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Natural Selection

Reviews of books, film, and other media


The Unification of Matter, Life, Mind and Spirit

by Robert W. Godwin

(Paragon House, 2004, paperback $19.95)

We can best make sense out of human history, according to psychologist Robert W. Godwin, if we recognize it as the chaos and turmoil resulting from our continuous reach toward “vertical liftoff”—our evolutionary desire to realize a consciousness that will take us beyond “mere biological, Darwinian existence.” In his astonishing first book, One Cosmos under God, Godwin offers a fine example of such liftoff. It's a soaring tribute to the intellectual and spiritual heights a human being can reach by stretching to take in the whole fourteen-billion-year trajectory of the cosmos. With creative exuberance and analytic precision, Godwin tackles the most fundamental human questions and explores them from an evolutionary perspective that leaves neo-Darwinism almost literally in the dust. For Godwin, humanity did not arise out of the random ricocheting of matter but in the upward pull of everything toward a telos, toward pure spirit or Godhead itself. In the august tradition of Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo, Godwin turns history on its head by arguing that evolution cannot be explained by the march of prior events but only through the recognition of an acausal dimension of life that both precedes everything and awaits its full manifestation in the future. And this perspective on creation and evolution sheds new light on some of the most intractable puzzles of existence.

One Cosmos begins and ends in “re-Joyceful” word play, self-consciously imitating James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Yet this is play with a serious purpose, as Godwin puns with various and sundry terms expressing humanity's love affair with the absolute, infinite, and sacred to describe the birth of the cosmos and our merging with it. Sandwiched in between his punning preface and postscript are four books that explore each dramatic stage of life's progression: Cosmogenesis, the creation of matter; Biogenesis, the development of life; Psychogenesis, the birth of thought; and finally Cosmotheosis, the ultimate stage (“It's a Onederful Life!” Godwin puns) that is yet to come. This last stage entails “the transcendence of the local self and union with the living God. . . . [A] blessedly mixed marriage [that] is not an undifferentiated oneness, nor a static twoness, but a dynamic twoness in Oneness experienced both outwardly and inwardly, in an ecstatic union of finite and Infinite.” Each of these distinct stages, Godwin reminds us, was unforeseeable, unimaginable from what had come before. He calls each, in its own way, a singularity: a point at which the then-current reality became so saturated, so charged, that a radical break happened with all that had gone before and suddenly something new blasted into existence.

For Godwin, this creative potential reveals a cosmic intention toward consciousness, toward Self-knowing. Godwin (“Your Man in Nirvana reporting from the serene of the climb”) unfolds the purpose of human life from the top down, from the radical endpoint of our sacred “cosmobliteration” or Union with the Divine. “Evidently,” he comments, “the universe is filled with . . . 'empty' fields of pure logos awaiting a nervous system sophisticated enough to evoke them. In other words, [the nondual], which exists outside time and space, may actually require a time-bound nervous system to manifest locally.” This cosmic strange attractor that we call the Divine exerts a constant pull upwards on the consciousness and development of humanity.

From this top-down perspective, the conclusions that Godwin draws make profound and unexpected sense. Conventionally, we look at the historical development of life out of matter, arguing that the universe is fundamentally dead and empty and that life is some strange and random coincidence that emerged from nonlife. This, in effect, elevates death—the absence of all life—to the level of a foundational principle in the universe itself. Which, Godwin asserts, it is not. “All death is local,” he writes. “Unlike Life, which must be a nonlocal, immanent spiritual principle of the cosmos, there can be no metaphysical principle called 'death.' Rather, there are only cadavers and corpses, strictly local areas where Life is no longer concentrated and outwardly visible at the moment.” Thus, life is the central principle of the cosmos—and that has profound implications regarding who we are and where we are going.

One Cosmos under God is one of those rare books that consistently jolts us out of the decrepit beliefs that structure our understanding of ourselves and the world. However, the enormity of the task that Godwin is undertaking does mean that some of his ideas are not fully and clearly presented. For example, his provocative concept of “antievolutionary mind parasites” (compulsive patterns in the human psyche) is never adequately explained, and so, remains a tantalizing but vague idea. Also, he offers a new symbolic lexicon to replace oversaturated spiritual and religious terms that hold so many, and often conflicting, connotations. He notes that the term God has become “so overloaded with cultural, historical, and idiosyncratic personal meanings that its use for communication with others is extremely problematic.” (One wishes that he would have considered this before adopting the title One Cosmos under God.) His admirably creative response—a new symbolic language to describe the spiritual dimension—ends up lacking warmth, depth, and richness because his abstract symbols are, in fact, meaningless. (For example, in his lexicon he uses the symbol [o] to represent the ego-identified self.)

But his fundamental point that the terms we use to describe Spirit should be filled with experience rather than beliefs or concepts is well taken. “Few of us have the means or resources to carry out original research in physics, biology, or neurology,” he says. “However, each of us has the equivalent of our own particle accelerator [our own mind and consciousness] with which to carry out the most sophisticated psycho-spiritual research.” And the subtle discrimination and wide vistas that he shares from his own quest for deeper understanding show what is possible from the new inner science that he points us toward. Deeply influenced by the great Indian sage and consciousness explorer Sri Aurobindo, Godwin has clearly engaged in his own spiritual atom-splitting to have produced such a remarkable integration of science, psychology, and spirit. One Cosmos under God is a thrilling contribution to the emerging canon of evolutionary thought—one that leaves us eager to embark on the next journey with this daring cosmic dharmanaut.

Elizabeth Debold



The Silent Takeover of Religion

by Jeremy Carrette and Richard King

(Routledge, 2004, paperback $22.95)

Jeremy Carrette and Richard King, authors of Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, have developed a theory that is both disturbing and sadly convincing. According to these authors, today it is spirituality, not religion that, as Karl Marx famously wrote in 1844, has become “the opium of the people,” sedating and numbing us to the state of the world and our own souls. As a matter of fact, they argue, spirituality—that which we trust to be the fountainhead of meaning, mystery, and value in life—has undergone nothing short of a “corporate takeover” and has become the latest victim of neoliberal ideology, a modified form of liberalism that values free-market capitalism above all else. “In our view,” Carrette and King write, “this reflects a wider cultural reorientation of life according to a set of values that commodifies human experience and opens up the space for the corporate takeover of all human knowledge and life.”

The confluence of economics and spirituality has produced what the authors call “New Age capitalism,” a “brand name for the meaning of life” that reinterprets religious and spiritual truths to benefit the profoundly individualistic and materialistic postmodern person. According to Carrette and King, New Age capitalism's overriding characteristic is the hawking of “personalised packages of meaning . . . rather than offering recipes for social change and identification with others.” And this popular form of spirituality, lacking any shared definitions or the context of tradition, is too easily co-opted by “the desiring machine of consumerism.” The result is that instead of providing effective paths for social transformation, spirituality is now little more than a balm that soothes us, helping us to cope with and perhaps feel a little better about the harsh realities and existential hurdles of the modern world.

Throughout the book, Carrette and King explain in great detail how the religious traditions and institutions that have historically bound humans to one another in an ethical, moral, and social contract have lost their relevancy and power. They refer to this process as the “privatisation of religion,” and they claim it occurred in two distinct phases: first, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the Enlightenment relegated religion to the private sphere of the individual; and second, in the 1960s when new forms of religious experimentation, particularly with the Asian traditions, exploded in popularity. This gave birth to an extreme fascination with “peak experiences,” resulting in what Carrette and King call “a peculiar orientation and obsession with the individual self as the source of authority.” Working in tandem, these two developments—the void of established religions and an unmoored spirituality rooted in personal satisfaction—meant that capitalism, materialism, and consumerism became the overwhelming forces of our individual lives and our culture as a whole.

Both Carrette and King are British university professors in religious studies, and each is well versed (you could almost say entrenched) in postmodern theory and academia. Their research interests traverse everything from early Advaita Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism to William James, the theology of economics, and gender studies. What distinguishes them from other postmodern theorists and makes Selling Spirituality a unique and often brilliant social critique is that their neo-Marxist look at modern spirituality is entirely nonsecular. Indeed, the most important point of the book may be Carrette and King's assertion that any movement opposed to the spread of neoliberal ideology must transcend the “secular boundaries of its own critique.” “Moreover,” they write, “for the vast majority of the world's population, a 'secular' ideology that de-sacrilises the world far too easily ends up turning it into a commodity. This suggests that avowed secular ideologies may be part of the problem rather than the solution.”

At times, Carrette and King's own spiritual interests and outright disgust for the narcissism of the day are passionately displayed on the pages of the book. It's as if they are—incredibly—transcending the secular, postmodern academic genre while at the same time managing to invoke the work of Foucault, Nietzsche, and Freud to extend the “hermeneutics of suspicion” to spirituality. Nevertheless, it is sometimes frustratingly difficult to understand Carrette and King's prescriptions, few as there are. Though both insist that the West cannot return to the traditions of the past, they also hint that engaging with the world's religions may be our only effective response to neoliberalism's “de-sacrilisation” of life. Only once in the book do they explicitly state what they mean in this regard, citing Mexico's Catholic Zapatistas' Third-World liberation theologies, the Chipko movement of the Himalayas, Thich Naht Hanh's Socially Engaged Buddhism, and the Swadhyaya movement in Western India as examples of movements that successfully draw upon traditional religions while responding to the destructive effects of globalization. But without a thorough discussion of how these movements could be pragmatic models outside their indigenous countries, effective for those of us in the West actually saturated in “capitalist spirituality” and the capitalist system, the idea that these are the types of models we so badly need, either socially or spiritually, remains unconvincing.

At times complex and demanding, it would be unfair to recommend Selling Spirituality as a good beach read. Nor does it offer a substantial vision of authentic future forms of spirituality. Nevertheless, nothing could be more important than understanding the true extent to which spirituality has been co-opted by the forces of materialism and our insatiable hunger for spiritual palliatives rather than real solutions. Selling Spirituality will show you how this has happened and what the cost may be with a satisfying and rare sophistication. As Carrette and King tell us, “the most troubling aspect of many modern spiritualities is precisely that they are not troubling enough.”

Maura R. O'Connor

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December 2005–February 2006