Christian Scriptures and the Evolution of consciousness.
The Gospels depict the highest consciousness becoming incarnate in an individual who teaches crowds about the Kingdom of God, which in the context of the thesis of these posts, would mean individually conscious beings sharing to some extent the universal world-forming consciousness. The incarnate presence of God was not seen in a warrior king or emperor, but in Jesus, a person of no political, economic, or even religious significance. He appealed to the lowest rungs of society. According to the Magnificat, or Hymn of Mary, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly” (Luke 1:52) The message seems to be that compared to the universal consciousness, whose essential characteristic is love and compassion, power and wealth fall into insignificance. Lust for power, wealth, and pleasure continue to plague society including the Church. The struggle of evolution as described in chapter two goes on in every aspect of human history.
The theme of evolutionary integration struggling with the force of disintegration in the development of religion, can best be shown by examining the Fourth Gospel, “The Gospel According to John” and the writings of St. Paul. To clarify the method of my approach, since I am writing a work of philosophy and not theology or Scripture study, my approach does not begin with Scripture as a source from which we can draw conclusions. Rather, I am beginning with the idea stated in Chapter I, that consciousness precedes matter. The explicit point of this Fifth Chapter is to show continuity between traditional religion and an idea that does not depend on Scripture or on any religious authority. That idea, namely, is that consciousness precedes matter, and in the course of evolution, matter is becoming conscious. If my project is successful, those who study consciousness from the point of view of biology, psychology, neurology, can also look to religion as a source of insight. It would further mean that those who begin from a religious or theological perspective can find another link to the sciences mentioned here.
St. Paul describes the Christian community as one body and he emphasizes that the community persists by love for Christ and a mutual love of the members for each other. Paul was well aware of the dissension that worked against the communal sense and spent many of his letters instructing the newly converted Christians to avoid such disunity. For Paul, the acceptance of Christ and his community created a “New Man,” But the old habits have a way of returning and exerting themselves. In terms of the theme of this work, the expansion of consciousness to a higher level of love and community co-exists with the old tendency toward egoistic narrowness.
In John’s Gospel, the force of light, love, and unity struggles with darkness, hate, and division. Given what we know today about the evolution of our species, we can legitimately interpret these themes as a break-through in consciousness. The development of consciousness requires a greater integration of our brain, which is experienced as a growth in light and love.
The first chapter of John announces that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” As we become more conscious, the previous states of consciousness, individually and collectively are judged as darkness. As the popular hymn has it, “I once was blind, but now I see.” In Chapter 3 of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night – night connoting darkness. Jesus tells him he must be born anew. At this stage of his life, Nicodemus could understand this statement only as the absurd task of returning to his mother’s womb to be born again. Jesus teaches him about being born of the Spirit. This rebirth involves a break-through in consciousness that ordinary consciousness cannot comprehend.
Jesus further explains that light has come into the world but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Recognition of the light would expose the evil of their deeds. By the time of the New Testament, the consciousness of the human species had developed far beyond anything else on earth. But there was, and is, the tension between the integrating power of consciousness and the disintegrating force of a bodily based individualism. People act out of greed, pride, anger, and hatred in ways that thwart the unifying power of the spirit of consciousness. This idea runs throughout the Gospel, but culminates in the prayer that Jesus offers in Chapter 17:21 of John. “That they all may be one even as thou Father art in me and I in thee, that they all may be one in us.” The ultimate goal of the Gospel is the same as and an expression of what I am arguing is the goal of evolution, namely the overcoming of chaos and division and the creation of harmonious integration.
The Greek tradition
In the Greek tradition, Homer depicts gods and goddesses who were supremely powerful and beautiful and who controlled events on earth from weather conditions to the outcome of battles. These deities were clearly the projection of what humans aspired to or at least wished to be. Most especially, they were immortal. The notion of the gods and goddesses reveals that human consciousness had developed to where people were aware of the tragedy of their mortality, their imperfections, and what they would be if they were not so limited. Significantly, the gods and goddesses did not exhibit a superior morality, and for humans, morality consisted primarily of keeping the deities happy.
The philosopher Xenophanes (570 - 478) exhibited a breakthrough in the development of consciousness when he was appalled by the depictions of sleazy morality among the deities and in their treatment of mortals. First, this criticism shows a moral awareness that is not dictated to by mythology. Secondly, it shows belief in a non-material consciousness. The gods and goddesses were made after our own image and likeness. Not only were they made to look human, but each ethnic group depicted the deities as looking like those who made the images. Xenophanes argued that God has no body nor is He multiplied according to the multiplication of nations. Aristotle writes of Xenophanes: “with his eye on the whole heaven he says that the one is god.”
In the Republic, Plato (428 - 438) described “The Good” as the source of all good and beautiful forms, which in turn were the source of good and beautiful images in the physical world. The Good is not only above material things; the good is “beyond being.” Plato’s view represents the complete inverse of any materialism. In the Platonic understanding, the non-physical and invisible reality serves as the source and model for physical reality, which is being called out of chaos into cosmos. In the dialogue Timaeus, the title character explaining the reason for creation states:
God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other. Now the deeds of the best could never be or have been other than the fairest, and the creator, reflecting on the things which are by nature visible, found that no unintelligent creature taken as a whole could ever be fairer than the intelligent taken as a whole and again that the intelligent could not be present in anything which was devoid of soul.
Timaeus makes it clear that his story should not be taken as an exact account of how the world was created, but only as a probability, which is the most a mortal could hope to achieve. Plato’s view of creation, as expressed in Timaeus, while not exactly the same as that of a Christian theologian, has much in common with it. Further, Plato’s view would fit compatibly with a contemporary religious view of evolution, bringing order out of chaos and seeing intelligence as an essential component of order. The materialist of course sees the ideas of Plato as an illusory invention rather than a discovery of reality.
Aristotle understood God as being above and beyond the natural world, hence the term “metaphysical.” For Aristotle, thinking is the highest form of being. Therefore, he describes God, who is pure, fully actualized being, as pure thought thinking of itself. We, as rational animals, are born with the potential to develop the power of rational thought. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle set out to define the highest good for human beings and the means to attain it. At the beginning of the Ethics he stipulated that the good is that at which all things aim. Some things are good because they are a means to a higher good; but the greatest good is that which is sought for its own sake.
The good of any being consists in achieving its specific telos – fulfillment, and since humans are rational animals, our telos consists in fulfilling our potential of rationality. In Book X of Nicomachaen Ethics, Aristotle recaps the meaning of the best way of life. In Book I, he had identified the good as happiness, defined generally as living well and doing well. Some identify happiness with pleasure, others with honor. But Aristotle contends that the highest happiness consists of contemplation.
To the extent that we actualize our potential for thinking and living rationally, we become friends of God; and acquire a virtue that survives the death of our bodily nature. Leaping ahead to the Christian Middle Ages, St. Thomas Aquinas absorbed much of the Aristotelian philosophy and integrated it with Christianity. His synthesis remains a strong force in Catholic thought up to the present.