Is my desire to awaken… the urge of the cosmos to become aware of itself, in and as me?
“God” is one way of trying to say something very important, something that ultimately cannot be captured in words. So we can’t avoid metaphors, but the idea of God as heavenly Father — as an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Creator who wants us to behave in certain ways, who rewards us if we do, and who punishes us if we don’t — no longer makes sense in light of present scientific and historical understanding.
Part of our trouble is the duality of a God whose reality is apart from the created world. Insofar as God is the source of value and meaning, this world is inevitably devalued in comparison. The natural world (including our animal nature) becomes a trap to be escaped. Our ultimate destiny lies elsewhere.
There’s another way to understand “God.” Is evolution really random and meaningless? Even 13.8 billion years seems a short period to evolve from Big Bang plasma to a Buddha or a Gandhi. Arthur Green discusses genetic evolution, but that is only one of three progressive cosmic developments:
…the formation of higher elements (fused in the cores of stars and supernovas),
…the natural selection of self-replicating species,
…and last but not least the cultural developments necessary to produce highly evolved humans such as Arthur Green.
To me, at least, it seems highly implausible that all this is accidental. Is this groping self-organization the universe struggling to become more self-aware? In that case, “God” needs us as much as we need him — but ultimately the duality between us collapses.
Is my desire to awaken (“the Buddha” means “the awakened one”) the urge of the cosmos to become aware of itself, in and as me?
Every species is an experiment of the biosphere, and less than 1 percent of all species that have ever appeared on earth survive today. Our super-sized cortex enables us to be co-creators (“created in the image of God”), and with us new types of “species” have become possible: knives and symphonies, poetry and nuclear bombs…. But it is increasingly obvious that something has gone wrong with our hyper-rationality. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says, “man is a rope across an abyss”: are we a transitional species? Must we evolve further in order to survive at all? In Buddhist terms, delusion of a separate self means we are haunted by too much dukkha (dis-ease), which motivates us (individually and collectively) to do too many self-destructive things.
Perhaps figures like the Buddha and Gandhi are harbingers of how our species needs to develop — in which case the evolutionary process most necessary today involves spiritual practices that address the fiction of a separate self whose well-being is distinguishable from others’ well-being. Perhaps our basic problem isn’t self-love but a profound misunderstanding of what one’s Self really is: not a discrete consciousness but rather one of the ways the whole cosmos fits together and actualizes itself.
Without the compassion that arises when we realize our nonduality — empathy not only with other humans but with the planet — it becomes increasingly likely that civilization as we know it will not survive the next few centuries. Nor would it deserve to. It remains to be seen whether the Homo sapiens experiment will be a successful vehicle for the cosmic evolutionary process.
David R. Loy is the Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He is a Zen teacher and the author of The Great Awakening: a Buddhist Social Theory and Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution.
A Universe Struggling to Become Aware? was originally published in Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2010.