Paul Tillich (in Systematic Theology, 1967, p. 3-14) concluded that one’s ultimate concern is one’s religion. Because he was a believer, his religion was theological, or spiritual, that is God-related. In his day it had long seemed the better part of valor to join the crowd and rationalize what might transcend animal existence; our minds seemed otherwise inexplicable. So the concept of God and creation by fiat were invented as a first paradigm of how existence on this planet operates. But Tillich saw that both religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism may fail to be ultimately concerned if they elide aspects of the interpretation of one’s situation. He concluded, for example, that we should not personalize God, since the best we could do was to postulate God as the ground of being. Some of the orthodox declared him an atheist for that.
What, therefore, might the creative self-interpretation of existence now be for a secularist mentality, one that sees little basis for asking the question of God? We are, after all, a long way from the prophets of Judea, the Roman emperor who instituted The Church of Rome, and the natural history of Aristotle. There may be a question of ultimate origins—some pre-Big Bang status quo-- but this is lost in time, so currently beyond any promising imaginary capability for a recent species like ours. It may also involve unlearning the indoctrinations of the religious system one was brought up in. And unless one becomes a specialist, this may take half a lifetime. Few therefore get to it; only the rather old can undertake it, and only if they have persisted in their questioning.
Indeed, this creative task may have heretofore been impossible because the essential historical perspective on the nature of existence was lacking. This is the tragedy of unlucky circumstances for those generations who experienced that long interregnum. Darwin gave us a clue in 1859, but it is the insights of the evolutionary science he launched 150 years ago, and the new science of neurobiology that are at last providing the perspective we need.
The Darwinian insight is simply that we are all related, i.e., descended from a common ancestor. One still needs an understanding of the processes of existence: how these operate aside from the reproductive cycle we may also partake of as individuals. A. N. Whitehead gave us that, but not until the 1920s, when he showed that all Earthly existence is a reworking of the same building blocks of existence, the atoms and molecules. We borrow from past evolutionary accomplishments, thus creating a short-lived present during which we perhaps add a bit of style , then pass things along. “The many become one and are augmented by one, ad infinitum,” Whitehead said. The accumulation of innovations drives the continuing creative synthesis. Natural selection of the fittest shapes particular populations to environmental change imposed by the atomic energy of the planet. This energy is focused in insolation and the plate tectonics that sets the stage for so much else. And it is itself a byproduct of the waning energy of the sun that gave us birth. We are embroiderings of stellar dust, but we know nothing of eternity. We have a rough idea of Earth’s beginnings, and we can anticipate its end when our sun’s energy is expended.
So, it is not origins, but the continuing drive for change and its innovative possibilities that is the mystery of existence on this planet. We need first to be mindful of the long evolution of the processes that prepared the way for us.
A predecessor of Whitehead’s at Harvard, Charles Sanders Peirce, said that everything we know is an example of the habits of Nature. Habits take time to form.
When the stellar gases that escaped our sun’s formation had cooled enough to allow atoms to form, interactive energetic and physico-chemical processes (presumably common to the broader universe) shaped the results: they produced, initially, this sterile planet with a different atmosphere than we now enjoy. After a few more billion years of experimental change, self-organizing natural processes which we began by denying, produced life in the shallow seas about 4.6 billion years ago. For some 80% of its subsequent existence, life existed only at the microbial level, unknown to us until the microscope was invented, and Louis Pasteur first identified germs in late 19th Century. Not until about 460 million years ago did plants begin colonizing and reshaping land surfaces. This paved the way for animals to also migrate out of the marine environment. Only 125 million years ago, mammals evolved, and only 65 million years ago, after dinosaurs were eliminated by Earth’s collision with an asteroid, did mammals radiate and multiply in the vacated niche . This made room for us.
Our lineage, the Hominids, appeared about three million years ago, and our own species, Homo sapiens, less than 200,000 years ago, when some genetic saltation provided the larger skull that made room for the larger brain that enabled the development of a mind with superior reflective memory which makes us unique in several respects. And only in the last 10,000 years or so have we evolved, socially this time, to become quasi-civilized, though inheritors of most of the sensibilities of the hunter-gatherers we were until so recently. The most recent genetic change in ourselves may be that for blond skin and hair that surprised our brown progenitors only about 10,000 years ago in Scandinavia.
For a naturalist then, one who knows something of the amazing diversity of life on the planet, all of it best explained by evolutionary processes, it suffices that we are evolved simians. No need for the exceptionalism of special creation. Indeed, it should be humbling that the evolutionary processes had to give us such a high reproductive potential, apparently to enable us to survive natural hazards while the big brain’s potential was slowly actualized . And again humbling that we have not yet learned to adapt this reproductive potential to the changed circumstances of an over-populated world, even as we boast of the big brain.
The problems of existence are thus of two kinds. As a species produced by the environment, we are best adapted to given environments. We should perhaps ask why Western civilization has made presumptions about basically flawed personalities such as Christianity’s notion of original sin, or Freud’s unconscious, concepts that seem to bother
Asian societies much less.
Though the big brain has made us remarkably adaptive, and we can reshape many environments, there are many limits. Even 2000 years ago Aristotle said that intelligent existence involves living within the limits of our environment, whatever that be. Just as biologists have identified half a dozen life regions on the planet, each with a different assortment of climates and plants and animals, our political economy needs to recognize different carrying capacities, and help people refrain from overextending themselves in environments with limited carrying capacity. The niggardliness of nature so many, including economists, complain about, is mostly a problem of human overpopulation.
Secondly, the political economy of nations, since it has to do with the rational expectations of varying carrying capacity, must respect the existing natural constraints. Finally, and probably most difficult, the greed of a minority of the population must be democratically fenced in. An economy based on the utopian notions of a free market do not do this. Compounded by overpopulation, this is probably the central dilemma of Western civilization.
So what is the ultimate concern of a reasonably conscientious secularist today? If a concept of God comforts you, why God bless you. It may have been helpful for me to share my family’s notion of God when I was young, but it no longer explains anything I need explained. Existence is its own reward. The world is fascinating, and my circumstances have provided a reasonable opportunity to explore and exercise my capabilities. I have not willfully hurt another person, and have tried to be helpful. I feel I have attained control of my own will, which some consider a mark of spirituality. Like Emily Dickinson, I feel that instead of going to heaven at last, I’ve enjoyed it all along because the journey itself sufficed. I have more cosmic piety than most people, and my concern has been to do things as well as I could.