Researched, written about and publicly debated, the legitimacy of whether humanity has an inherent tendency towards religious thinking continues to cause head-scratching, varying degrees of biased pontification and a great deal of individual opinion-making. One of the central arguments put forth by fundamentalist Christians, made famous in its moral form by C.S. Lewis (who’s personal religious structure as an Anglican would have shocked modern fundamentalists), is the ubiquity of religious concepts found in cultures. When any of those concepts can be, no matter how stretched beyond credibility, connected with the Christian Gospel story, no greater example of confirmation bias has ever been seen.
That this argument points only to a tendency within the human mind to create rationalizations for the unknown that could be classified as transcendental or spiritual doesn’t seem to phase the one making this argument. In the end, having begun with assuming the legitimacy of their particular religious narrative, ipso facto their truth must be defined as TRUTH as soon as any kind of universal spiritual mentality is even potentially indicated by a casual perusal of human cultures. I won’t argue the finer points of this argument as it’s not the issue here. In fact, I accept at face value the legitimacy of there being a spiritual tendency within the human mind, albeit one that is derived not from the existence of a supernatural realm, but from our innate neurological need to view data in patterns and apply intention.
This necessity to view data in patterns is not so much an adaptive mechanism, although it is that as well, but a requirement for any species interacting within its environment. To see the forest is to expand upon the notion of individual trees, to determine food sources is to connect varying disparate data to make an image of object x is nourishing. All is created from within the biological particulars of that species. The giraffe sees food in the trees but may miss the foliage on the ground. The dog sniffs along the ground, ignoring the potential threats from above. The cat swats at a dangling string thinking it the tail of an animal. All creatures see the world through the eyes of their existential experience, e.g. the biologically derived constructs of their particularly neural capacity.
What is not found in these and other animals is found in human beings, namely that feeling of disengagement or distance with the environment. “Human existence is different in this respect from that of all other organisms; it is in a state of constant and unavoidable disequilibrium. Man’s life cannot “be lived” by repeating the pattern of his species; he must live. Man is the only animal that can be bored, that can be discontented, that can feel evicted from paradise. Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve and from which he cannot escape.” – Erich Fromm, Man For Himself, p. 40
This notion of being “evicted from paradise” is indeed a theme running throughout many religions, that feeling of disconnection that is directly tied to the beingness of humanity. Sartre famously noted that bravery is seeing the innate meaninglessness of the universe and, notwithstanding, continue to go forth to meet it. Only a human being would utter such a thing, as the bird never questions its meaning or purpose, the plant never ponders whether it should flower or produce fruit. Only in the human person is this separation a conscious notion driving before it all manner of insecurity and concern like a powerful Wild Hunt, inexorably in pursuit of an answer to this inner-created crisis. Humanity “is driven to overcome this inner split, tormented by a craving for ‘absoluteness,’ for another kind of harmony which can lift the curse by which he was separated from nature, from his fellow men, and from himself.” – p. 41
The craving is answered in spiritual/transcendental notions and practice. Note that, like above, I did not say supernatural. A sense of the transcendental or spiritual is in no way necessarily tied to the notion of the supernatural. Indeed, the supernatural, being as it is other than natural or even opposite of natural, makes all things spiritual null and void. The “supernatural” removes the human experience even further from any point of contact with itself, placing the focus on anything that is other, continuing the separation that began the quest in the beginning.
The sense of the transcendent can be found in any number of tenants or practices, from meditation on a mountain top to the feeling of group bonding facilitated at a sports event. The mistake that is often made, note the creation of fundamentalism that can exist in any ideology, is identifying any singular form with being the only legitimate means of gaining this sense of the transcendent. The spiritual has many mountaintops and, for that matter, many valleys. We do our nature, our existential experience, a disservice in thinking that once a truth is found that it must therefore mean it is the only truth or all of it. We search from a position of constant seeking, of a bone-deep need to see connection all around us. Imagination’s beauty is its ability to find new answers every time we blink and create from the maelstrom of the potential a new vision. The clouds in the sky beckon us to create new images from within the mind’s eye and we should most assuredly seek to respond.
© David Teachout