The Theosophical Society in America

From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Spring 2012 issue of Quest magazine. Citation: Smoley, Richard. "From the Editor's Desk" Quest  100. 2 (Spring 2012): pg. 42. 

Looking in a bookstore in 2005, I came across a curious artifact: a finely bound volume containing the major works of Charles Darwin. Darwin's works are classics and certainly deserve a deluxe edition, but there was something strange about this one. It looked like an attempt to create a kind of Darwinian bible—a counterweight to the tide of theocracy that was supposedly sweeping the U.S. at that time.

Darwinism seems an odd thing to create a religion around. But a religion it has become, complete with its prophet (Darwin himself), scriptures, and orthodoxies like those of conventional Christianity. Today the best-known positions on the origins of life are the pure Darwinism of the true believers and the creationism or "intelligent design" of thinly disguised Christian apologists. From an esoteric point of view, both are inadequate.

It is true, as materialists argue, that science has discarded any need for a clockmaker God to interfere in the developments that cause species to originate. And yet there is something in the materialists' arguments that gives one pause. It is the relentless claim that the whole process is utterly blind and mechanistic. Purely blind processes don't explain the teleology of evolution&mdsh;the fact that it appears to be aimed in a certain direction, toward greater complexity and intelligence. If the process were exclusively random, evolution would be far more haphazard and would not necessarily produce greater complexity.

From an esoteric point of view, evolution is by no means random, but has a purpose and goal: the development of consciousness. Consciousness, as I've said in previous articles, can be defined as the capacity to relate self and other. This is not merely a dull, static awareness but involves an intense interaction between the self and the "other" that is the world.

Theosophy sees evolution as part of a much larger process that also includes involution. While the Theosophical literature discusses this dynamic in great depth, I would like to describe it in a slightly different way here.

The relationship between self and other is a multifarious one, encompassing many levels of reality. At subtle, nonphysical levels, the distinction is not as rigidly drawn as it is in the physical world. Here the interaction between self and world is fluid and, shall we say, shapeless; "I" and the world do not crystallize as they do in our dimension. This could correspond to what Indian philosophy calls the "formless" (arupa) realm.

As this relationship between self and other becomes increasingly fixed and static, the world manifests itself more clearly but also more rigidly. Forms arise, hence the realm of "form" or rupa. Even so, this level of existence is somewhat fluid. It is no doubt something like the world of dreams: the dreamer sees forms and shapes, but these are far more malleable than they are in waking reality, with things and even people often shifting and changing identities.

Finally, there is the level at which the polarity between self and other is at its most fixed. Here is where the world seems solid and (relatively) static, where individuals retain a consistent identity and things don't arbitrarily change into other things. This is the familiar physical world, and this is the stage at which involution, this process of increasing rigidity and solidity, begins to reverse itself.

Our current embodiment is thus the culmination of an immensely long process of involution. Evolution, whereby consciousness progressively detaches itself from its view of the world as solid and fixed, will also take place over eons, of which life on earth forms only a tiny part. The physical reality that we know is not the only one we have inhabited or will inhabit. Eventually, reality will begin to become fluid and permeable again. In our lives today this manifests as mystical experience, which usually only lasts for a few moments before evaporating. According to esoteric theory, however, what we now experience briefly and erratically will become more and more predominant. Our consciousness and embodiment will grow subtler and more rarefied, and we will be transformed in ways that we cannot now imagine.

In modern times this vision was first articulated by H. P. Blavatsky and her successors, but since then it has been expressed by many different philosophers,in the "creative evolution" of Henri Bergson, in the theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and in the thought of Sri Aurobindo. From these sources it has taken root in the human potential movement, whose theorists, when they speak of evolution, do not mean a mechanistic Darwinian process but something in which we as individuals can consciously participate.

Sometimes this awakening of human potential is characterized in terms of superior functioning, of superhuman achievements and paranormal capacities, but this is only part of the picture. In order to progress in a complete and genuine way, human evolution has to encompass the ethical dimension as well. It is not merely a matter of reading minds or breaking Olympic records but also a superior moral functioning, in the development of compassion and empathy that are now manifest only in the behavior of saints and illuminates. In the esoteric sense, "survival of the fittest" does not mean the survival of the strongest or the cruelest, but the triumph of the highest and best aspirations of the human soul.

Richard Smoley