Monday, September 29, 2014

Long Lost Logos

That deep emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.
- Albert Einstein 

For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
- Jesus Christ

Are humans merely a fancy breed of ape, no more special than any other beast on the planet? Is our existence inherently devoid of purpose? Is the search for meaning, happiness, and fulfilment a pointless pursuit?

Or are we different from other animals? Were we chosen by a higher power for a special purpose? Do we hold within ourselves a fragment of the divine, and is this fragment key to achieving joy and fulfillment?

Dan Meilleur did a fantastic job laying out the particulars of this debate in his post entitled "Special or Not?" In it, Meilleur clearly disagrees with the Judeo-Christian view of humanity's superior status. He states that
human life is no more important or intrinsically valuable than that of a kangaroo, a carrot, or a flea. Our sentience is different, yes, but our importance--our “special-ness”--is not.
Meilleur rightfully blames the Judeo-Christian view--that the creator of the universe personally made us, takes an interest in our daily activities, and that the earth is our birthright--for some of the problems we are facing as a species today. By thinking that we are superior to other lifeforms and that the earth is ours to subjugate, we can pollute and destroy without a shred of remorse.

On the other hand, blaming a book or ideology for human behavior is like blaming a wrench for the mechanic's sloppy work. The Bible isn't at fault: our interpretation of the Bible is.

There are splinters of wisdom and insight embedded within the Bible but in order to glimpse them we must read the Bible symbolically, as it was always meant to be read. The problem is that many people interpret the Bible as a literal history of the universe and in doing so miss the truth contained within its pages.

What truth?

That humans are indeed special; that we were chosen by a higher power for a specific purpose; that we carry a shard of that higher power within ourselves; and, that this shard of the divine is key to  discovering our purpose and achieving happiness.

Best of all, this truth does not contradict reason or modern scientific understanding; to the contrary, the two sides, seemingly at odds, compliment each other remarkably well. Let's examine the statements listed above.

We are Special
This isn't hubris, folks. Just look around you for a moment. You see the cars driving by, buildings towering above, and planes shooting across the sky? Did gorillas make these wonders? Did ants? Fleas? Seagulls?

I'm not saying we're special as in "better" or "superior" to other animals, nor am I saying that we aren't animals: we most certainly are. When I say special, I only mean that we are otherwise different from what is usual. If humans are animals, and no other animal has come close to rivalling our accomplishments, then one cannot deny that we are somehow different.

What is it that distinguishes us from our animal relatives?

The ability to analyze, hypothesize, organize, predict, and override our biological programming. Combined, these allow us to literally rearrange the world around us into forms that serve our needs. Tables, street-signs, wheelchairs, pace-makers, computers, and every other human-made object on the planet was once raw material which we extracted and reshaped for our own purposes.

No other animal on earth can do this.

That's not to say that we should mistreat other animals or subject them to needless cruelty; only that we are indeed different from them. As you will see, the thing that makes us different also demands that we take care of one another and treat all lifeforms with dignity and respect.

We were Chosen
It's important not to get hung up on terminology here. When I say we were chosen by a higher power, I don't mean that we were hand-crafted by a bearded sky-father. I don't mean that a deity told us that earth and everything on it was ours to do with as we please.

When I say we were chosen, I mean that we are the product of evolution, which is also called natural selection. This implies that certain lifeforms are selected or chosen to survive, breed, and evolve further. And since we exist here and now, we can safely assume that we are among the races chosen by nature to survive and fulfill our purpose.

When I say higher power, I'm not referring to an anthropomorphic deity who judges and doles out punishment to his unruly children; I'm talking about the "superior reasoning power which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe," as Einstein put it. It's the pantheistic God, aka the Universe. Nature is simply the creative spirit organizing God's parts into ever more complex forms.

Humans just so happen to be the most complex form on earth and, in all likelihood, in the solar system. If that doesn't make us special, I don't know what does.

We have a Purpose
When comparing like objects, what leads us to judge one as superior to the other? For instance, what makes one type of car better or more valuable than another? Only this: that one fulfills its purpose more efficiently, beautifully, and effectively than the other.

If a garden produces an abundance of fruit and another very little, one will judge the first to be better than the second. It is because a garden serves a purpose: to bear fruit.

We hold in our minds ideas of what different things ought to do and prize those that do it best.

In order to discern our purpose as a species, we must look at the basic functions or traits of human beings. What are some hallmarks of humanity? What is unique about us? What do we do better than other animals?

In other words, what is our function?

First, we are social animals. This isn't a unique trait, of course. Most animals function in packs, tribes, colonies, etc. but no other species has devised such vast and complex social networks, nor leveraged them into a global civilization. No other animal has developed advanced methods of communication, nor the ability to contact others instantly across vast distances.

Second, and more importantly, we are reasoning animals. This, I believe, is the thing that also makes us special. Without the ability to recognize and analyze patterns, organize information, plan, predict, and rationalize, we would be no different from our cousins, the great apes.

There is no other trait that is uniquely ours. Everything else we do, every other skill or attribute we possess, exists in the animal world in greater abundance. We are not the strongest, fastest, or most resilient beast in the animal kingdom. Only reason allows us to reshape the world around us and more importantly, override our biological programming or instincts so that we may act rationally.

And so, in order to fulfill our purpose as human beings, we must first employ reason, our greatest tool, in all aspects of our lives and second concern ourselves with the common good of those around us.

The Divine is Within
If you agree with the above, this last one--which at first glance is probably the least believable of the bunch--becomes much easier to grasp.

The Universe is a higher power and Nature is the creative spirit that shapes and governs its parts. Using Nature, the Universe recycles and reinvents itself, moving from simplicity to complexity and manifesting itself into new forms.

Doesn't that sound a whole lot like what we do with our surroundings? We take existing matter in its crude form, refine it, reshape it, assemble it, and put it to work fulfilling some new purpose. It's this very ability that distinguishes us from other animals, and coincidentally, it is the very thing that drives the Universe along.

If we regard Nature as the intellectual force of the Universe, the thing that drives evolution in all its myriad forms, and we alone of all the animals on earth are capable of imitating the Universe, doesn't it stand to reason that we too must possess a fragment of the universal intellect?

That's what a bunch of ancient philosophers believed. They called this piece of the divine intellect the Logos and they claimed that only through it could humans find salvation.  Oddly enough, Christianity agrees with this notion. In the opening verses of John's Gospel, the author refers to the Logos by name, claiming that
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
We later find out that the Logos came down to earth in the form a man named Jesus Christ, who tells us that he is "the way and the truth and the life" and that "no one comes to the Father" except through him.

The Father is none other than the wondrous Universe itself and the only way we can truly know God and find salvation is through the Logos, which dwells within each and every one of us.

We have inherited a great and powerful gift that no other animal on earth possesses. That makes us special, but not invincible, and it certainly doesn't give us the right to poison our beautiful planet or abuse the other lifeforms who dwell upon it.

We would do well to remember Uncle Ben's warning to a young Peter Parker: "With great power comes great responsibility."
Atheists like to point to the book of Genesis as the source of our reckless behavior and ego-centrism. What they ignore is the second chapter of this book, which retells the creation story from a slightly different perspective. Here we are told that God made us to look after his garden. In other words, we are the earth's caretakers, not its masters.

As such, we must look out for our home and all its inhabitants. We must strengthen reason in our minds and use it to govern our instincts and passions. We must banish ignorance and destroy greed. We must put our petty, superficial differences aside and look to one another for strength, love, and support.

Alone even the mightiest human can accomplish very little; but together, working coherently toward a set of common goals, we can finally stop worshiping imaginary gods and become gods ourselves.

Look around you again. Clearly we've already begun our transformation but our progress is hindered. Along with the Logos, we carry the baggage of our animal heritage--our tendencies toward tribalism, violence, competition, insecurity, and fear--and this burden threatens to grind our progress to a halt.

Only the light of the Logos can frighten the animal mind into its cage where it rightfully belongs.

The holy spirit isn't upon you: it's inside you. You need only awaken it to transform your life and the lives of those around you.

/rant over
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