Monday, January 21, 2013
When I was in high school in the 1950s, I fell in love – with biology, a relationship I’ve maintained all my life. During the genetics unit, I quivered on the edge of my seat because it combined biology with my last year’s favorite subject, algebra. [I was born a nerd, one who rests at the intersection of three sets of qualities: social ineptitude, intelligence, and obsession.] I remained glued to the blackboard during the next unit, evolution. Kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, species arranged themselves on a tidy tree. At the time, I believed the Catholic God created the glorious panoply of life.
College biology centered around Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution, the unifying paradigm of biology. All the factoids in my head now fit into a pattern that made sense. The evolutionary process was presented as mindless and purposeless, but I still believed God steered the process. Besides, at least one species in the universe had opposable thumbs.
In my twenties, I discovered Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who seemed to reconcile science, evolution, and Catholic dogma. The Phenomenon of Man was philosophical rather than scientific, so there wasn’t data to back up his conclusions. Teilhard believed the Universe was evolving toward an Omega Point, defined by Teilhard as a convergence with the divine.
Liberal arts were, in my callow mind, just intellectuals’ opinions with no basis in the real stuff, the physical world. History was about a bunch of dead white guys fighting stupid wars. Learning history meant remembering which event went with which four digit number. It wasn’t until fifteen years out of college that I had the epiphany that dates let you order historical events in a sequence.
By that time I’d fallen away from Catholicism. I raised a family, worked as a lab tech, mostly in microbiology labs. After a few years meditating at a Quaker meeting, twenty years ago, I became a Unitarian Universalist.
Our first Unitarian Source affirms “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.” We can draw inspiration from the Great Story of our glorious origin from stardust and our overall increasing complexity, as preached by Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. This couple mostly focuses on our marvelous past, rather than the future of our species. Our glorious past inspires awe and wonder, but we need a faith that looks to the future.
About a dozen years ago I came across Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, a physiologist, ornithologist, and environmental scientist. When scientists do history, it gets interesting. Diamond found patterns in historical data to show why things happened the way they did over the long haul. He traces the development of political organization from band to clan to tribe to chiefdom to nation-state. Complexity increased in human history as it did with organic evolution. Complex organisms and societies are consistently more successful than simpler.
I continued my nerdy reading habits with NonZero by Robert Wright. He points out that both organic evolution and human cultural evolution have proceeded in the direction of greater complexity and win-win systems, meaning when opposing parties cooperate, everyone wins. Also, given enough time, complex intelligence will emerge. Then across history and the world, human social systems have grown more complex from savage to barbarian to civilization, the same process that Diamond traces. I was reminded of Teilhard’s Omega Point.
Evolution, a bottom up process, is a messy affair that generates a lot of garbage along the way. It’s not all up, up, up. The ichneumon wasp is fiendishly cruel and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire should never have happened. Wright uses the image of a balky horse, three steps forward, two steps back. A world that produced tapeworms along with formations of flying geese looks as though it was designed by the Native American deity Coyote.
I delved into psychology, found books by psychologist Martin EP Seligman, who writes about the joys and benefits of optimism. Seligman ends his book Authentic Happiness with a chapter on finding meaning and purpose in life, essential to authentic happiness. Seligman summarizes the theology inherent in a win-win process and demonstrates there can be meaning in life without the Supernatural:
“Where is the principle of win-win headed? Toward a God who is not supernatural, a God who ultimately acquires omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness through the natural process of win-win. Perhaps, just perhaps, God comes at the end.” Again Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point. Seligman continues:
“A process that continually selects for more complexity is ultimately aimed at nothing less than omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness. This is not of course a fulfillment that will be achieved in our lifetimes, or even the lifetime of our species. The best we can do as individuals is to choose to be a small part of furthering this process. This is the door through which meaning that transcends us can enter our lives. A meaningful life is one that joins with something larger than we are – and the larger that something is, the more meaning our lives have. Partaking in a process that has the bringing of a God who is endowed with omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness as its ultimate end joins our lives to an enormously large Something.”