Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Spiritual evolution?

More and more, I am hearing the notion that we and/or the earth are 'evolving' to a greater spiritual consciousness. This is strongly in evidence in Eckhart Tolle's book, A New Earth, in which Tolle tells of a change that he describes as
...a more profound shift in planetary consciousness that is destined to take place in the human species. This is the spiritual awakening that we are beginning to witness now.
I came across this notion again recently in an encounter with EnlightenNext, the group that exists to spread the teachings of their guru, Andrew Cohen. They describe themselves as "dedicated to catalyzing evolution in consciousness and culture."

On the surface, the sense that we are evolving toward some higher state of consciousness is an appealing one. It feels as though it creates an opportunity to free ourselves of the restrictive dogmas and creeds of many traditional religions. After all, in a postmodern world, the appeal of a single 'right answer' or a single 'right story' is very limited. And indeed, an extent of freedom is present and offered in these ways of thinking.

But that freedom is somewhat illusory. It is more a substitution than a liberation as a new magical story is being substituted for the old. Somehow, we are told, human beings are becoming something very different. It is supernaturally coming upon us and we need to cooperate with this great impending change.  This seems little different from the prediction that the Kingdom of God is just around the corner, as the followers of Jesus of Nazareth began saying nearly two millennia ago.

I have nothing against a good story, as long as we recognize that it is a story - to be taken metaphorically rather than as a fact. The problem with false facts is that they are eventually revealed, leaving behind the wreckage of shattered faith and lives roughly stripped of the meaning that sustained them. The world that we are told is evolving spiritually is also the site of tremendous hostility and hatred, an increasing gap between rich and poor, and catastrophic environmental degradation. Will these contrary trends not rattle the new stories?

As a trained biologist and a trained minister, I have an unusual perspective on the prospect of combining  science and religion. I find it frequently in the air these days - particularly among people who would describe themselves more as spiritual than as traditionally religious. Talk of evolutionary consciousness or evolutionary spirituality falls in this category, as do attempts to equate some of the mysterious observations of quantum physics with various world scriptures. It was a liberating moment when humankind separated the concepts of science and faith. It left science free to develop unhampered by dogmatic restrictions. Religion benefited too... no longer would it need to contort itself to attempt to fit its stories to the scientific facts, with which it was so much at odds.

And now, oddly, both the most reactionary and the most adventurous in the world of spirituality
wish to bring faith and science back together. The former, to fit science into its old story and the latter to build spiritual structures upon scientific foundations. Neither is an advisable enterprise.

Spirituality and science should remain separate. It is not that they are inconsistent, but that they are different. Science analyzes the way things are. Spirituality and religion speak to our aspirations and our dreams. When we try to use science to support our spirituality, we are invariably building heaven on shaky ground.


  1. Remember Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Same tripe without the science soup.

    And the hugely popular "science" fiction series "Stargate SG1" where, among the various threads over the series' long life, there is a race of ancient humans from a previous evolution known alternately as "The Ancients," Alterans, or Lanteans, who evolved to the state that, with a little bit of concentration they were able to shed their mortal coils and live with god-like powers (though they refused to use them) in some scientifically un-locatable plane of existence as pure energy.

    Completely aside from the Tolle approach, evolution is unscientifically in the air...

  2. The whole thing started with Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the Omega point, and was also put forward by Oberon Zell in his Gaia Theology (which he also derived in part from the process theology of AN Whitehead).

    I agree that trying to build one's spirituality on pseudo-scientific foundations is a shaky enterprise, but there's nothing wrong with deriving spiritual satisfaction from the wonder and awe of scientific discovery, and religious understanding should not conflict with science, reason or experience.

  3. In my book the most recent spiritual paradigm shift came out of a geezer who used to mind sheep in the Middle East about 2000 years ago... as for the rest, I'm afraid it's largely vanity...

  4. hmmm, lots to think about. true though that science and spirituality are separate. spiritual questions are inherently unscientific as they are unfalsifiable/untestable.