Friday, June 05, 2009

Energy and Symbolism in the Deep History of Scotland

Travelling in Scotland, my family and I attended two services last Sunday at two different churches in Glasgow affiliated with the Church of Scotland. In the morning, we attended a neighborhood church. In the evening, we attended the beautiful Glasgow Cathedral.

We were surprised that the sermons at both services referred to a deep controversy over homosexuality in the church. We learned that earlier in the week a General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had debated the question of whether homosexual clergy should be supported by the Church. A similar debate has divided the Church of England in recent decades, leading to some traditionalist Anglican churches breaking away from the Anglican communion in Great Britain. Now, it seems that a similar issue is dividing the Calvinist churches in the Church of Scotland.

In the morning service, we heard a liberal clergyman argue for a full acceptance of homosexual clergy as an expression of Christian love. He compared this to the debate over slavery: members of the Church of Scotland had originally supported slavery as sanctioned by the Bible, but eventually they saw that slavery was wrong as contrary to the universal love teaching of Jesus. Similarly, he argued, we will someday see that the debate over homosexuality should be settled by this principle of universal love. But even as he made this argument, he said that this would require setting aside the teaching of scripture, which condemns homosexuality, in favor of the progressive revelation of the Holy Spirit in history.

The problem then is that the Calvinists separated from the Catholic Church based on an appeal to the Bible as the sole authority for Christian doctrine, but then they discovered that on issues like slavery (and maybe homosexuality), the Bible is not a good guide. So they are torn apart by their commitment to scriptural authority and their sense that scripture is not always reliable in its moral teaching.

This illustrates the importance of symbolic understanding in human cultural evolution. Human beings are unique in their capacity for symbolic evolution--for developing traditions of symbolic learning that gives meaning to their lives--which includes the appeal to Biblical texts as the symbolic ground of moral experience. But then they struggle over the meaning of this symbolism and its adequacy for handling their problems.

Travelling around Scotland, one sees the ancient remains of prehistoric burial sites--burial cairns built of rocks arranged in a pattern that suggests some kind of ceremonial significance--and perhaps some kind of religious conception of life and death. Here then one sees the uniqueness of human symbolic evolution. But one also wonders about the conflicts that arise as human beings disagree about the meaning of those symbolic traditions. After all, one cannot study the history of Scotland without thinking about the bloody wars of religion, in which people slaughtered one another over religious issues.

But then there's another side to the deep history of human life. As I indicated last year in my post on David Christian's book on deep history, one theme in human deep history is the progressive evolution in the human power for channelling the flow of energy to sustain ever larger populations of human beings. One can see this in the modern history of Scotland. Advances in the history of science and engineering--for example, James Watt's invention of the steam engine and Thomas Telford's work in building the infrastructure of Scotland and England--show the increasing power of human ingenuity in controlling the flow of energy for human benefit.

But how is this related to the evolution of human symbolic meaning? By the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, poets and philosophers had begun to lament the economic and technological power of human beings as failing to provide the symbolic meaning that human beings crave.

The Church of Scotland struggling over the adequacy of the Bible for resolving the moral debate over homosexuality illustrates the human need for symbolic meaning that goes beyond physical survival and material comfort. A Darwinian account of human evolution must account for this natural desire for religious understanding and make sense of the human existential concern for meaning in the universe.

The deep history of human life must include not only the evolutionary increase in the human power for channelling energy to human purposes but also the evolution of symbolic traditions of meaning in answering the existential questions of life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agh, every fule kno that Jimmy Watt didn't invent the steam engine, he tried improving on Thomas Newcomen's engine and invented the separate condenser. Noetheless interesting, glad you're enjoying your trip and the convoluted history of these parts, as well as congtroversies in the Kirk.