fear it wouldn’t have resonated with me so much.  She taught me to visualize the makeup of family and gender differently.  In the series, for example, it takes five biological people to make one being; the household is composed of male, female, and unisex persons.

DAWN breaks down what it means to be a creature of this world and others in simple terminology, but with the confidence to educate.  Although the collection is almost thirty years old, the story confronts our present-day political climate in terms of what we can accomplish if we would simply work together.  Butler writes that ‘[the Oankali] are not hierarchical, you see.  We never were.  But we are powerfully acquisitive.  We acquire new life—seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it.  We carry the drive to do this in a minuscule cell within a cell.’

Lilith, the feminine figure and lead character in the book, is black, strong, and yet emotionally fluid.  The Oankali studied her long before choosing her role in their colonization of acquiring human cells while attempting to save humanity.  The characters woven throughout are multicultural, of all shades and experiences.  DAWN is a true joy to spend time with; so much so that you might find yourself devouring the entire Xenogenesis series.”      Bianca Salvant, “An Enduring Sci-Fi Classic That Will Resonate With Diverse Readers;” Off the Shelf, 2017.