October 29, 2005

A Brief History of Evolutionary Spirituality

by Tom Huston
Evolution has always been a fundamentally spiritual concept. In fact, some of the first thinkers to seriously explore the topic—the German Idealists of the early 19th century—were mystic-philosophers who predated Darwin's Origin of Species by at least half a century. Writing in the year 1799, the 24-year-old philosophical wunderkind Friedrich Schelling summarized in a single sentence the profoundly original insight that was exciting him as well as his philosophical contemporaries (men like Immanuel Kant, J.G. Fichte, and Georg Hegel): “History as a whole,” he wrote, “is a progressive, gradually self-disclosing revelation of the Absolute.”
In other words, long before the Western worldview was shaken by theories of biological development by means of natural selection, a tour de force of metaphysical geniuses had already intuited that reality as a whole was, in some essential way, going somewhere. Nature—and humanity—had a purpose and a direction. And that direction was, as Hegel put it, towards ever-greater expressions of “universal Spirit” within the realm of time and space. Combining their mystical intuitions with the “clear light of reason,” the Idealists bridged the gap between God and humanity, between the transcendent and the immanent, forging a uniquely Western conception of human purpose and meaning. No longer were human beings seen to be simply adrift in a state of sin and suffering, having “fallen” away from the presence of God in the primordial past; instead, God was now understood to be in humanity's future, to be revealed in the world, with increasing depth and clarity, as human history marched forward and consciousness evolved. “God does not remain petrified and dead,” said Hegel. “The very stones cry out and raise themselves up to Spirit.”
Echoing that sentiment almost two centuries later, the American philosopher Ken Wilber wrote: “Both humans and rocks are equally Spirit, but only humans can consciously realize that fact, and between the rock and the human lies evolution.” And in the span between Wilber and Hegel reigned numerous champions of this revolutionary concept of “spiritual evolution” in both the East and the West. Foremost among these were the Indian philosopher-sage Sri Aurobindo, the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and the French paleontologist and Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Other key figures included the American essayist and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Austrian theosophical visionary Rudolph Steiner, and the German integral theorist Jean Gebser.
Writing in the first half of the 20th century, Bergson and Teilhard, in particular, are notable for taking the scientific understanding of evolution and running with it, tracing the development of the Divine through the cosmological, biological, psychosocial, and transcendent domains. Bergson's Creative Evolution, published in 1907, became a popular bestseller for its lucid, stream-of-thought consideration of the motive force behind the evolutionary process, which Bergson identified as consciousness itself. And Teilhard's masterwork, The Human Phenomenon, equally based its speculations on science, while emphasizing the back-and-forth interplay of individuality and collectivity over the course of cosmic history. Specifically, Teilhard saw the potential for human beings, like molecules and bacteria before them, to come together in a higher integration or “megasynthesis” of a new evolutionary potential. He wrote: “The way out for the world, the gates of the future, the entry into the superhuman, will not open ahead to the privileged few, or to a single people, elect among all peoples. They will yield only to the thrust of all together (even if it were from the influence and guidance of an elite) in the direction where all can rejoin and complete one another in a spiritual renewal of the Earth.”
Yet it was the work of the great Sri Aurobindo that, while following a similar thread to Bergson and Teilhard, brought an entirely new dimension to this burgeoning field— namely, translating the concept of spiritual evolution into a spiritual practice. After completing his studies in literature and philosophy at Cambridge in 1892, he became a leading figure in the Indian independence movement and was declared “the most dangerous man alive” by the British Empire, but eventually left the freedom fight to devote his life to exploring liberation of an altogether different kind. After experiencing a deep spiritual awakening, Aurobindo's consciousness opened onto a vision of human possibilities that saw the attainment of nirvana—typically held to be the goal of all mystical pursuits—as merely the beginning of a personal engagement with the evolutionary force that has been driving the cosmos forward since the dawn of creation. Leading his spiritual community in the practice of “integral yoga,” Aurobindo was the first to synthesize the modern understanding of evolution with the timeless revelation of enlightenment, and pioneered the idea that human beings are capable of aligning their lives with the trajectory and purpose of the universe itself.
Today, the notion that the evolutionary process is ultimately driven by a spiritual impulse is more popular and widely accepted than ever, with a growing number of progressive thinkers, scientists, and mystics exploring its implications. Yet to many it still remains little more than an alluring philosophy, its ultimate significance divorced from our daily lives. What would a human life based on the principles of an “evolutionary spirituality” look like? Freed from the mythic dogmatisms of premodern religion, transcending the materialistic biases of modern scientific thought, and liberated also from the narcissistic self-obsessions of postmodern spirituality, what kind of world might a universal, evolutionary spirituality—or a truly twenty-first century religion—create? As one of the few pioneers in this nascent field who is attempting to put the philosophy into real-world practice through his teachings of Evolutionary Enlightenment, Andrew Cohen is endeavoring to find out... The Evolutionary Enlightenment teachings of Andrew Cohen « back to historical context spiritofnow (spiritofnow) wrote,@ 2005-10-29
Worldviews: The Philosophy of Evolutionary Spirituality
Evolutionary spirituality is based on the notion that the Evolution of the Cosmos was preceded by the Involution, which is the descent of Spirit into matter. The Evolution of the Cosmos is the reverse process -- the emergence or ascent of Spirit from matter. The Involution goes from the Omnipresent Reality to manifest a universe for the delight of Being, creates the planes of mind, life, and matter, and then hides them before creation; whereas the Evolution is the reverse process where matter appears, where the plane of life emerges from matter, where mind emerges from life, and Spirit from mind, and in that process enables humankind to discover the delight of Becoming (using the evolutionary philosopher Sri Aurobindo's terminology here). In other words, this is a teleological view of cosmic Evolution (matter to life to mind to Spirit) -- the Cosmos itself being the unfolding or self-discovery of the Godhead, evolving to greater and greater levels of self-awareness, with humans, since they are self-conscious, being pivotal to this evolutionary process, which, it is claimed, will culminate in the divinisation and perfection of the Cosmos itself (this is the esoteric as opposed to exoteric understanding of terms such as "Kingdom of God", "Day of Judgment", "The Second Coming", etc.). To sum it up with a Sufi saying: God sleeps in the rock, Stirs in the plant, Dreams in the animal, And awakens in man.


  1. How come Samuel Aexander has been omitted?

  2. Besides Alexander, Herbert Spencer's omission is too glaring.