One religion claims that the only salvation is to cut someone’s living heart out and offer it to the sun. The next one claims that the only possible way to save the world is to kneel before a newborn baby whose Father was God. One religion believes that it is best to die in battle, gloriously; the next believes it best to withdraw quietly into a life of contemplation. The specifics of religions result from the interaction of human beings with their ecology, the conditions under which they survive. The recommendations may govern the survival of individuals or of a whole society. No one religion can provide a universally successful strategy, though most will claim they do. Not even peace will always work.
Human beings evolved from mammals and then primates through the accumulating and complexifying evolution of the brain, each new ability built on the foundation of what had already been achieved. The term “emergence” refers to some new characteristic produced by the interaction of other less complex things so as to produce something new, maybe never anticipated. What emerged from human brains, a kind of birth, was NOT religion, but the feeling of Holiness that can then develop into a religion through the human struggle to survive in the place where they are, whether forest or savannah.
If the awareness of the Holy seems to come from somewhere that only humans can conceive of -- another place and way of being beyond anything our senses tell us is in this world, but extended from our experience with this world -- then we call it “transcendent.” If the awareness of the Holy seems to come from within the world and our experience of it, then it will named be “immanent.” Religions can combine the two in various ways, each insisting that their way is the real way and that all competing systems are evil, to be destroyed; all differing opinions are heresies to be driven out.
Some suggest that science is religious and they are right. Some suggest that capitalism is religious and they are also right. But these systems cannot persist anymore than any other religious system. They are gathered wisdom about survival and prosperity for individuals and one’s larger society, however defined, even to the extent of including all humans or all living beings or -- indeed -- every existence on the planet, even inanimate. Technology and profit have colluded to create an unforeseen result: that the happy survival of humans (at least some of them) can destroy the entire earth, the basic understructure of all ecologies, and force deprivation on a huge part of the human population. Unless we reconsider our assumptions, it is clear that the whole species will suffer, possibly to the point of extinction. The answer, which may or may not come, will be emergent. It cannot be imposed by ideology.
We do not like emergent forces -- we follow Herod in trying to murder the newborn in order to protect our existing grip on power and privilege. I would not encourage the identification and analysis of the newborn -- even if we can figure out where they are, which is most often ghettoes -- but I think we need to put a lot more effort into understanding power and privilege. It is not at all what it was back in the days of the first walled villages guarding bins of grain from other tribes and learning to decipher records and contracts, so as to protect investments from each other.
Nor is it really what power and privilege were in the hunter/gatherer days when a tribal chieftain could take a son up to the top of a mountain to kill him at the command of an unseen God. In fact, that notion of God is supposed to have died and I certainly hope the news spreads.
The story I like better is about an old woman who lived on top of a peak in the Olympic mountains, the place that echoes with elk bugles in the fall. Daily this old woman made soup out of whatever she could find. You didn’t want to leave your moccasins lying around and best keep your dog by your side. It was opportunistic soup, meant for immediate survival rather than the long haul. It was NOT “stone soup,” that nice liberal idea of everyone throwing into the pot. This old woman was all by herself.
If you’ve lived around there, you’ll know that the sky is low. In those days you could actually touch it. One day the old woman needed something more for her soup, reached up, hacked off a chunk of cloud as though it were an old rag, and threw it into the soup. The sky, shocked, withdrew. We cannot touch it anymore. In fact, since we have been so careless about throwing our middens of molecules into the sky, there are places where we cannot breathe it anymore. All we care about is our own soup -- without considering consequences to the Holy Atmosphere of the planet.
More than a few people have made a religion of environmentalism, which offers so many gorgeous and holy icons to contemplate, and others have seen a marketing opportunity, offering canned soup with low sodium so easy to heat and serve in a busy world. Neither “religion” has had much to offer the wretched of the planet except their old stretched-out t-shirts with the names of the best universities imprinted on the front. Or maybe acid hard rock band logos. Or skulls.
One of the basic facts about the planet is its variability, both as regions and as an entire solar system phenomenon. Every time the earth tips on its axis or the sun flares out radiation, some things are lost and some things are created. We cannot keep these things from happening, but there are many things we can address and ARE addressing. Small things, like flashlights that work by cranking them. Large things like arrays of elliptical mirrors in the desert to capture solar energy.
But what really counts as sources of energy are the stories we hear. Right now there are many stories about insanity, men in power who want more and more guns, innocent children killed in a bloody and sudden way as contrasted with the many children around the planet who die slow deaths caused by budget cuts -- as compared with the self-destruction of older children who can find no place in the world except as prey. So many strategies, so many lives lost, so much damage to land and sky.
Protect the babies from the tyrants, but do not fail to watch for stars and wise men. Stop eating the sky -- call it back. We need new stories.