For Christians specifically but referenced similarly in virtually every religion, there are two Great Commandments in the New Testament. One is about loving your God and the other is about loving others. Insofar as they instruct humans, they are wise instructions. Written in Matthew some time before 99AD, the quote is:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The mariner has pondered this quote ever since he was a young boy. There was something too neat, too overarching to be applicable to reality. It seemed too much like a plug-in. In recent decades, perhaps as long as a century, reality has pressed us with questions that seem not targeted on the wellbeing of humans but nevertheless incessantly grow more urgent.
The stories that supported the early Western religions, namely, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and also Buddhism, are not capable of supporting today’s boundaries of knowledge. The stories do not reconcile the reality or the confrontation that 21st century humans face. Today’s Christian advocates, clinging to the old beliefs, look in disdain at the “non-believers.” They call them “secularists.” Indeed the era of change is upon us. So many scientific breakthroughs; so many industries and conveniences. Today, right now, medicine can change our genetic code to cure vulnerabilities. “Who,” the secularists ask, “needs Adam, Eve, Cain, Able, magic swords, brothers surviving in a fiery oven or a flying Son of God?”
No longer do the myths from two thousand years ago hold relevance. There was a time early in the last century when apologists attempted to validate the myths by reinterpreting them as figures of speech or story telling devices not intended to be literal. Still, the theology was laid bare without meaning.
That the church liturgy has lost much of its sacredness is only one cause of dwindling attendance at religious institutions. Perhaps more important is that modern society has not begun to replace the mythic values that underlie faith and commitment. Modern society may not be able to accomplish a new value structure for humanity for some time. The entire planet is at a crossroads. Frontiers of science and technology have ripped through the time lines that would have helped us transition across eras; we are thrust unprepared into an alien society. The tearing of cultural meaning can be seen in politics, where values are jumbled if not missing altogether. In some ways we have met the devil and he is us. We wander in rudderless ignorance as we destroy Earth’s environment and fail to repair the prejudices that lead to war, gluttony, and ecological destruction.
There is no way to escape prejudicial attitudes without a myth greater than ourselves – larger than our alien computer culture. Without a sanctified value that is permanently valued more than any earthly phenomenon, we will drift into extinction leaving behind a planet covered in human trash – unable to present a transcendent achievement for the path of evolution.
Run all religious faiths together through a homogenizing process and two principles are common: love and giving. Each of these principles, in their purity, prevents prejudice; each prevents judgment; each promotes holistic unity on the scale of the universe.
With introspection, one realizes that love and giving are rich in mythic origin. Reorganizing our understanding of evolution, where does love and giving fit in? In evolutionary terms, only recently has empathy emerged in mammals. Empathy for nursing and raising suckled young was a great leap forward in brain awareness. We often think of man’s development of abstract problem solving as the core mark of progress in evolution but the simple ability to empathize permits family awareness, sharing, and cultural understanding. Without communal empathy, humanity’s great achievements could not have been accomplished.
Using empathy as the measure of evolution’s key objective suggests there may be a future in human evolution for something similar to the “single soul” element of pantheism: “God” is the universe. Therefore, each human is a part of God. Perhaps the Islamic definition of soul as an interactive awareness between all living things including plants is the goal. Including similar ideas across philosophy implies indirectly that empathy may be spread across more than the mammalian branch of creation.
Has religion, with its empathetic two great commandments, been struggling to correct the misconception that intellectual problem solving and invention are the primary goal of evolution? Is the new myth for love and giving derived from the universe itself? Is oneness through empathy with all things the path to eventual transformation?
Rome captured the western world and dictated from that time the focus of the church, government, cultural progress and economics. Has the west been too concerned with the physical, combative models learned from the Romans? Is it time to look to another emphasis to guide us?
Let’s practice empathy. It may be more transformative than we think.