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Federico Nicola PecchiniFederico Nicola Pecchini is an independent researcher and activist focusing on conscious evolution, integral development, cooperative economics and transnational sociology. He is currently based in Dharamsala, India. Contact: fpecchini @ gmail.com.

Reposted from medium.com (Aug 13, 2018) with permission of the author.

Natural Religion

Federico Nicola Pecchini

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
—Albert Einstein

So we must change our consciousness. Philosophers, scientists and spiritual teachers have been repeating this mantra for thousands of years. But what does it even mean? How do we start? And what is consciousness, by the way?

It is maybe the oldest existential question of all.

The dictionary defines “consciousness” as “the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings”. Hence, consciousness is the property of a subject who is to a certain extent aware and responsive to its environment.

The question can therefore be rephrased as “Who am I?”, “I” being that subject who is conscious. The existential crisis that each of us is facing right now is, at the crux of it, a crisis of identity.

Throughout the history of humanity, many different answers have been given. We can briefly summarize them in 5 main categories (in chronological order):

  1. Panpsychism, from the Greek pan: “all, everything, whole” and psyche: “soul, mind”, is the view that consciousness is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Early forms of panpsychism can be found in almost all primitive animistic beliefs. Generally, primitive people believed that everything, from animals, to trees to all natural phenomena such as mountains, water streams and celestial bodies where inhabited by powerful spirits that could consciously interact with them. At this stage, the mental and the material spheres were seen as combined together in an undifferentiated, cosmic whole.
  2. Dualism, is the view that mind and body are made up of separate substances and occupy distinct realms of existence. One one side the physical reality of matter, on the other the spiritual reality of the soul. Compatible with most theological traditions which claimed the immortality of the soul, this view found a comprehensive philosophical explanation in the famous Cartesian dualism.
  3. Idealism, is the view that reality is fundamentally mental and immaterial. Idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of all material phenomena. According to this view consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Again influenced by many religious traditions which conceived the universe as the conscious creation of a supreme divine intelligence, idealism had a renaissance during the 19th century philosophy in northern Europe.
  4. Materialism, is the view which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental aspects and consciousness, are results of material interactions. This is the view generally maintained by modern science. Most scientists try to reduce consciousness to measurable data such as neural correlates or integrated information circuits. Consciousness hence is mostly regarded as an illusionary by-product of the basic neural functions of our brain.
  5. Emergentism, is the view for which consciousness emerges as a property of matter. A property of a system is said to be emergent if it is a new outcome of some other properties of the system and their interaction, while it is itself different from them. Emergentism is compatible with physicalism, the theory that the universe is composed exclusively of physical entities, but asserts that consciousness can’t be reduced to matter. This view can be summarized as “the soul is more than the sum of its parts”.

As explained in the first chapter of this consciousness series, we believe that life and consciousness go hand in hand in their evolution through time and space. Hence, while recognizing that each of the aforementioned views holds a part of the truth, we choose the last option—emergentism—as the most accurate and convincing.

An emergentist perspective is able to explain the nature of consciousness without assuming absolute metaphysical principles which are by definition unscientific, and without falling into the trap of scientific reductionism which basically ignores consciousness as a subjective experience. Emergentism is therefore, in our view, the best option available to bridge the gap between science and spirituality, and provide a fertile ground for the birth of an updated universal cosmology that resonates with our new understanding of reality and human existence.

Some definitions to read the map above:

  • Consciousness: “the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings.”
  • Unconsciousness: “the state of not being conscious.”
  • Sentience: “the ability to feel and perceive things through the senses.”
  • Subjectivity: “the capacity of an individual to condition its instinctive behavior according to subjective experiences such as success and failure.”
  • Intelligence: “the resultant of the process of acquiring, storing in memory, retrieving, combining, comparing, and using in new contexts information and conceptual skills”.
  • Self awareness: “the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals.”
  • Metacognition: “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.”

Our ancestors appealed to mythological stories and religious traditions in order to make sense of the world and give their lives a meaning and a purpose. According to Joseph Campbell, myths served 4 main functions:

  • Mystical—Helping us realize the wonderful mystery of the universe, which is also our mystery, and experience awe before it.
  • Cosmological—Giving us a (somewhat) coherent image of the universe, answering questions such as “Why are we here?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?”.
  • Sociological—Endorsing and validating a certain social order that binds together the group with a set of rules and roles.
  • Pedagogical—Providing guidance and support to each of us as we move through the necessary stages of our individual lives.

Myths and religions talk a symbolic language: they use metaphors and poetic formulas to express what isn’t otherwise expressible in words. When the Bible says that God “created the universe in 7 days”, each day really represents an epoch. When the Gospel says that when Jesus died “he ascended to heaven”, it really means he went back to that source from which all life comes from. The main problem with symbolic language is that, once in use, people easily forget its metaphorical connotation and tend to interpret it too literally.

Also, the sociological function of promoting a certain social order inevitably distorts the preferred choice of symbols used to explain reality. When Christians call God “father” or heaven its “kingdom”, they are obviously borrowing the terminology and concepts from the obsolete social hierarchy that was in use when their religion emerged 2000 years ago. Even if that hierarchy is now out of date, the rigid structure of institutionalized religion makes it difficult to change a custom which has become so deeply ingrained in the cultural tradition.

Historically, religions have always been an integral part of a culture since they shared the same symbolic system of reference. It is almost impossible today to distinguish between Hindu culture and Hindu religion, or between Muslim religion an Islamic culture. But in this immanence with the mother culture lies the most dangerous risk for religion: to become nothing more then a sacralized form of ideology, a ‘false conscience’, as put by Marx.

The cultural categories that express a religious doctrine are really projections of the collective subconscious and often end up conveying, hidden under a mystical dressing, the interests of the status quo.

The symbolic grammar of transcendence becomes then a powerful tool in the hands of the establishment, used to forge uncompromising principles of internal cohesion and control.

If religions are only fossilized shells immanent to a certain cultural tradition, we shouldn’t forget that inside each of them pulses the same living force, the prophetic drive of the human spirit, that leap of faith calling us to transcend ourselves in the universal, generative void we call “God”.

God is the fundamental symbol of our supreme interest, the whole, the sum of what we care the most. We can choose to call it by another name, but this is irrelevant. As Paul Tillich said, “God can be negated only in its name… Atheism can only mean a denial of every transcending interest, an indifference towards the meaning of existence.” Indifference towards the future, towards truth and towards life is therefore the only real atheism.

Atheism, when it doesn’t deny this universal interest, is actually the purest form of faith. True faith always transcends the conventional symbology of God with a sort of self-irony: it uses the myth while denying it. It is able to pray with the words of Meister Eckhart:

“Oh God, set me free from ‘God’”

Somewhere else, the great mystic explains: “Until the soul aspires to know God, to have a notion of God, it is really still far away from God… since it depends from the will of the creatures if God is named ‘God’. And the greatest honor a soul can offer God is to leave it alone and so be free of God.”

Now, let’s try to place ourselves on the threshold where humanity is currently standing. From here it’s possible to see the extent of the new, extraordinary challenges that undermine the very foundations of traditional religions.

It makes no sense for religions to remain disconnected from one another, each in its geo-cultural region, each with its own traditions and institutions. Their symbolic archetypes have lost the old excuse of isolation, that for long had paralyzed any attempt of reform. Their message of salvation has little relevance today if it keeps being directed exclusively to the human spirit, as if everything else—the biological survival, the vital environment, the natural laws that preserve the variety of life’s genetic heritage—were still beyond the reach of the human will.

Humanity as a species, and with humanity the entire biosphere, has entered a condition of extreme emergency that fully deserves our all-hands-on-deck participation in a cooperative effort to save the world.

The traditional answers were tribal, the new questions are planetary. Any kind of ethnic conflict or cultural rivalry poses today an intolerable threat to the last chances of survival of our species. Therefore, the only answer living up to the current challenge is, for religions, the recovery of their original intuition, that both pre-dates and transcends the particular symbolic contour in which they had fossilized.

There are no false religions. Each has drawn from the common potential reserve of the human spirit, each assuming as central one particular aspect, in order to actualize it within the provisional shell of a given culture.

But as the cultural shell cracks, it’s time for religions to plunge back into the seminal core of that intuition and let a new human consciousness emerge from their ashes, to take care of the authentic, profound, unison cry of salvation that rises from the depths of our collective soul. In short:

In order to live, religions have to die.

“We are the universe becoming conscious of itself.”

When we refer to God in the sense of the totality of all things we are really referring to the universe, although when our ancestors named it ‘God’ they didn’t know much about it. In fact, they thought that everything we see moving across the skies (the stars, the sun, the moon) had been made by God as a shiny frame revolving around the single most important part of creation: our planet Earth, and more specifically, the human species.

But those were just the anthropocentric delusions of an immature mind. Science has shown us that we actually live in a galaxy one hundred thousand light-years wide, which contains about 200 billion stars orbiting around its center. Our sun is just an ordinary, average-sized yellow star, near the inner edge of one of the many arms of the spiral.

Humanity finds itself relegated in a peripheral corner of the universe, and this realization deals a definitive blow to our old claims of grandiosity.

The fact that life evolved right in this particular spot is something we cannot attribute to the intelligent design of an all-powerful creator, but rather, if anything, to the random chance of quantum physics.

Life emerged in this planet, in this solar system, because here it found the suitable conditions for its development, but the evolution from these original conditions into plant, animal and human life was only a contingent occurrence.

The irreverent discoveries of science reveal us that life is an ephemeral phenomenon inside the cosmos and that man, extreme example of life’s evolution, isn’t, as our forefathers thought, at its centre, but is instead a lost wanderer “in the indifferent immensity from which he emerged by chance at the periphery of the universe”, as writes Monod.

If the universe is indeed God, then it surely doesn’t care about us. Such a God is too large, and we are too small. If there really is a “first cause” or “inherent purpose” of the universe, the only reasonable approach we can hold towards it—as humans—is that of agnosticism: to admit that we don’t know, and that most probably we never will.

It is easy to feel insignificant when facing such an incommensurable vastness. And probably, after centuries of egocentric pride, a little existential humility is just what our species needs. But if we zoom closer to our point of observation, we can actually find some comfort and meaning.

“There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not; it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and-self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. Therefore it is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible, since it is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”

If we can be conscious of the universe, it’s because we see it as human beings, that is as living organisms with a human form and consciousness.

This is the human condition, our common reality, our “God”: from the debris of the Sun, about 5 billion years ago formed planet Earth, where 4 billion years ago began the biological phase—the the evolutionary tree of life of which humanity, a species able to become gradually aware of the same evolutionary processes from which it was born, is only one of the latest branches.

The human phenomenon came forth as the psychic wave emerging from the genetic memory folded on itself and, recognizing its own image in the mirror, started looking for the meaning of existence.

That peak of human consciousness which so many spiritual traditions alluded to is really the moment when life completes this u-turn on its own axis and is able to see itself from outer space, thus becoming at once aware of its holiness and maturely responsible for its common future.

We are all made of the same star stuff that makes up the entire universe, and we are also subconsciously guided by the same biological drives that concur at the development of all living matter. And yet we realize that, at this stage, we can exist as a species only if we become collectively aware of the complex unity of life, the system of which we are part.

The niche of humanity is Nature, this small region of the universe where, around planet Earth, shaped itself a vital belt, the biosphere, that wonderful twine of elements that makes life possible.

“This Nature—writes Edgar Morin—that became so dear to us, isn’t but a tiny island of life lost between the thermonuclear fire of the stars and the freezing emptiness of space, and yet this island is, for the scale of each individual as well as for the entire humanity, an ample and embracing placenta.”

Natural religion

“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come to being.”

Eventually, we must transcend the old religions with a new, original faith in the interconnected and evolving web of life that binds together every human being and every living creature in our natural environment.

If we free our mind from the old perspective which held it prisoner inside separate bodies, we realize that we are one living being.

Nature is the dynamic system we all belong to, this island of life floating in the abyss of space, our home, our world.

Love is the force that keeps it together, the holy spirit through which life is continuously generated, as the rays of father Sun meet the womb of mother Earth.

Human consciousness has indeed grown beyond the Earth’s biosphere and is now even sending its probes outside the boundaries of the solar system. But the only thing we get by aiming too far into the vastness of space is a distinctive feeling of existential vertigo.

Our roots are here on Earth, with the multifaceted community of Life. If we cut our roots we are just an insignificant speck lost in the void. If instead we turn back towards Nature, embrace our roots and nurture them, we feel empowered, infused with vital energy and ready to face whatever challenge the universe may be throwing at us.

In order to make good use of our fully developed consciousness we must therefore learn to recognize and accept our natural origins and limitations. That’s the only way we can deal with the world responsibly, as adults, and leave the schizophrenic phase of our youth behind.

We are indeed the creators of life and consciousness, we are the Gods, but we are not almighty and we are not immortal.

We are the carriers of the living seed, and love is the force through which we plant it, give it birth and help it blossom.

We must treat Nature as our lover—with care and respect—and not as a slave. She loves us and we love her, and we are the same One. Together, we are the fertile creators of all life.

If we listen to the “tiny, silent voice of our conscience”, as Gandhi would say, we’ll find it speaks a language that we all understand:

“It tells us we are all living beings, and the world is our home. That us humans have come to age, and must now assume our new responsibilities. That if we respect and love each other there’s enough space and food for everybody, so we shouldn’t be fighting. And also that it doesn’t matter if we grew up and we already think of moving outside. This is always going to be our home, and if we wanna eat tonight, we’ve got to tidy up our room first! ;)”

The old theologians and philosophers used to place this, utopian community of life outside of space and time, either at the mythological beginnings (the garden of Eden) or after the end of times (the Apocalypse).

Today, the realization that we must start creating a world community already from the next decades (which means right during our lifetimes!) hits our consciousness with apocalyptic force indeed, and compels us to place it right at the heart of space-time: now!

The planetary community of life is already here. Its appearance on the world stage coincides with the end of an epoch, and the beginning of a new chapter in the human story.

The time has come when—as the prophetic voice of the spirit outshines the ancient wisdom carved in the stone—we realize that the home of all living creatures is one, and that it can be saved from destruction only if, in a collective act of transcendence of the many traditional cultures and religions, a humanity inspired and united by the natural religion of love will step up and take the helm.

“I follow the religion of love,
whatever path its luminous caravan takes:
this is my faith.
The language of science is used to talk and tell
yet a language of the infinite needs no speeches.
The pilgrims go to the Mecca,
yet I pray to Whom dwells within me.
They sacrifice victims,
I offer my living blood.”







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