How Come We Exist?

Robert N. Bellah
Harvard University Press, 2011

Recently a bright young computer expert shared this reflection on his own generation with me: “They don’t feel any respect for the past. They live in a twitter-capsule of the present moment.”

Having majored long ago in history, I have my own version of “presentism” to confess. “History” has centered for me on the past 5,000 years. Paleohistorians are now telling us that, were 4.5 billion years of evolution scaled to one year, human beings appear in the last eleven minutes of the year. The usual timeframe of our recorded 5,000 years of history would encompass a tiny sliver of those eleven minutes.

It is time, I believe, for us who believe in a Creator to welcome into our minds scientific accounts of how and when we humans appeared on our planet, and to dare to continue finding in these accounts occasion to burst out in praise akin to Psalm 8: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”

For me a powerful stimulus to that praise is the new magnum opus of a great contemporary sociologist, Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution. Bellah is one of those rare social scientists who not only studies the origins of our religions but who also participates in an active Christian congregation in his University of California neighborhood. Because he appropriates so wide a range of contemporary evolutionary sciences, in the 600 pages of this book a reader is likely to experience a great depth of gratitude for our debts as humans to our ancient lineages—to all the beings who are responsible for the explosion of our fellow species on our earth.

As Jerome Bruner puts it, “A vote of thanks to the bacteria is surely in order” because, as Bellah explains, “The Age of Bacteria transformed the earth from a cratered moonlike terrain of volcanic glassy rocks into the fertile planet in which we make our home.” Then there is the mystery of photosynthesis and the mystery of cells. Bellah writes, “The novelty and complexity of the cell is so far beyond anything inanimate in the world of today that we are left baffled by how it was achieved.”

Most baffling of all, perhaps, was the combination of conservation and change in this evolution. The DNA in cells presaged a fundamental trait of biological life—an ability to conserve its past and to introduce change into the past. Indeed, in evolution, something like “agency” comes into the world, an ability of a cell not only to adapt to its environment but to shape and respond to its environment. Though not all biologists would put it this way, organic creatures in particular are products of a “natural selection” in which they do some of the selecting. We are combinations of being-determined and being-free. Were we not so, we could not sensibly speak of “history” as a combination of what we creatures do and what is done to us.

To be sure, modern biology reminds us that gratitude, wonder, and other inhabitants of human consciousness are in us more surely than in the “natural” world. Somehow evolution has resulted in human consciousness unique, so far as we yet know, in the world we live in.

The great theme of Bellah’s book is a tracing of the evolution of human society from the stage of tribal organization to the stage of the powerful archaic state to the “axial age” in which we have lived since the first millennium BCE. The axial age begins with Hebrew prophets, Greek philosophers, the Buddha, and Confucius as they contended with royal absolutists’ claims to be the sole sources of human wisdom and law. Thanks to these prophets, we humans are free to think and act in terms of “universals.” Prompted by revelations unique to the human scene, religion provides its believers with a platform for understanding truth and duty that cannot be reduced to genetic origins or the commands of the powerful.

If we read this book, adherents of every modern religion—especially Jews, Christians, and Muslims—will find vast new reasons for gratitude for our ancestors human and extra-human. We meet in these pages eloquent summaries of how the evolution of the human mind may be the greatest mystery of all. Generations ago, modern physicists and astronomers informed us that “one of the stranger things about our universe is that we are present in it.” From the Big Bang to an Einstein and the Internet, there intervened a lot of unpredictable evolution of atoms into self-conscious organisms. Strangest of all, came human creatures who could describe and take account of this universal history, who have been freed to be in direct, living relation to the world and the One who inhabits the world, Emanuel.

One might craft a tiny fragmentary summary of this great book in saying that, through his appropriation of the findings of scientists, historians, and the students and scriptures of religion, Bellah liberates us to live more consciously in a home affirmed for us in Psalm 8: “all the earth.” In their accounts of our common humanity, Isaiah, Socrates, the Buddha, and Confucius freed us, in mind, spirit, and heart, for caring about each other and also a universe. We are part of this universe. We have been equipped to study, love, and know gratitude for the whole of it. By so living, open to the whole, we are free for the faith implicit in Psalm 8. Add to that Psalm 139:

O Lord … wonderful are thy works! Thou knowest me right well;
my frame was not hidden from thee, when I was made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.”

and in the depths of the stars!

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