On the Edge of Time: An Excerpt from Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion, and Human Becoming
Blowing through heaven and earth, and in our hearts and the heart of every living thing, is a gigantic breath—a great Cry—which we call God. Plant life wished to continue its motionless sleep next to stagnant waters, but the Cry leaped up within it and violently shook its roots: “Away, let go of the earth, walk!” Had the tree been able to think and judge, it would have cried, “I don’t want to. What are you urging me to do? You are demanding the impossible!” But the Cry, without pity, kept shaking its roots and shouting, “Away, let go of the earth, walk!”
It shouted in this way for thousands of eons; and lo! as a result of desire and struggle, life escaped the motionless tree and was liberated.
Animals appear—worms—making themselves at home in water and mud. “We’re just fine here,” they said. “We have peace and security; we’re not budging!”
But the terrible Cry hammered itself pitilessly into their loins. “Leave the mud, stand up, give birth to your betters!”
“We don’t want to! We can’t!”
“You can’t, but I can. Stand up!”
And lo! after thousands of eons, humans emerged, trembling on their still unsolid legs.
The human being is a centaur; our equine hoofs are planted in the ground, but our body from breast to head is worked on and tormented by the merciless Cry. We have been fighting, again for thousands of eons, to draw ourselves, like a sword, out of our animalistic scabbard. We are also fighting—and this is our new struggle—to draw ourselves out of our human scabbard. Humanity calls in despair, “Where can I go? I have reached the pinnacle, beyond is the abyss.” And the Cry answers, “I am beyond. Stand up!” All things are centaurs. If this were not the case, the world would rot into inertness and sterility.
Several years ago, I was driving down a street in Winter Park, Florida on my way to a class at Rollins College. Winter Park has these lovely southern oak trees that create canopies over the streets. The sun was behind me, streaming down through the trees and giving everything a warm, early morning glow. As I drove, I was reflecting on a course I was teaching, a science and religion course on evolution and creation. I was thinking about the fourteen billion year history of the universe.
Suddenly I realized that I was on the edge, the edge of the universe. This was not the edge of space but the edge of time. I realized that the whole universe had taken fourteen billion years to bring me, and everything else, to the moment I was in. All that time, all that creative activity bringing into being galaxies, stars, our Earth, life, and me. Wow! I was awestruck. I still am.
We all are on the edge of time—right now, in every moment. Each of us is a special form of energy-matter that has been created through a series of transformations over fourteen billion years. And on our edge of time we are always going into the future. It is an unknown future. Yet it is a future upon which our thinking and actions will make a difference. We help create the future. Our thoughts and actions shape what the future will be like. What a responsibility! What kind of future are we being called to create? I’ll ask to consider these questions in the concluding chapter.
In this chapter I’d like to reflect with you on what it means to live on the edge of time in a universe that continually undergoes a variety of transformations. I’ll sketch some of the transformations in the history of the universe that have brought us to this point. This will set a wider context of meaning for understanding some facets of human spiritual transformation in our human becoming.
One way to narrate the history of the universe is as a series transformations that bring new phases of the universe into being. The basic stuff of the universe is energy-matter. In keeping with the first law of thermodynamics, energy-matter is neither created nor destroyed. However, as the universe expanded and cooled down after the “big bang,” energy began to be transformed into matter, into subatomic particles and simple atoms—hydrogen, helium, and a very small amount of lithium. These atoms formed huge clouds that became galaxies and the first stars.
A second transformation occurred when some early massive stars—stars ten times the mass of our sun—burned up all their hydrogen fuel in nuclear fusion. They then went through a process of dying, ending in a tremendous explosion called a supernova. In the extreme temperatures of supernovae, elements more complex than hydrogen and helium were created—oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, iron, and so on. Out of these elements and more interstellar hydrogen and helium, new stars were created. Some of these had planets. Our sun and its planets, including Earth, were formed about five billion years ago out of the debris of earlier, exploded stars.
On earth further transformations took place as atoms formed molecules and as some molecules became more complex and self-replicating. Life came into being. Once life occurred, about 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, Darwinian evolution took over, creating millions of forms of life. One aspect of evolving life is the nervous system. Through Darwinian evolution simple nervous systems, such as those found in worms, evolved into more complex nervous systems, until there came into being nervous systems that were complex enough to think with symbols—human brains. Our brains are capable of creating complex languages and mathematical formulae—making us what anthropologist Terry Deacon calls the “symbolic species”.2 Or making us what theologian Gordon Kaufman calls “bio-historical” beings—beings shaped by both biology and the symbols and practices of human history.3
More transformations occurred in human society and culture. Human beings originally evolved with biological tendencies that helped motivate us to care for genetically close kin and to engage in small-group, reciprocal altruism. With the invention of morality, economics, politics, and religions, these small-scale communities were transformed into larger, cooperating societies and multi-national civilizations.
A question for the future is whether these large-scale societies and civilizations can evolve into a peaceful, cooperating world-wide community, living in harmony with the rest of the earth. Or will evolution’s “human experiment” end in a nuclear holocaust or in environmental disaster?
What all these transformations mean is that each of us is made up of the energy present fourteen billion years ago at the origin of our universe. We also are made up of atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and iron created it the explosive deaths of massive stars. Likewise, we are the descendants of a one-celled organism that was the first replicating life on our planet almost four billion years ago. More particularly, we have evolved from a tiny mouse-like creature that was present at the time of the dinosaurs. When an asteroid collided with the earth sixty-six million years ago, causing the extinction of the dinosaurs, this mouse-like creature (like a tree shrew) began to flourish, leading to the common ancestor of chimpanzees, bonobos, and human beings. Finally, in this evolutionary history, we are the inheritors of many of the inventions, values, and thoughts of countless human beings that have gone before us on planet Earth. Each of us stands in our own unique way on the edge of time—able to continue in our own small way the legacy of energy, atoms, molecules, life, and culture that has evolved to give us the gift of our own existence.
A couple of years ago I found myself on the edge of time on Star Island, attending the 2005 conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. As I mentioned in the preface, the conference theme was “Varieties of Spiritual Transformation: Scientific and Religious Perspectives.” The goal of the conference was to understand better the relation between new knowledge about spiritual transformation from the sciences, especially neuroscience and the social sciences, and the experientially based wisdom of religious traditions. As the chapel speaker at this conference, my goal was to encourage people to reflect on some the varieties of spiritual transformation and their outcomes, while drawing on my knowledge of world religions and evolutionary science.
I also hoped to learn from other speakers and participants. As I listened to various speakers talk about spiritual transformation, I was asking myself the question: What is meant by the term spiritual transformation? One way of thinking I wanted to avoid was that the spiritual is something opposed to material—the kind of dualistic thinking that in the past has so often separated the core of the human person—the soul—from our bodies. Because the work of many scientists has led me to believe that one cannot separate our inner, subjective states from the workings of our brain and body, I did not want to think of spiritual transformation as involving something independent of our embodied life. I also did not want to think that spiritual transformation is something so unusual that only a few people, for example the great mystics, could have spiritual transformations. Because of my belief that the sacred is present in all aspects of the world and of human life, I was looking for ways in which spiritual transformations could be everyday kinds of events.
As I listened to the other speakers, I began to realize two things. First, for some it seemed that a spiritual transformation is a change in identity—a change in who we are in terms of our conceptions of ourselves and our relationships with others and the wider world. Second, it seemed that transformations begin to occur when our lives are challenged and disrupted in such a way that we can no longer think of ourselves in the same way, have the same relationships, or participate in the same basic rhythms of our lives. We are continuously becoming.
We might think of our identities as involving three “dimensions.”4 The first draws on the idea that we are individual, embodied selves. As I said above, I do not wish to distinguish who we are from the states of our bodies and brains. This means that our identities are closely related to our subjective experiences of ourselves and also our experiences of the world around us. Our identities also are related to how we express ourselves and act in the world. So, when something in our body changes, for example during puberty when hormones and body appearances change, our identities also change. When this happens, many cultures have rites of passage that initiate their children into adulthood.
Likewise, as our bodies age we also undergo a change in who we are. Our inner experiences of ourselves change when we develop the aches and pains of arthritis, for example. Our experiences of the world change as we, for example, develop cataracts, macular degeneration, or hearing loss. And how we act in the world changes as our physical abilities become more limited. All this means that our identities also change: we become “old folks.” However, we have accumulated a lifetime of experience, and so, in some societies this means we become identified and respected as “wise elders.”
A second dimension of our identity is in our relationships with others. As we go though life we become different people as we assume different roles in relation to others: child, teenager, married person, parent, school teacher, skilled mechanic, computer operator, priest, and so on. Each of these involves us in different sets of relationships with others, as well as different ways in which we experience ourselves and understand the meaning and significance of our lives. As our relationships change, we undergo a second facet of spiritual transformation in terms of who we are.
The third dimension involves our relation to the sacred, that which is most important or significant in our lives, which many call God. It is that with which we are “ultimately concerned” according to theologian Paul Tillich.5 Henry Nelson Wieman suggests it is that which elicits our “ultimate commitment.”6 William May speaks of it as involving the fundamental rhythms of our lives. Our fundamental rhythms include the way we get up and go to bed, the way we dress, the various routine events of our day as we go through a week, month and year. I remember experiencing these rhythms as a young child with my mother. On Mondays she would do the laundry, on Tuesdays the ironing, on Wednesdays volunteer work, and so on until she worshiped on Sundays. For me, this pattern was a part of who she was. Whole societies live according to weekly rhythms culminating in a Sabbath, monthly rhythms following the lunar cycle, annual rhythms of planting and harvest, or rhythms related to the equinoxes in our Earth-Sun system. Some of these annual rhythms are linked to historical events such as Christian Advent and Easter, or Jewish Passover. Many of these rhythms are manifested in religious rituals. When these rhythms change, people’s identities change. Even the identity of a society can change.
What causes these rhythms to change? What changes the ways we experience and act towards ourselves and the world? What changes the ways relate to others? In many cases, as I’ve suggested above, it is the natural course of our lives, in which biology and society play a role. In other times it can be a positive set of special circumstances that leads to a new friendship, a new school community, a job promotion, or the birth of a grandchild. At other times identity transformation occurs in negative circumstances, such as when one suffers a serious disease, or the death of a friend, spouse, sibling, parent, or child. Transformations may be triggered by natural and human caused disasters—Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian Tsunami, 9-11, or any number of wars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. All these—a variety of individual, social, and natural events can contribute to transformations of self understanding and identity, changes in our relationships with others, and shifts in the basic rhythms of our lives.
All that I’ve described and more may be included in a scientifically grounded working definition of “spiritual transformation.” Anthropologist Solomon Katz suggests that spiritual transformations are “dramatic changes in world and self views, purposes, religious beliefs, attitudes, and behavior.”7 If one adds the idea of the transcendent or the sacred, we can also consider psychologist Ken Pargament’s suggestion that “spiritual transformation refers primarily to a fundamental change in the place of the sacred or the character of the sacred as an object of significance in the life of the individual, and secondarily to a fundamental change in the pathways the individual takes to the sacred.”8
Humanity’s religions exhibit many different ways of thinking about the sacred. Sometimes it is thought of as many personal spiritual beings that underlie the workings of nature and human life. Sometimes the sacred is thought of as one supreme reality–the God of Western mono-theism. Sometimes it is thought of in non-personal terms as the way of Heaven and Earth, or the Tao, in Chinese thought. The sacred can also be identified as the creativity in nature and human history. In all these understandings, however, two things seem to be present. Whether it is thought of as many or one, personal or non-personal, the sacred is first, the source of all existence, and second, that in relation to which our lives become meaningful. It is understood as something more than ourselves in which we “live and move and have our being.” It is that which in various ways calls us and the world, on the edge of time, to move beyond present states of existence. It is like the Cry that Kazantzakis poetically portrays in the reading at the beginning of this chapter.
One way to understand the sacred is by distinguishing between creator and created. This is an important distinction in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In some of the major expressions of these religions all of God’s creation is good, and God as the creator, the source of the world, is the greatest good. Genesis 1 affirms this when after each phase of creation God looks at what has been created and sees that it is good. Augustine, a Christian theologian in the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., develops this idea in contrast to a powerful form of dualism present in his day, Manichaeism. Manichaeism held that the world is a battleground between two opposing ultimate forces, one good and one evil. Instead, Augustine followed the thinking of the Neo-Platonists, the followers of the Greek philosopher Plato. He reasoned that all existence is good, that evil is only a negative concept, and that the source of all existence, God, is the highest good. So humans should not become addicted to the goods of this world, should not be in bondage to such goods. This has been called idolatry. Instead they are called to turn toward a relationship with the highest good—God.9
This distinction between all of creation as good and the creator being the greatest good is also advanced by the twentieth century philosopher of religion Henry Nelson Wieman. In The Source of Human Good Wieman does not think of God as a being beyond the world who creates the world but, instead, as the process of creative transformation within the world. Everything in the world is good. It can be good in itself or good because it is instrumental to something else that is good. It also can be both intrinsically and instrumentally good. Wieman uses the idea of “relations of mutual support” as a way of generally characterizing what is good. When things are in mutually supporting relationships they are good. One example is health, a state in which all parts of an organism work well together as a whole. Another example is meaning, a system of ideas and experiences that are mutually supportive and in terms of which a human being can see his or her place in the larger scheme of things. Love also is such a good, the mutually supporting relationships of feelings and behaviors between two people. Families and communities of all kinds are other examples; whenever their members live and work together in supportive ways, good is present.
Still greater than any of these kinds of relations of mutual support is that which creates health, meaning, love, and community. Wieman calls this “creative good,” and also “creative process,” “creative interchange,” and “creative transformation.” Because it is the source of all intrinsic and instrumental good, Wieman calls this process God.10
So, as a first attempt at understanding what “spiritual transformation” means, we might say that spiritual transformations are those transformations that occur when we are caught up in the creative process that continually transforms the world to produce new relationships of mutual support—new systems of existence, life, and human society. For individual humans, such transformations bring about new forms of human self-understanding, human relationships, and new relationships with the wider world—new forms of identity. Such transformations can be regarded as “God-working” continuously and creatively on the edge of time throughout the history of the universe. The more we are involved in spiritual transformations—growing in self-understanding and in relationships with others—we participate in that process. Thus our relationship to God also grows as we live more and more of our lives in relationship with the sacred. In the chapters that follow, I shall explore some of the ways in which we can undergo changes in identity and in our relationship with the sacred during our life journeys on the edge of time.
1 Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1965), 291-292. Quoted in John B. Cobb, Jr., God and the World (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 53. Passage revised by Karl E. Peters to have inclusive language.
4 Here I am following the thinking of medical ethicist William May, The Patient=s Ordeal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 9-12. I’ll return to May’s formulation more specifically in the chapter on “Calamitous Convergences.”