This week’s post is written by philosopher, theology student, and friend, Trevor Malkinson. Trevor has a heart for justice, an academic’s mind, and he’s a great writer to boot! I look forward to hearing from Trevor on a regular basis.
“Real journeys are full of unexpected turns and twists, requiring a faith that can move mountains and a hope against hope, where one does not see what one was trying to do until the journey is completed”. – John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?
Millipedes as big as alligators. 350 million years ago on the earth- before there were dinosaurs, before there were birds or flowers- the atmosphere had more oxygen than at any other time in history, before or since. This allowed insects to grow much larger than they do today, and millipedes grew to the size of alligators.
This is just one mind-contorting (and shudder inducing!) snippet from Neil Degrasse Tyson’s show Cosmos- A Space-Time Odyssey. Heraclitus was right that no one steps in the same river twice, but he could not have known the scales on which that statement was true. In the same episode 9, The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth, Tyson says that, “The past is another planet. In fact, many”. I admit to having had a mild case of vertigo as Tyson went through the paleogeography of the earth, and the ceaseless, colossal and often violent shifts in the earths own ongoing evolution.
But that dizziness is understandable, as this sort of deep time perspective is a new capacity for us. As Carter Phipps writes in a post called Seeing With Evolutionary Eyes, “The great pioneer of evolutionary thinking Henri Bergson once explained that we are not made to “think evolution.” It doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Our brains are not inclined to grasp temporality, to comprehend development” (1). But we are slowly gaining the ability to see and think in this way, and as Phipps notes in his book Evolutionaries, “In so many areas of human knowledge, we are discovering that reality is part of a vast process of change and development. Like geologists discovering plate tectonics for the first time, we are beginning to look out at this extremely solid, seemingly permanent world that feels so stable underfoot, and intuit a radical truth: nothing is what it seems. We are moving. We are going somewhere” (2).
One of the people to grasp this “ontology of becoming” early in the 20th century was the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). Bloch was a very unique thinker, mixing an unorthodox medley of elements together in his thought. His interest in religion made him suspect to Marxists, and his Marxist atheism made him suspect to theologians, yet many read him anyway because of the insightfulness and originality of his work. Bloch was once asked to sum up his philosophy in one sentence and, after pausing for a moment, said “S is not yet P”. In the Law of Identity central to classical thought, A is equal to A and cannot be equal to B, or it would no longer be A. Or as it’s sometimes put in a more vernacular way, a rose is a rose is a rose. But Bloch contended that this wasn’t quite right. A is actually always in the process of becoming something else, and thus is never self-same identical with itself over time. For Bloch’s ontology, “to claim that S must be S and nothing else is to fall into the static view of reality” (3). Reality is moving, it is going somewhere, and there’s nothing in the universe that’s not affected by this creatio continua.
This shift in perception is important for many reasons. For instance, it was through this way of understanding reality that Bloch came to reinvigorate two important yet long neglected dimensions of Christianity, eschatology and the principle of hope (4). The Judeo-Christian tradition is permeated by a strong pull toward the future, and a promise by God for a more just world to come on this earth (5). Harvey Cox, writing in the foreword to Bloch’s 1970 book Man On His Own, sums it up this way- “God is not above, or beneath us, or even just “within” us. He is ahead. Christian existence is defined by hope and the church is the community of God’s tomorrow, eternally discontent with today” (6).
This pregnant yearning hope for what Charles Eisenstein calls “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”, is crucial for inspiring the kind of action that can transform a stagnant, oppressive and/or dying society. It’s also dangerous to the ruling elite. As the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, this is why ruling classes try and create an atmosphere where the general populace can no longer imagine a different future. In The Prophetic Imagination he writes, “The royal consciousness [ie. the ruling class] means to overcome history and therefore by design the future loses its vitality and authority. The present ordering, and by derivation the present regime, claims to be the full and final ordering. That claim means there can be no future that either calls the present into question or promises a way out of it” (7).
In our time we have been told that free-market capitalism represents the “end of history”, and Slavoj Zizek has famously quipped that people today can more easily imagine the end of the world then the end of capitalism (hence the proliferation of apocalyptic currents in our culture). But if we really absorb the truth at the heart of an ontology of becoming we recognize that nothing is permanent, no matter how solid or long lasting it seems. And there is a bottomless (r)evolutionary energy at the core of this realization.
Carter Phipps writes about the social implications that result from a deep recognition of becoming. For Phipps, “Breaking the spell of solidity in relationship to culture is critical, so that we can start to appreciate the deeply fluid and developmental nature of the human condition and the social sphere of life” (8). When we really see that we are part of a vast cosmic process that is “moving, changing and developing”, we also see that “the very structures that make up our own consciousness and culture are not the same as they were one thousand years ago, and in out thousand years they will be substantially different from how they are today” (9).
To cite a recent example of what this type of deep time awareness makes possible, take a small but potent passage from a recent article by Jeremy Johnson, entitled Megacities and the Noosphere- A Riff on the Evolution of the City. After dancing through a series of nimble vignettes on the city and its vicissitudes, Johnson imagines a different future- “Future cities are nomadological, in that they can be brought with us as we follow the line-of-flight from the mechano-industrial tomb of civilization. Cultural evolution swallows up civilization as a brief interlude in an otherwise larger, and longer nomadic history”. Before reading this I personally couldn’t really visualize a future beyond the megacities we live in, but reading that something went “poof” and a hole opened in the matrix of my mind. The future was once again alive with possibilities. That’s a little shot of prophetic vision, and one born out of a consciousness that’s absorbed the truth that the universe is “not so much a place, but a movement” (10).
An ontology of becoming can have positive effects on our personal life and practice too. For one, we can realize that we are never stuck when it comes to our personal development, no matter how calcified or ingrained our habit patterns might seem to be. We are always in process, and not one part of us is permanent. This is the Buddhist meditation insight that we are a fluid buzzing process, not a static entity, and this realization can give us much hope and energy as we attempt to overcome the homeostatic impulses that weigh down our lives.
The all-encompassing reality of process also protects us against the all too human desire for Totality. As Robert Harrison remarked in a recent podcast episode on ‘Dostoevsky and the Brothers Karamazov’, “the fanatic longing for the Absolute is politically dangerous”. The desperate need for Closure, for a final ordering of reality that will keep us safe and provide permanent meaning, is a fool’s game that in the end only leads to totalitarianism and death. We might bring a little more utopia into the world, but there will never be a final Utopia. This is a hard pill to swallow on one level, but being open to permanent process can keep this deadly temptation at bay.
And lastly, it should be said that to be truly present to the future that wants to unfold through us, we also need to be sourced in Source. There was apparently an essential disagreement between Paul Tillich and Ernst Bloch in their conception of where God lies in relation to us; “for Tillich it was “in the depths” as the source of our being. For Bloch, on the other hand, it was at the “forward edge”, where man moves from the present into the future” (11). From a nondual perspective, it is both.
When we’ve broken through the myth of solidity to discover the reality of becoming and the space-time odyssey we’re on, it’s important to stay connected to the infinite groundless ground that is the source of All, so that we may stay refreshed, at peace, and to ensure that it’s ultimately Thy Will who is authoring our collective future.
(1) Carter Phipps. ‘Seeing With Evolutionary Eyes’. www.carterphipps.com. March 30, 2012. http://www.carterphipps.com/2012/03/30/seeing-with-evolutionary-eyes/
(2) Carter Phipps. Evolutionaries- Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. p.25.
(3) Harvey Cox, foreword to- Ernst Bloch, Man On His Own. USA: Herder and Herder Inc, 1970. p.9.
(4) This has mainly been through the work of Jurgen Moltmann, but it’s spread much further. cf. Jurgen Moltmann. Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology. London: SCM Press, 1967.
(5) “The Bible is the book of the Promise, the Promise made by God to human beings…This Promise, which is at the same time revelation and Good News, is the heart of the Bible”. Gustavo Gutierrez. A Theology of Liberation. New York: Orbis Books, 2011 . p. 91.
(6) Harvey Cox, foreword to- Ernst Bloch, Man On His Own. USA: Herder and Herder Inc, 1970. p.18.
(7) Walter Brueggemann. The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001 . p.60-61.
(8) Carter Phipps. ‘Seeing With Evolutionary Eyes’. www.carterphipps.com. March 30, 2012. http://www.carterphipps.com/2012/03/30/seeing-with-evolutionary-eyes/
(9) Carter Phipps. Evolutionaries- Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. p.26.
(10) Brian Swimme, quoted in- Carter Phipps. ‘Seeing With Evolutionary Eyes’. www.carterphipps.com. March 30, 2012. http://www.carterphipps.com/2012/03/30/seeing-with-evolutionary-eyes/
(11) Harvey Cox, foreword to- Ernst Bloch, Man On His Own. USA: Herder and Herder Inc, 1970. p.15.
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