This piece was published as a newspaper op/ed in early May, 2022.
An in-built – and honored — human capacity
It is a factual reality: in nearly every human society — even very small ones — there will be individuals who have experiences they describe as breaking through to a dimension of reality that’s deeper, bigger, more illuminated, in contact with a realm felt to be sacred.
From such experiences, people can return feeling “spiritually transformed,” and bearing what they regard as “spiritual truths.”
From its widespread occurrence, we can infer that the capacity for such breakthrough experiences was selected for inclusion in the human gene pool. And that, in turn, implies that the messages that people bring back from such experiences have been, overall, life-serving.
Another factual reality is that — throughout history and across cultures — human groups have given an important place in their culture to the experiences of such people.
That fact suggests that the power and direction of the “spiritual truths” brought back from such experiences must have been – overall — life-serving for such communities, enabling those groups to survive into the human future.
Civilization is so recent a thing that — for this capacity to become part of the human genetic heritage — it would have had to be advantageous not just in the past 10,000 years of civilization, but also in the much longer era of our hunter-gathered ancestors.
And anthropological evidence does suggest that some such capacity did precede civilization. Among the hunter-gatherers, we find the likes of the shamans of the Siberian hunters, and the wizards of the Amazonian jungle — helping their group navigate its way, utilizing the “messages” they’d received from some “sacred” realm.
And of course among civilized societies, we find — functioning at the heart of most cultures — “sacred texts” that have some connection with the experiences of such individuals.
These sacred texts – from diverse cultures — provide stories, systems of value, guidance for individual and collective life, texts presented with the rhetorical power reflecting the profundity of the experience of that “sacred” realm, in which things are experienced as not just “of value,” but as valuable to a special degree.
The messages we need to heed
If the “messages” — growing out of special experiences of individuals and then enshrined by societies — had not been overall life-serving, those observable factual realities about the human world would never have arisen.
And indeed, just as our nature is crafted so that we tend to find “good” and fulfilling what has been ancestrally associated with preserving Life and passing it along, so also do the “messages” brought back from the spiritual realm tend to be good parts of a recipe for human thriving.
(Although the picture is mixed — unsurprising given how broken is the human world, and the people who inhabit it, and given how the corrupting influence of power creeps into every dimension of the human world — the typical message from the sacred seems a whole lot more likely to push toward Wholeness than toward Brokenness.)
Across different cultural traditions, the “spiritual truths” address — in mostly constructive ways — matters of the family (with marriage and children), the society (cohesion, justice), the natural world (beauty, stewardship), the world at large (peace on earth, goodwill to men).
Breakthrough spiritual experiences seem likely to deliver a message that will make the human world more Whole:
• “Love thy neighbor as thyself” to heal a world damaged by excessive selfishness.
• “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” to right a world where lies are used as weapons.
• “Let anger by non-anger be overcome” to stop the cycles of violence.
It is in that context that I’ve thought lately about how several American astronauts reported that seeing the Earth from out in space was for them a spiritually transformative experience. They found it revelatory to see how precious and fragile our planet is.
As for the “spiritual truth” that came with that experience, the “message” taken was that it is imperative for humankind to be better stewards of our “only home.” (And for a couple of those astronauts, that truth came with an impact that changed the course of their lives.)
As with many other spiritually transformative experiences, the message the individual received was transmitted to the wider world. It was transmitted through the famous “Blue Marble” photo of what the astronauts for the first humans to see. Made into a poster, that picture of Earth, soon was everywhere. Many people were moved by this image to feel that there’s something sacred about the Earth, and we must take care of her.
However we should regard this notion of “messages from the sacred realm,” it does seem clear that this spiritually transformative vision of the “Blue Marble” entered human consciousness at a time when it was urgently needed.
With a kind of synchrony, the same time as it was becoming obvious that human activity was becoming an ever-larger bull in the earth’s ecological china shop, the first human beings were being rocketed into space where some were “spiritually transformed” by their unprecedented view of our planet.
The spiritual truth about our Blue Marble didn’t automatically transform the ways of humankind. But then, neither did “Love thy neighbor as thyself” cure the human world of enmity overnight either.
But we do seem to get the messages we need to heed.