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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Reitan’

LamberthIs consciousness spirit, mind or brain?

Or none of the above perhaps?

Just kidding.

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The last post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is simply what I thought I might say!

‘Doubt Wisely’

David Lamberth in William James and the Metaphysics of Experience reports James’s point of view on the investigation of such matters, and I feel this is a good place to begin (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

When it comes to these issues, fundamentalist certainty is completely out of place. I may have chosen to believe certain things about the mind and its independence of the brain but I cannot know what I believe is true in the same way as I can know my own address. Similarly, though, those like Dennett and Churchland who believe that the mind is entirely reducible to the brain cannot be absolutely sure of their position either.

We are both performing an act of faith.

is-god-a-delusionIt is in this spirit that I want to explain my point of view and with the same intent as Reitan in his book Is God a Delusion? He explains that he wishes to demonstrate that it is just as rational to believe in God as it is not to believe in God. I am not trying to persuade anyone to believe as I do, I simply want people to accept that I am as rational as any sceptic out there, and more so than the so-called sceptics who have absolute faith in their disbelief. The only tenable position using reason alone is agnosticism. Absolute conviction of any kind is faith, which goes beyond where reason can take us.

John Hick adduces an argument to explain why we cannot be absolutely sure about spiritual issues, an argument which appeals to a mind like mine. In his book The Fifth Dimension, he contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe in a spiritual perspective whether it involves the concept of God or the idea I’m discussing here, that the mind is independent of the brain. Conversely, materialists should be aware that there is no evidence that could compel us not to believe it either. There is only enough evidence either way to convince the predisposed to that belief.

As an atheist/agnostic of almost 25 years standing and a mature student at the time I finished my clinical psychology training after six years of exposure to a basically materialist and sceptical approach to the mind, I was pretty clear where I’d confidently placed my bets.

There were three prevailing ideas within the psychological community at the time about the nature of the mind: the eliminative materialism advocated by such thinkers as Paul Churchland; the epiphenomenological approach which says consciousness is simply an accidental by-product of brain complexity; and the emergent property idea that posits that, just as the cells in our body as a whole combine to create something greater than themselves, so do our brain cells. I’d chosen the last option as the most sensible. Consciousness is not entirely reducible to a simple aggregate of cells: the mind is something extra. But I didn’t believe for one moment that it was not ultimately a material phenomenon.

mind v3The Emanation Shock

Well, not that is until I took the leap of faith I call declaring my intention to work at becoming a Bahá’í.

The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Faith, were a bit of a shock to me at first: ‘. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit.’

I had spent so much of my life thinking bottom up about this issue that the idea of working top down seemed initially absurd. There wasn’t a top to work down from in the first place, as far as I saw it to begin with.

Although I absolutely trusted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to be stating what he knew to be true and, because of all that I had read about his life, I believed that what he thought was true was more likely to be so than my version, I realised that this was something that required a thorough investigation of the empirical evidence if I was to bring my sceptical head on board alongside my accepting heart.

My memory of the process by which I set out to investigate suggests that my initial research involved looking into near death experiences (NDEs) and Psi.

I decided that, as I was not absolutely certain of this, I’d better make sure I was even aware of that body of data at this time. I checked my bookshelves. To my surprise, it showed that I was reading about NDEs and Psi even before I declared as a Bahá’í. My copies of Raymond Moody’s Life after Life and John Randall’s Parapsychology and the Nature of Life both date from 1981, a whole year earlier at the very least. There is no reference to either book in my journals of 1981/82 so I don’t know whether I read them before finding the Bahá’í Faith.

Not that in the end, after years of checking this out as more research became known, NDEs have provided completely conclusive proof that there is a soul and that the mind derives from it. Even my Black Swan example of Pam Reynolds, which I discovered much later, could not clinch it absolutely. This was the beginning of my realisation that we are inevitably dealing with acts of faith here and that both beliefs are equally rational when not asserted dogmatically. Even if you couldn’t explain them away entirely in material terms, the existence of Psi complicated the picture somewhat.

For example, Braude’s work in Immortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):

On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.

Less sympathetically, Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

I’ll explore this in more detail in the next post on Saturday.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

A co-operation game: © Bahá’í World Centre

Exponents of the world’s various theological systems bear a heavy responsibility not only for the disrepute into which faith itself has fallen among many progressive thinkers, but for the inhibitions and distortions produced in humanity’s continuing discourse on spiritual meaning. To conclude, however, that the answer lies in discouraging the investigation of spiritual reality and ignoring the deepest roots of human motivation is a self-evident delusion. The sole effect, to the degree that such censorship has been achieved in recent history, has been to deliver the shaping of humanity’s future into the hands of a new orthodoxy, one which argues that truth is amoral and facts are independent of values.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We now need to move from considering how empathy and entropy interact to looking at Jeremy Rifkin’s Emp Civilunderstanding of levels of consciousness.

I have already had a bit of a rant, in a previous post, about Rifkin’s treatment of this topic (page 182):

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

At times he hopefully throws labels at his hypothetical levels and then tries to make them stick with the glue of his speculations. However there are enough valuable insights housed in his wobbly tower-block to make exploring it more fully well worthwhile.

He draws initially on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model (page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

It is not just parental practices that are critical here but cultural norms as well. Sometimes even cultures that pride themselves on their occupation of the moral high ground can poison empathy in its cradle (page 121):

Ironically, while a shaming culture pretends to adhere to the highest standards of moral perfection, in reality it produces a culture of self-hate, envy, jealousy, and hatred towards others. . . . . When a child grows up in a shaming culture believing that he must conform to an ideal of perfection or purity or suffer the wrath of the community, he is likely to judge everyone else by the same rigid, uncompromising standards. Lacking empathy, he is unable to experience other people’s suffering as if it were his own …

He quotes examples such as how a victim of rape (page 122):

. . . bears the shame of the rape, despite the fact that she was the innocent victim. As far as her family and neighbours are concerned, she is forever defiled and impure and therefore an object of disgust to be blotted out.

It is after these clarifications of the basics that Rifkin begins to explain his full model (page 154):

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

After briefly relating early cultures to early childhood (page 162) and suggesting that initially, in the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason ‘empathetic consciousness developed alongside disembodied beliefs,’ he refers to three stages of human consciousness (page 176): ‘theological, ideological, and early psychological.’ In his view during these stages ‘bodily experience is considered either fallen, irrational, or pathological’ and ‘moral authority’ is therefore ‘disembodied.’

However, this all changes with a further enhancement of ‘empathic consciousness.’ While ‘embodied experience is considered to be… at odds with moral laws, there will always be a gap between what is and what ought to be human behaviour’ he argues. ‘Empathic consciousness overcomes the is/ought gap. Empathic behaviour is embodied . . . .’ This is a large leap of logic to which we will need to return later when we look at other ways of decoding the components of empathy.

He helps his argument by unpacking exactly what he is getting at a few pages later (pages 273-74):

Hatred of the body could hardly endear one to another flesh-and-bones human being. Embodied experience is the window to empathic expression. . . . Empathy is the celebration of life, in all of its corporeality. Not paradoxically, it is also the means by which we transcend ourselves.

He strongly relates what he feels is a fuller expression of empathy (page 366) to ‘psychological consciousness,’ something rooted in the ‘coming together of the electricity revolution with the oil powered internal combustion engine.’ He goes on:

While earlier forms of consciousness – mythological, theological, and ideological – were still in play all over the world and within each psyche to various degrees, the new psychological consciousness would come to dominate the 20th century and leave its mark on every aspect of human interaction and on virtually every social convention. With psychological consciousness, people began to think about their own feelings and thoughts, as well as those of others in ways never before imaginable.

Psychological Consciousness & the God Issue

It is in the 1890s, interestingly at exactly the same time as Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was publically and fully explaining the Bahá’í Revelation, that Rifkin perceives another potential pitfall emerging, in addition to entropy, that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

He concludes that this was not all bad though (ibid.):

. . . . The shift from being a good character to having a good personality had another, more positive impact. People began to pay more attention to how their behaviour affected others. In the process, they came more mindful of other people’s feelings.

He refers (page 411) to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a theory we will be looking at more closely when I come to examine in a later sequence of posts Medina’s take on personal and societal development. He relates it to the stages “one goes through to develop a mature empathic sensitivity.”

He then moves into similar territory to Wilber in privileging a Western mode of experiencing the world. He states (page 414):

While in developing countries theological consciousness is still the dominant mode of expression, and in the middle range of developed countries ideological consciousness is the most prevalent form of public expression, in the most highly developed nations of the world, psychological consciousness has gained the upper hand, even to the extent that it partially interprets and remakes the older forms of consciousness into its own image.

is-god-a-delusionThis default assumption that somehow a belief in God in inherently a more primitive take on the world that must hold development back is as dangerous and as ultimately unsubstantiable as the delusion that everything can be explained in material terms. This steers Rifkin away from looking at the potential role of religion as a positive force, something I will return to later.

The crucial issue in my view is rather the same as Eric Reitan’s as expressed in his book Is God a Delusion?: what matters is what kind of God we believe in. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.

Deciding whether your concept of God fulfills that criterion is probably easier said than done as Gilles Kepel illustrates in his book, Jihad: the trail of political Islam, when he refers to Qutb and his followers arguing that (page 25-26):

The Muslims of the nationalist period were ignorant of Islam, according to Qutb; just like the pagan Arabs of the original jahiliyya [original state of ignorance before Muhammad] who worshipped stone idols, Qutb’s contemporaries worshiped symbolic idols such as the nation, the party, socialism, and the rest. . . . Within Islam, Allah alone has sovereignty, being uniquely worthy of adoration by man. The only just ruler is one who governs according to the revelations of Allah.

The problem remains. What is the ruling conception of Allah we should adopt and what exactly has He revealed that should guide our conduct? What interpretation of the Qu’ran is to be devoutly followed? This question is of course blurred by the issue of the hadith and sharia, lenses through which the Qu’ran has been variously interpreted by different schools and periods of Islam.

Robert Wright seems to be singing from roughly the same hymn sheet as Reitan. He has bravely tackled the issue of religion from a sympathetically evolutionary perspective. One of his most trenchant insights is (The Evolution of God page 439):

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.’

As I will explain below he does not simplistically conclude that all religion should be tarred with that brush.

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

Globalisation

Interacting with the development of psychological consciousness and instrumental in shaping it, is the impact (page 424) of ‘cyberspace’ where ‘the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face. . . . Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.’

There is also the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):

A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.

Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):

Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.

He argues that (page 429) that ‘2007 marks a great tipping point.’

For the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in the vast urban areas, according to the United Nations – many in mega-cities with suburban extensions – some with populations of 10 million people or more.

He then introduces what for him is another key concept: cosmopolitanism (page 430):

At the same time, the urbanisation of human life, with its complex infrastructures and operations, has lead to greater density of population, more differentiation and individuation, an ever more developed sense of self, more exposure to diverse others, and an extension of the empathic bond. . . . .

Cosmopolitanism is the name we used to refer to tolerance and the celebration of human diversity and is generally found wherever urban and social structures are engaged in long-distance commerce and trade and the business of building empires.

Robert Wright similarly locates (page 445) the ‘expansion of humankind’s moral imagination’ to the Robert Wrightextension of such connections throughout history. Though a sceptic, he does not dogmatically conclude there is no God and only blind material forces.

. . . . Occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. . . . The existence of a moral order, I’ve said, makes it reasonable to suspect that humankind in some sense has a “higher purpose.” And maybe the source of that higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label “god” in at least some sense of that word.

Because Rifkin does not accept that there is a God of any kind and contends that theology is suspect, he is in need of some other organising principle to motivate us to lift our game. For him this is ‘biosphere consciousness’ (page 432:

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations spend the planet. Cosmopolitans are the early advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. . . .

However, being cosmopolitan is no guarantee we’ll buy the biosphere package (ibid.):

Although admittedly a bit of a caricature, I’m quite sure that a survey of cosmopolitan attitudes would find that the most cosmopolitan in attitudes leave behind them the largest entropic footprint.

If we subtract God from the Bahá’í system of belief, it is clear he shares a central tenet of that Faith (page 443):

We are within reach of thinking of the human race as an extended family – for the very [first] time in history – although it goes without saying that the obstacles are great and the odds of actually developing a biosphere consciousness are less than certain.

A Summary of his Levels

Now I need to quote him at some length to indicate how, rather as Wilber does, he locates the highest levels of consciousness in Western societies (pages 447-450):

As individuals in industrialising and urbanising societies become more productive, wealthy, and independent, their values orientation shifts from survival values to materialist values and eventually post-materialist, self-expression values.

Traditional societies, imperilled by economic hardship and insecurities, tend to be intolerant of foreigners, ethnic minorities, and gays and staunch supporters of male superiority. Populations are highly religious and nationalistic, believing the firm hand of state authority, emphasise conformity, and exhibit a low level of individual self-expression. Because self-expression is low, and empathic extension is shallow and rarely reaches beyond the family bond and kinship relations.

In secular rationalist-societies engaged in the takeoff stage of industrial life, hierarchies are reconfigured away from God’s created order to giant corporate and government bureaucracies. . . . In the process, the individual, as a distinct self-possessed being, begins to emerge from the communal haze but is still beholden to hierarchical institutional arrangements. . . .

Knowledge-based societies, with high levels of individualism and self-expression, exhibit the highest levels of empathic extension. . . . . In fact, the emancipation from tight communal bonds and the development of weaker but more extended associational ties exposes individuals to a much wider network of diverse people, which, in turn, both strengthens one’s sense of trust and openness and provides the context for a more extended empathic consciousness.

Robert Wright’s treatment of a similar theme from a different angle indicates that it is not quite as simple as that. While the Abrahamic faiths have significantly lacked tolerance at key points in their history not all faiths have been the same (page 441):

At the risk of seeming to harp on the non-specialness of the Abrahamic faiths: this expansion of the moral circle is another area in which non-Abrahamic religions have sometimes outperformed the Abrahamics.

Even then though, the whole picture is not dark for the Abrahamic faiths in his view, as he explains in considering the life of Ashoka, the king who converted to Buddhism and instated a tolerant regime (ibid):

. . . Buddhism’s emphasis on brotherly love and charity, rather like comparable Christian emphases in ancient Rome, is presumably good for the empire’s transethnic solidarity. Yet, like the early Islamic caliphate – and unlike Constantine – Ashoka insisted on respecting other religions in the Empire; he never demanded conversion.

He also refers (pages 188 passim) to the interesting case of Philo of Alexandria as a devout monotheistic Jew who saw ‘a deep streak of tolerance in Yahweh.’

Rifkin summarises his understanding of the research by stating (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

There is much more to say on the issue of levels but it will have to wait until the next post on Thursday.

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A chain like the one in the Siyah Chal

The theme of this much earlier sequence of posts seems to complement the current sequence about death as light and therefore warrant republishing now.

At the end of the previous post on this topic there is the following challenging quote from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:

51. O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

No one can argue convincingly that Bahá’u’lláh did not know what suffering was like. That alone would give His words tremendous credibility. He was incarcerated in the Siyah Chal, a traumatic ordeal. His experience there was special in an altogether different and more positive way as well:

In the middle of the 19th century, one of the most notorious dungeons in the Near East was Tehran’s “Black Pit.” Once the underground reservoir for a public bath, its only outlet was a single passage down three steep flights of stone steps. Prisoners huddled in their own bodily wastes, languishing in the pit’s inky gloom, subterranean cold and stench-ridden atmosphere.

In this grim setting, the rarest and most cherished of religious events was once again played out: a mortal man, outwardly human in other respects, was summoned by God to bring to humanity a new religious revelation.

The year was 1852, and the man was a Persian nobleman, known today as Bahá’u’lláh. During His imprisonment, as He sat with his feet in stocks and a 100-pound iron chain around his neck, Bahá’u’lláh received a vision of God’s will for humanity.

For Bahá’ís therefore His words have an authority over and above the credence everyone would undoubtedly agree His sufferings accorded Him. I recognise that many do not see His Words as originating with God so it is necessary to pursue this exploration of the meaning of suffering much further and in more prosaic terms.

The Siyah Chal was not the end of His sufferings. Exile and further imprisonment followed, and in the prison in Acre he lost His youngest son, Mirza Mihdi:

He was pacing the roof of the barracks in the twilight, one evening, wrapped in his customary devotions, when he fell through the unguarded skylight onto a wooden crate, standing on the floor beneath, which pierced his ribs, and caused, twenty-two hours later, his death, on . . . . June 23, 1870.

(God Passes By: page 188)

Mirza Mihdi

So, He clearly knew from close personal experience what he was talking about. Also, if we have accepted that the improbability of the universe entails the existence of a God capable of creating it, and now that we have begun to comprehend the vastness, wonder and complexity of the universe, with its quantum foam and simultaneous interactions over vast distances that light would need decades to traverse, the idea of the spiritual reality of which He speaks begins to seem a little less preposterous.

This is fortunate because, as we have already seen in the previous post on this subject, there is no way we can get out of the impasse without making a further extrapolation from the existence of a God to the existence of a reality beyond the one accessible to our senses.

Eric Reitan, in his exemplary treatment of the whole question of the existence of God, takes a long look at the questions we are scrutinising now. His discussion is thorough and complex and I can only include the bare bones of it here. His concern in the passages I quote is the problem of evil, but it is easy to see how his comments apply to the closely related issue of suffering. On pages 196-197 he writes:

For any and all of these evils, the question of why God would permit them requires us to suppose that there are vistas of reality that transcend our understanding – vistas that may not just put evil into perspective but also the fact that it can seem so overwhelming. . . . .

If, within His vast ocean of understanding, God discerns a justifying reason for allowing evil to exist, the probability that this reason would also fall within our puddle of understanding is very low.

So, we can neither know the mind of God nor grasp the full nature of the spiritual reality which surrounds us, though it surely exists in some form. He draws on the cosmological argument, a variation of which I have already referred to briefly in the earlier post and mention again above, to conclude that (page 197) ‘it is reasonable to believe in a transcendent and essentially mysterious reality.’

It is perhaps important to mention that Reitan is not seeking to provide conclusive proof that would persuade everyone that God exists. That would be impossible for reasons I have explored elsewhere. He is simply demonstrating that it is as reasonable to believe in God as not, a truth that Darwinian reductionists find hard to swallow. (See Olinga Tahzib’s Ch4 broadcast for a clear explanation of the Baha’i viewpoint.)

Once you accept the possibility of a transcendent realm, aspects of that mysterious reality can be seen to have, potentially at least, a massively compensating function that provides a radically different context against which to measure both evil and suffering, a context which would make it possible to accept that the pain entailed in making moral choices, for example, and the agony incurred in unforeseen calamities are not inordinate and maybe even serve some higher purpose. Reitan himself points towards this very clearly (page 189):

Not long ago, the distracted negligence of a home daycare provider combined with plain bad luck to take the life of my friend’s 18-month-old son, a gentle boy fiercely loved by his parents. In the face of this tragedy, my friend and his wife have been sustained by a religious faith which promises that everything good and beautiful about their child has been embraced by the deepest reality in the universe.

Something else has helped me come to terms with even uninvited suffering, and helped me also get a more immediate sense of how the idea of a spiritual reality, over and above the purely physical world our senses are restricted to, can be of great help. This was the message that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to bereaved parents who had contacted him in their despair, his keen awareness of the pain of their grief perhaps enhanced by the strong light cast by his own feelings from when his brother, Mirza Mihdi, died in the prison citadel of Acre. He uses a very homely and concrete image to embody the intuition Reitan describes, imagery which makes the possibility of a spiritual realm more vivid and brings it that much closer:

The death of that beloved youth and his separation from you have caused the utmost sorrow and grief; for he winged his flight in the flower of his age and the bloom of his youth to the heavenly nest. But he hath been freed from this sorrow-stricken shelter and hath turned his face toward the everlasting nest of the Kingdom, and, being delivered from a dark and narrow world, hath hastened to the sanctified realm of light; therein lieth the consolation of our hearts.

The inscrutable divine wisdom underlieth such heart-rending occurrences. It is as if a kind gardener transferreth a fresh and tender shrub from a confined place to a wide open area. This transfer is not the cause of the withering, the lessening or the destruction of that shrub; nay, on the contrary, it maketh it to grow and thrive, acquire freshness and delicacy, become green and bear fruit. This hidden secret is well known to the gardener, but those souls who are unaware of this bounty suppose that the gardener, in his anger and wrath, hath uprooted the shrub. Yet to those who are aware, this concealed fact is manifest, and this predestined decree is considered a bounty. Do not feel grieved or disconsolate, therefore, at the ascension of that bird of faithfulness; nay, under all circumstances pray for that youth, supplicating for him forgiveness and the elevation of his station.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá169)

Even though this loving and lovely metaphor of the gardener contributed to a resolution of my quandary, there was still an aspect that troubled me. All this has not only been ordained by God, but it also requires our acquiescence in some way. Bahá’u’lláh’s own expression of it in the Hidden Words is:

18. O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.

I needed to make sense of this in terms of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described. Why might it be so important that I content myself with this state of reality?

An obvious partial answer is that, if we can accept the suffering, we will suffer less. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy regards suffering as what we add to the inevitable pain of existence, in part by our resistance to it and also by the language we use to ourselves to describe it. Which is not to say that we should not take practical steps to alleviate our own pain in other ways and to give solace to others, as well as, where possible, making sure that avoidable accidents do not add to the catalogue of human misery.

To go beyond that and probe more deeply into possible ways of learning to accept the apparently unacceptable is something each of us has to do in our own way, by prayer, reading, reflection and ‘right action,’ to use the Buddhist phrase. So, as a way of bringing these reflections to a close, I’d like to share in short hand form my own way of internalising this depiction of reality and of coming to terms with this injunction that we be content with whatever sorrow comes our way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Heart Safe (for source of image see link)

When we suffer it’s as though we have been robbed of the comforts we have locked away in our hearts to keep them safe, convinced that they were the gold that would buy us our protection from the slings and arrows of ill-fortune, and have been left in their stead with bundles of flimsy paper covered in strange writing.

We simply do not understand the true nature of this paper and rage against our loss, not appreciating that the rage, which is making our heart a furnace, will turn the paper into ashes all too soon, wiping out its incalculable value before we can realise its worth. If we could only come to see our pain and loss as providing us, as a gift, with the currency we will need when we travel, as we all must at some unknown point in the future, to settle in the undiscovered land from whose borders no traveller returns, it would become possible to accept it gratefully rather than resist it pointlessly. We would not then unwittingly destroy it, much to our disadvantage later. Without this currency, when we die we will be like refugees, ill-equipped at first to deal with the challenges of our new homeland. If we were to realise this, not just with our heads but with our hearts as well, we could then do as Bahá’u’lláh advises us and greet calamity with the same peace of mind as we welcome all good fortune. That would be true wisdom and real wealth.

That, of course, is far easier said than done and will take most of us more than a lifetime to accomplish. That should not be a reason to give up, it seems to me. We will, after all, have the whole of eternity to finish off what we have begun locked in time down here, and the better the start we get, the less we’ll have to do later on. Another example of the compensating effect of taking the broader view offered by a spiritual perspective.

Perhaps there is no better way to close this pair of posts than by concluding with the most beautiful piece of music that I know of relating to this theme. (For more about Handel’s Messiah click the link.)

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EdmundsonAs I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

A co-operation game: © Bahá’í World Centre

Exponents of the world’s various theological systems bear a heavy responsibility not only for the disrepute into which faith itself has fallen among many progressive thinkers, but for the inhibitions and distortions produced in humanity’s continuing discourse on spiritual meaning. To conclude, however, that the answer lies in discouraging the investigation of spiritual reality and ignoring the deepest roots of human motivation is a self-evident delusion. The sole effect, to the degree that such censorship has been achieved in recent history, has been to deliver the shaping of humanity’s future into the hands of a new orthodoxy, one which argues that truth is amoral and facts are independent of values.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

We now need to move from considering how empathy and entropy interact to looking at Jeremy Rifkin’s Emp Civilunderstanding of levels of consciousness.

I have already had a bit of a rant, in a previous post, about Rifkin’s treatment of this topic (page 182):

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

At times he hopefully throws labels at his hypothetical levels and then tries to make them stick with the glue of his speculations. However there are enough valuable insights housed in his wobbly tower-block to make exploring it more fully well worthwhile.

He draws initially on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model (page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

It is not just parental practices that are critical here but cultural norms as well. Sometimes even cultures that pride themselves on their occupation of the moral high ground can poison empathy in its cradle (page 121):

Ironically, while a shaming culture pretends to adhere to the highest standards of moral perfection, in reality it produces a culture of self-hate, envy, jealousy, and hatred towards others. . . . . When a child grows up in a shaming culture believing that he must conform to an ideal of perfection or purity or suffer the wrath of the community, he is likely to judge everyone else by the same rigid, uncompromising standards. Lacking empathy, he is unable to experience other people’s suffering as if it were his own …

He quotes examples such as how a victim of rape (page 122):

. . . bears the shame of the rape, despite the fact that she was the innocent victim. As far as her family and neighbours are concerned, she is forever defiled and impure and therefore an object of disgust to be blotted out.

It is after these clarifications of the basics that Rifkin begins to explain his full model (page 154):

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

After briefly relating early cultures to early childhood (page 162) and suggesting that initially, in the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason ‘empathetic consciousness developed alongside disembodied beliefs,’ he refers to three stages of human consciousness (page 176): ‘theological, ideological, and early psychological.’ In his view during these stages ‘bodily experience is considered either fallen, irrational, or pathological’ and ‘moral authority’ is therefore ‘disembodied.’

However, this all changes with a further enhancement of ‘empathic consciousness.’ While ‘embodied experience is considered to be… at odds with moral laws, there will always be a gap between what is and what ought to be human behaviour’ he argues. ‘Empathic consciousness overcomes the is/ought gap. Empathic behaviour is embodied . . . .’ This is a large leap of logic to which we will need to return later when we look at other ways of decoding the components of empathy.

He helps his argument by unpacking exactly what he is getting at a few pages later (pages 273-74):

Hatred of the body could hardly endear one to another flesh-and-bones human being. Embodied experience is the window to empathic expression. . . . Empathy is the celebration of life, in all of its corporeality. Not paradoxically, it is also the means by which we transcend ourselves.

He strongly relates what he feels is a fuller expression of empathy (page 366) to ‘psychological consciousness,’ something rooted in the ‘coming together of the electricity revolution with the oil powered internal combustion engine.’ He goes on:

While earlier forms of consciousness – mythological, theological, and ideological – were still in play all over the world and within each psyche to various degrees, the new psychological consciousness would come to dominate the 20th century and leave its mark on every aspect of human interaction and on virtually every social convention. With psychological consciousness, people began to think about their own feelings and thoughts, as well as those of others in ways never before imaginable.

Psychological Consciousness & the God Issue

It is in the 1890s, interestingly at exactly the same time as Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was publically and fully explaining the Bahá’í Revelation, that Rifkin perceives another potential pitfall emerging, in addition to entropy, that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

He concludes that this was not all bad though (ibid.):

. . . . The shift from being a good character to having a good personality had another, more positive impact. People began to pay more attention to how their behaviour affected others. In the process, they came more mindful of other people’s feelings.

He refers (page 411) to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a theory we will be looking at more closely when I come to examine in a later sequence of posts Medina’s take on personal and societal development. He relates it to the stages “one goes through to develop a mature empathic sensitivity.”

He then moves into similar territory to Wilber in privileging a Western mode of experiencing the world. He states (page 414):

While in developing countries theological consciousness is still the dominant mode of expression, and in the middle range of developed countries ideological consciousness is the most prevalent form of public expression, in the most highly developed nations of the world, psychological consciousness has gained the upper hand, even to the extent that it partially interprets and remakes the older forms of consciousness into its own image.

is-god-a-delusionThis default assumption that somehow a belief in God in inherently a more primitive take on the world that must hold development back is as dangerous and as ultimately unsubstantiable as the delusion that everything can be explained in material terms. This steers Rifkin away from looking at the potential role of religion as a positive force, something I will return to later.

The crucial issue in my view is rather the same as Eric Reitan’s as expressed in his book Is God a Delusion?: what matters is what kind of God we believe in. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.

Deciding whether your concept of God fulfills that criterion is probably easier said than done as Gilles Kepel illustrates in his book, Jihad: the trail of political Islam, when he refers to Qutb and his followers arguing that (page 25-26):

The Muslims of the nationalist period were ignorant of Islam, according to Qutb; just like the pagan Arabs of the original jahiliyya [original state of ignorance before Muhammad] who worshipped stone idols, Qutb’s contemporaries worshiped symbolic idols such as the nation, the party, socialism, and the rest. . . . Within Islam, Allah alone has sovereignty, being uniquely worthy of adoration by man. The only just ruler is one who governs according to the revelations of Allah.

The problem remains. What is the ruling conception of Allah we should adopt and what exactly has He revealed that should guide our conduct? What interpretation of the Qu’ran is to be devoutly followed? This question is of course blurred by the issue of the hadith and sharia, lenses through which the Qu’ran has been variously interpreted by different schools and periods of Islam.

Robert Wright seems to be singing from roughly the same hymn sheet as Reitan. He has bravely tackled the issue of religion from a sympathetically evolutionary perspective. One of his most trenchant insights is (The Evolution of God page 439):

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.’

As I will explain below he does not simplistically conclude that all religion should be tarred with that brush.

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

Globalisation

Interacting with the development of psychological consciousness and instrumental in shaping it, is the impact (page 424) of ‘cyberspace’ where ‘the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face. . . . Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.’

There is also the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):

A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.

Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):

Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.

He argues that (page 429) that ‘2007 marks a great tipping point.’

For the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in the vast urban areas, according to the United Nations – many in mega-cities with suburban extensions – some with populations of 10 million people or more.

He then introduces what for him is another key concept: cosmopolitanism (page 430):

At the same time, the urbanisation of human life, with its complex infrastructures and operations, has lead to greater density of population, more differentiation and individuation, an ever more developed sense of self, more exposure to diverse others, and an extension of the empathic bond. . . . .

Cosmopolitanism is the name we used to refer to tolerance and the celebration of human diversity and is generally found wherever urban and social structures are engaged in long-distance commerce and trade and the business of building empires.

Robert Wright similarly locates (page 445) the ‘expansion of humankind’s moral imagination’ to the Robert Wrightextension of such connections throughout history. Though a sceptic, he does not dogmatically conclude there is no God and only blind material forces.

. . . . Occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. . . . The existence of a moral order, I’ve said, makes it reasonable to suspect that humankind in some sense has a “higher purpose.” And maybe the source of that higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label “god” in at least some sense of that word.

Because Rifkin does not accept that there is a God of any kind and contends that theology is suspect, he is in need of some other organising principle to motivate us to lift our game. For him this is ‘biosphere consciousness’ (page 432:

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations spend the planet. Cosmopolitans are the early advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. . . .

However, being cosmopolitan is no guarantee we’ll buy the biosphere package (ibid.):

Although admittedly a bit of a caricature, I’m quite sure that a survey of cosmopolitan attitudes would find that the most cosmopolitan in attitudes leave behind them the largest entropic footprint.

If we subtract God from the Bahá’í system of belief, it is clear he shares a central tenet of that Faith (page 443):

We are within reach of thinking of the human race as an extended family – for the very [first] time in history – although it goes without saying that the obstacles are great and the odds of actually developing a biosphere consciousness are less than certain.

A Summary of his Levels

Now I need to quote him at some length to indicate how, rather as Wilber does, he locates the highest levels of consciousness in Western societies (pages 447-450):

As individuals in industrialising and urbanising societies become more productive, wealthy, and independent, their values orientation shifts from survival values to materialist values and eventually post-materialist, self-expression values.

Traditional societies, imperilled by economic hardship and insecurities, tend to be intolerant of foreigners, ethnic minorities, and gays and staunch supporters of male superiority. Populations are highly religious and nationalistic, believing the firm hand of state authority, emphasise conformity, and exhibit a low level of individual self-expression. Because self-expression is low, and empathic extension is shallow and rarely reaches beyond the family bond and kinship relations.

In secular rationalist-societies engaged in the takeoff stage of industrial life, hierarchies are reconfigured away from God’s created order to giant corporate and government bureaucracies. . . . In the process, the individual, as a distinct self-possessed being, begins to emerge from the communal haze but is still beholden to hierarchical institutional arrangements. . . .

Knowledge-based societies, with high levels of individualism and self-expression, exhibit the highest levels of empathic extension. . . . . In fact, the emancipation from tight communal bonds and the development of weaker but more extended associational ties exposes individuals to a much wider network of diverse people, which, in turn, both strengthens one’s sense of trust and openness and provides the context for a more extended empathic consciousness.

Robert Wright’s treatment of a similar theme from a different angle indicates that it is not quite as simple as that. While the Abrahamic faiths have significantly lacked tolerance at key points in their history not all faiths have been the same (page 441):

At the risk of seeming to harp on the non-specialness of the Abrahamic faiths: this expansion of the moral circle is another area in which non-Abrahamic religions have sometimes outperformed the Abrahamics.

Even then though, the whole picture is not dark for the Abrahamic faiths in his view, as he explains in considering the life of Ashoka, the king who converted to Buddhism and instated a tolerant regime (ibid):

. . . Buddhism’s emphasis on brotherly love and charity, rather like comparable Christian emphases in ancient Rome, is presumably good for the empire’s transethnic solidarity. Yet, like the early Islamic caliphate – and unlike Constantine – Ashoka insisted on respecting other religions in the Empire; he never demanded conversion.

He also refers (pages 188 passim) to the interesting case of Philo of Alexandria as a devout monotheistic Jew who saw ‘a deep streak of tolerance in Yahweh.’

Rifkin summarises his understanding of the research by stating (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

There is much more to say on the issue of levels but it will have to wait until the next post on Thursday.

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Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.

(Robert Wright: The Evolution of God page 439)

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2009. 

I am getting towards the end of Robert Wright’s fascinating book  – I’ve been fitting the reading of it into the narrow gaps between other major commitments recently. I’ve just got to the point where he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428)  can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that.

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

(page 428-429)

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special.

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

(page 429)

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life.

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

(page 429)

He feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos.He feels that

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

(page 429)

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

As I have quoted in an earlier post, Wright argues (page 435) that as social organisation grows God tends to draw ‘a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.’

I find this tremendously encouraging after the evangelical atheists have, for what seems an age, been partially successful in their attempt to sound like the only scientific take on God. Wright’s view and Reitan’s complement each other beautifully. Eric Reitan contends in Is God a Delusion? that, while you cannot prove  the existence of God by rational argument, it is entirely reasonable to believe that there is a God: Wright appears to agree and he speaks from the point of view of evolution, the world-view that Dawkins has sought to colonise and exploit as providing an absolute refutation of God’s existence for all time.

As Wright’s words quoted at the start of this post explain, the challenge now is for all religions everywhere to recognise that the time for making special and divisive claims about their God is well and truly over. The core of the moral vision of all faiths, though often encrusted with contradictory and partisan traditions, is that all human beings are members of the same family – the human family. Any religion that does not express its recognition of this courageously and persistently is doomed and may doom everyone else along with it.

The Universal House of Justice wrote to the world’s religious leaders in 2002, exhorting them to do all in their power to combat religious fanaticism, and stating:

. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

And they close with the following appeal:

The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.

Wright and religion are definitely not a million miles apart. Bahá’ís believe that our moral imagination can and must expand to embrace the whole of humanity within its compass of compassion.

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A chain like the one in the Siyah Chal

My recent post on the plight of Ramin Zibaei, as well as the recent executions by IS, called to mind my various attempts to grapple with the problem of  the existence of intense suffering in a world created, as I believe, by an all-powerful and all-loving God. This entails factoring in natural disasters, the Ebola outbreak being perhaps the most significant recent example, as well as human atrocity, the latter being also something I have attempted to understand

I felt it might be timely to republish some of my earlier posts on the issue of suffering. For reasons I explain in the second of this first sequence of posts, they are not meant to convince a sceptic that God exists, but may help to persuade him that believing in God is not completely irrational in spite of all the pain there is in the world. 

The first post of the first sequence was published in 2011 on the morning of the anniversary of the death of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith.

At the end of the previous post on this topic there is the following challenging quote from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:

51. O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.

No one can argue convincingly that Bahá’u’lláh did not know what suffering was like. That alone would give His words tremendous credibility. He was incarcerated in the Siyah Chal, a traumatic ordeal. His experience there was special in an altogether different and more positive way as well:

In the middle of the 19th century, one of the most notorious dungeons in the Near East was Tehran’s “Black Pit.” Once the underground reservoir for a public bath, its only outlet was a single passage down three steep flights of stone steps. Prisoners huddled in their own bodily wastes, languishing in the pit’s inky gloom, subterranean cold and stench-ridden atmosphere.

In this grim setting, the rarest and most cherished of religious events was once again played out: a mortal man, outwardly human in other respects, was summoned by God to bring to humanity a new religious revelation.

The year was 1852, and the man was a Persian nobleman, known today as Bahá’u’lláh. During His imprisonment, as He sat with his feet in stocks and a 100-pound iron chain around his neck, Bahá’u’lláh received a vision of God’s will for humanity.

For Bahá’ís therefore His words have an authority over and above the credence everyone would undoubtedly agree His sufferings accorded Him. I recognise that many do not see His Words as originating with God so it is necessary to pursue this exploration of the meaning of suffering much further and in more prosaic terms.

The Siyah Chal was not the end of His sufferings. Exile and further imprisonment followed, and in the prison in Acre he lost His youngest son, Mirza Mihdi:

He was pacing the roof of the barracks in the twilight, one evening, wrapped in his customary devotions, when he fell through the unguarded skylight onto a wooden crate, standing on the floor beneath, which pierced his ribs, and caused, twenty-two hours later, his death, on . . . . June 23, 1870.

(God Passes By: page 188)

Mirza Mihdi

So, He clearly knew from close personal experience what he was talking about. Also, if we have accepted that the improbability of the universe entails the existence of a God capable of creating it, and now that we have begun to comprehend the vastness, wonder and complexity of the universe, with its quantum foam and simultaneous interactions over vast distances that light would need decades to traverse, the idea of the spiritual reality of which He speaks begins to seem a little less preposterous.

This is fortunate because, as we have already seen in the previous post on this subject, there is no way we can get out of the impasse without making a further extrapolation from the existence of a God to the existence of a reality beyond the one accessible to our senses.

Eric Reitan, in his exemplary treatment of the whole question of the existence of God, takes a long look at the questions we are scrutinising now. His discussion is thorough and complex and I can only include the bare bones of it here. His concern in the passages I quote is the problem of evil, but it is easy to see how his comments apply to the closely related issue of suffering. On pages 196-197 he writes:

For any and all of these evils, the question of why God would permit them requires us to suppose that there are vistas of reality that transcend our understanding – vistas that may not just put evil into perspective but also the fact that it can seem so overwhelming. . . . .

If, within His vast ocean of understanding, God discerns a justifying reason for allowing evil to exist, the probability that this reason would also fall within our puddle of understanding is very low.

So, we can neither know the mind of God nor grasp the full nature of the spiritual reality which surrounds us, though it surely exists in some form. He draws on the cosmological argument, a variation of which I have already referred to briefly in the earlier post and mention again above, to conclude that (page 197) ‘it is reasonable to believe in a transcendent and essentially mysterious reality.’

It is perhaps important to mention that Reitan is not seeking to provide conclusive proof that would persuade everyone that God exists. That would be impossible for reasons I have explored elsewhere. He is simply demonstrating that it is as reasonable to believe in God as not, a truth that Darwinian reductionists find hard to swallow. (See Olinga Tahzib’s Ch4 broadcast for a clear explanation of the Baha’i viewpoint.)

Once you accept the possibility of a transcendent realm, aspects of that mysterious reality can be seen to have, potentially at least, a massively compensating function that provides a radically different context against which to measure both evil and suffering, a context which would make it possible to accept that the pain entailed in making moral choices, for example, and the agony incurred in unforeseen calamities are not inordinate and maybe even serve some higher purpose. Reitan himself points towards this very clearly (page 189):

Not long ago, the distracted negligence of a home daycare provider combined with plain bad luck to take the life of my friend’s 18-month-old son, a gentle boy fiercely loved by his parents. In the face of this tragedy, my friend and his wife have been sustained by a religious faith which promises that everything good and beautiful about their child has been embraced by the deepest reality in the universe.

Something else has helped me come to terms with even uninvited suffering, and helped me also get a more immediate sense of how the idea of a spiritual reality, over and above the purely physical world our senses are restricted to, can be of great help. This was the message that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to bereaved parents who had contacted him in their despair, his keen awareness of the pain of their grief perhaps enhanced by the strong light cast by his own feelings from when his brother, Mirza Mihdi, died in the prison citadel of Acre. He uses a very homely and concrete image to embody the intuition Reitan describes, imagery which makes the possibility of a spiritual realm more vivid and brings it that much closer:

The death of that beloved youth and his separation from you have caused the utmost sorrow and grief; for he winged his flight in the flower of his age and the bloom of his youth to the heavenly nest. But he hath been freed from this sorrow-stricken shelter and hath turned his face toward the everlasting nest of the Kingdom, and, being delivered from a dark and narrow world, hath hastened to the sanctified realm of light; therein lieth the consolation of our hearts.

The inscrutable divine wisdom underlieth such heart-rending occurrences. It is as if a kind gardener transferreth a fresh and tender shrub from a confined place to a wide open area. This transfer is not the cause of the withering, the lessening or the destruction of that shrub; nay, on the contrary, it maketh it to grow and thrive, acquire freshness and delicacy, become green and bear fruit. This hidden secret is well known to the gardener, but those souls who are unaware of this bounty suppose that the gardener, in his anger and wrath, hath uprooted the shrub. Yet to those who are aware, this concealed fact is manifest, and this predestined decree is considered a bounty. Do not feel grieved or disconsolate, therefore, at the ascension of that bird of faithfulness; nay, under all circumstances pray for that youth, supplicating for him forgiveness and the elevation of his station.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá169)

Even though this loving and lovely metaphor of the gardener contributed to a resolution of my quandary, there was still an aspect that troubled me. All this has not only been ordained by God, but it also requires our acquiescence in some way. Bahá’u’lláh’s own expression of it in the Hidden Words is:

18. O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.

I needed to make sense of this in terms of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described. Why might it be so important that I content myself with this state of reality?

An obvious partial answer is that, if we can accept the suffering, we will suffer less. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy regards suffering as what we add to the inevitable pain of existence, in part by our resistance to it and also by the language we use to ourselves to describe it. Which is not to say that we should not take practical steps to alleviate our own pain in other ways and to give solace to others, as well as, where possible, making sure that avoidable accidents do not add to the catalogue of human misery.

To go beyond that and probe more deeply into possible ways of learning to accept the apparently unacceptable is something each of us has to do in our own way, by prayer, reading, reflection and ‘right action,’ to use the Buddhist phrase. So, as a way of bringing these reflections to a close, I’d like to share in short hand form my own way of internalising this depiction of reality and of coming to terms with this injunction that we be content with whatever sorrow comes our way.

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Heart Safe (for source of image see link)

When we suffer it’s as though we have been robbed of the comforts we have locked away in our hearts to keep them safe, convinced that they were the gold that would buy us our protection from the slings and arrows of ill-fortune, and have been left in their stead with bundles of flimsy paper covered in strange writing.

We simply do not understand the true nature of this paper and rage against our loss, not appreciating that the rage, which is making our heart a furnace, will turn the paper into ashes all too soon, wiping out its incalculable value before we can realise its worth. If we could only come to see our pain and loss as providing us, as a gift, with the currency we will need when we travel, as we all must at some unknown point in the future, to settle in the undiscovered land from whose borders no traveller returns, it would become possible to accept it gratefully rather than resist it pointlessly. We would not then unwittingly destroy it, much to our disadvantage later. Without this currency, when we die we will be like refugees, ill-equipped at first to deal with the challenges of our new homeland. If we were to realise this, not just with our heads but with our hearts as well, we could then do as Bahá’u’lláh advises us and greet calamity with the same peace of mind as we welcome all good fortune. That would be true wisdom and real wealth.

That, of course, is far easier said than done and will take most of us more than a lifetime to accomplish. That should not be a reason to give up, it seems to me. We will, after all, have the whole of eternity to finish off what we have begun locked in time down here, and the better the start we get, the less we’ll have to do later on. Another example of the compensating effect of taking the broader view offered by a spiritual perspective.

Perhaps there is no better way to close this pair of posts than by concluding with the most beautiful piece of music that I know of relating to this theme. (For more about Handel’s Messiah click the link.)

I will be republishing a sequence of  posts next week, which will be examining suffering from a different angle.

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