In the intriguing book Sapiens, Yuval Harari makes the case that homo sapiens dominated all other species and left behind other early-humanoids because—of all things—we were able to pass on shared sacred stories. Basically, we prevailed because we can spin a good yarn. And a good yarn builds group cohesion.
Prior to the ability to build group cohesion through shared concepts and values, groups tended to reach a breaking point at around 150—apparently the number able to directly know one another, thereby forming face-to-face mutual trust. But storytelling made possible a whole new level of connection, giving rise to the ability to share common understandings and agreements about critical abstract ideas—ideas like justice, transcendence, money, and family. In turn, these shared agreements and understandings made possible the mutual trust that allowed collectives to grow, developing into towns, then countries, and eventually into empires. Along the way, collectives of humans cooperated in the invention of both rapidly evolving technologies and more complex sacred stories or mythologies. This took millennia, of course. But long before empires evolved, homo sapiens were becoming world-shapers. The ability of sapiens to think abstractly allowed us to stand outside ourselves and look back—to become self-aware, beginning the slow bloom of human consciousness.
We evolved in our unique homo-sapien way because of our capacity for togetherness. Yet, this movement of evolving in togetherness characterizes not just human evolution, but the whole evolutionary course, as the small is gathered and formed into the larger and the larger, each tiny piece a fractal or containment of the whole, each single-cell organism undergoing the same unifying process as the universe itself.
Essentially, homo sapiens passed other species because our capacity for higher orders of togetherness exceeded the capacity of our cousin species. Despite the fractures that stand out in human history, we have been masters of togetherness. The entire flow of creation, from the spark that began the long cascade of coalescing and cooperating to the present, has been one of joining and complexifying. And human species prospered only insofar as we could enter that flow.
Evolutionary theology understands this arc of evolution, this unifying movement, to reflect the Creator who is both the spark and completeness of this creation—the Alpha and Omega, to use the terms of Hebrew scripture: God spilled out into all the universe, all of creation contained within God and containing God. We can align with that flow of this relationality togetherness sharing outpouring, or we can fight it.
It seems to me that the greatest threat to our survival as a species is our refusal to work together. To work together with each other, to work with other animal species, to work together with our plant and geological habitats, to accept and work with the elements of our universe: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, to name a few. We have refused to align with the evolutionary flow, the flow of God, and instead have tried to force our way upon the universe-near-at-hand, a tiny glorious planet called Earth. Our realignment with the flow will consist of learning to work as “humanity,” in togetherness, instead of trudging forward as separate, self-centered individuals.
How that will look is probably different than we expect, since not much about our history has been predictable. But I do expect we are seeing either the beginning of the end of elevated individualism, or the beginning of the end of the human species.
How do we unlearn our destructive individualism; how do we realign with the flow of togetherness?
Since we will experience transformation and enlightenment together—not as dispersed, separate people seeking transcendence in walled-off cubicled global hives of individual practice, I believe vibrant and open-hearted spiritual communities will play a role. To proceed with our individualism will be to proceed in defiance of creation’s/evolution’s flow. But to proceed by joining together in mutual evolution of consciousness will be to cooperate with the movement of inter-being and creation itself.
I write this at a time when spiritual meetings of all kinds—including church services—are falling out of favor (this essay was written pre-pandemic; now church/religious gatherings—with their collective singing and readings—are among the most daunting spreaders of coronavirus). The shining beacons thriving in the midst of this trend are twelve-step groups—groups like AA, NA, Overeaters Anonymous. These groups coalesce around two basic principles: all are equal, and all come with a desire for wholeness. Such simple, beautiful, transformative principles for community!
As we try to find our way back to the flow of the universe, the flow of God that moves all things toward greater togetherness and wholeness, I wonder if spiritual communities might learn from the simplicity and openness of twelve-step groups, which seem to be a fractal unto themselves—meaning a tiny mirroring of the structure and movement of the universe as a whole—and which seem to be growing even as older institutions decline.
How might it look for churches to have just two simple requirements for full inclusion: that all are equal, and all come with a desire for wholeness? This would not require an abandonment of traditions, just as the traditions of AA as developed by Bill Wilson endure in a remarkably stable form. It would just open the doors to all who want to journey together, rooted in a tradition yet free to move in unique ways and at a unique pace, and free to think for themselves. How might it look if we began to wake up to our need for togetherness, and stepped out of our cubicles of individualism into community?