Evolving Beyond the Primitive Brain


A sermon preached on August 21, 2011 based upon Exodus  1:8 – 2:10.

Approximately 15 billion years ago, the best science suggests, all of the energy and matter that existed was compressed into one tiny speck, from which the “big bang” took place, sending forth matter and energy out in every direction.  From that moment in time, the precise physical laws of the universe were in place that were necessary for life to appear 11 billion years later, followed by the ongoing process scientists call “evolution” for ever-more complex forms of life to appear, leading on to this latest leg of the ongoing process human life has emerged.  These laws, including the principles of evolution, are seen by the eyes of faith as signs of a loving creator, whose creation was not aimless, but leading definitively somewhere.

The evolutionary process is not finished. Evolution continues.   Most significant from our point of view is the ongoing evolution of the human brain, and its capacity to host human spirit, or consciousness.

The story of Moses describes an evolutionary leap taking place in the realm of the human spirit that is no less significant in its own way than when that first sea creature crawled, for a time, on land.

Scientists speak of human beings sharing with other mammals what is called the “primitive brain.”  It is the instinctual response we have from a perceived threat to either fight or to take flight.

Exodus begins describing dog eat dog human society, where the Pharaoh of Egypt feels threatened by the immigrant Hebrews, whose number steadily grows.  What if they take over the country, he wonders.   He tries oppressing the Hebrew with heavy work burdens, but the life force of these Hebrews could not be denied, and still they continue to prosper.  And then he resorts to something far more diabolical, a strategy tried countless times afterwards by Hitler and all his cronies in history.    He instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill the Hebrew baby boys.  With no Hebrew boys to grow up and mate with the Hebrew girls, this ethnicity will die out.  But these women midwives sense a higher calling and refuse to participate.  Pharaoh then instructs all of his people to participate in the extermination of the Hebrew baby boys.

A conspiracy takes place among women that defies primitive brain mentality of Pharaoh – the mentality often dominant in men.   A certain Hebrew mother gives birth to a baby boy, and then hides him for three months.    When she realizes she can no longer safely conceal her child from the baby killers, she hatches a plot that relies on her trust that no woman could hand over a baby to destruction, no matter what the race or nationality, once she has looked into the child’s eyes.  So the Hebrew mother places her baby in a basket and places the basket in the reeds of the Nile precisely where Pharaoh’s daughter comes daily to swim.  And true to form, Pharaoh’s daughter embraces the baby boy and takes him into her home as her own son, and gives him the name “Moses.”

Let me take a little aside here to recall Tony Campollo in a sermon inviting an awkward teenage boy up on stage with him.   He pointed out to the boy and everybody present that the boy was an incredible winner.   His existence was the result of one tiny sperm cell beating out 40 million other sperm cells in a race to couple with a single egg.   He was a winner, far greater than the Tour de France or the Super Bowl.   Campollo had the kid raise his arms over his head in a victory pose.

The seed of the evolutionary leap that would move humanity beyond the fight or flight options of the primitive brain was present in Moses.  Somehow he manages to survive the cut, after thousands of other baby boys are exterminated.   He grows up, ironically, in Pharaoh’s household cared for by his biological mother.  One day as a young man he ventures out of the palace and witnesses for the first time the oppression of his own flesh and blood, the Hebrews.   A taskmaster is beating a Hebrew slave, and the fight instinct of the primitive brain holds sway in Moses’ consciousness as he rises up to kill the taskmaster.  The next day when Moses discovers his violence has not gone unnoticed, he feels threatened, and this time he responds with flight.

Many years pass.  One day as Moses is going through the routine of his daily job, he has an encounter with a bush that is burning but not consumed, out of which the same mysterious creator who was present in that original big bang 15 billions years ago, creating a creation with a definite intention, speaks directly to Moses.   Moses discovers that this God cherishes the oppressed, and sends Moses to Pharaoh to tell him to “Let my people go.”  Which Moses does.  Unlike his first encounter with injustice, now Moses neither flees nor relies on violence – he brings what Gandhi would later call “soul force” — the power of the truth to set loose a new, higher consciousness into the world.  For the first time in the history of the human race, Moses gives expression to a new kind of conflict resolution between tribes, although more often than in the three thousand years that follow this evolutionary leap will not be followed.  Nonetheless, with Moses and his liberation movement this new spiritual DNA is part of the human race, with Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others would following in the path he had blazed.

A couple of years ago the Irish rock star Bono, who happens to be a Christian with a burning desire to help the oppressed of Africa, was the guest speaker at a regularly meeting prayer breakfast in Washington, DC attended by countless congress men and women of both parties, and on occasion the president.   In his speech to President Bush and the others in positions of power, Bono harkened back to Moses’ appearance before Pharaoh:

“It’s annoying but justice and equality are mates. Aren’t they? Justice always wants to hang out with equality. And equality is a real pain.

“You know, think of those Jewish sheep-herders going to meet the Pharaoh, mud on their shoes, and the Pharaoh says, ‘Equal?’ A preposterous idea: rich and poor are equal? And they say, ‘Yeah, equal, that’s what it says here in this book. We’re all made in the image of God.’

And eventually the Pharaoh says, ‘OK, I can accept that. I can accept the Jews – but not the blacks.  Not the women. Not the gays. Not the Irish. No way, man.’

So on we go with our journey of equality. On we go in the pursuit of justice.”

Edgar Mitchell was the sixth American astronaut to walk on the moon.  He grew up on a farm in the Midwest and was drawn into the world of science as a teenager and the materialistic world view that often goes hand in hand.  He was a fighter pilot in Korea, after which he joined the Space program.

At the age of 40 he accomplished the extraordinary feat of walking on the moon.   For Mitchell, however, the most powerful experience occurred on the flight back to earth.  With the major work accomplished, and time to relax he gazed out the window of the cockpit as it slowly turned full circle every hour.  He saw the distant galaxies of which our sun is a part.  He pondered how far the human race had come with his flight – how his grandparents had travelled after the civil war by wagon train out west with no electricity, no cars or planes, and here there great grandson less than a hundred years later had walked on the moon.

He saw his journey to the moon and back, “as an evolutionary step for mankind, from the water, to the trees, to land and out into space.” He saw the earth below, and could make out the continents, and thought about his younger brother who was in southeast Asia flying missions in Vietnam, and pondered the violence of the human race.

And suddenly, his fundamental consciousness shifted.  He experienced what he would later call the “ecstasy of unity,” wherein he suddenly realized that everything truly was connected.   That the point of view of the Newtonian physics that had allowed him to fly to the moon whereby everything is distinct, separate particles, was, in fact fundamentally wrong.  That at the deepest level, we are all one – all part of that original unity of the speck of energy and matter that existed before the big bang.

Mitchell spent the next forty years of his life studying both religion and science trying, to make sense of what he had experienced on the return trip from the moon.  He remembered his father, a dairy farmer, who would wake up in the middle of the night somehow knowing that one of his cows was having trouble giving birth and needed help.  What was the mechanism through which his father knew such things?  It seemed clear to Mitchell that it was connected to this underlying unity he had experienced – a unity largly unexplored by science.

Although Mitchell’s experience may have been the most intense, every other astronaut experienced something similar.  It came to be called “the overview effect” that fosters an awareness of the underlying unity of every living being.

Said one, “You say to yourself, down there is humanity, love, feeling and thought.  You wonder if you could get everyone in the world up there, wouldn’t they have a different feeling.”

Former Republican senator Jake Garn was aboard a 1985 space flight as part of a committee providing oversight to NASA.  Looking down on the slowly revolving earth, he felt all the political boundaries melt away.  Flying over the Third world countries, he wondered why the governments of the Earth had not mobilized to feed every hungry child on the planet.  “Why does this have to be?” he asked.

This earth is ours to care for — we all share it.  The weakest among us suffer the most when there is draught, and the climate change we have brought about by our consumption harms them directly.  The poor suffer from what we, the rich of the earth have done.

This morning we are holding a special offering of the United Methodist Committee on Relief to assist the people starving in the Horn of Africa where the worst draught in sixty years is taking place.  12 million people are at risk of starving to death.  Global warming, the consequence of the consumption of first world countries, is killing people in the third world.

I want to finish with some words Bono spoke before the people in power that day:
“Sixty-five hundred Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about justice and equality.

“Because there’s no way we can look at what’s happening in Africa and, if we’re honest, conclude that deep down, we really accept that Africans are equal to us. In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every month. And it’s a completely avoidable catastrophe.

…This is not a Republican idea. It is not a Democratic idea. It is not even, with all due respect, an American idea. Nor it is unique to any one faith.“

Bono went on to quote Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scriptures that all express the teaching that we have a responsibility to care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.  He finished:

“I was amazed when I first got to this country and I learned how much some churchgoers tithe. Up to 10% of the family budget. Well, how does that compare with the federal budget, the budget for the entire American family? How much of that goes to the poorest people in the world? Less than 1%.

Mr. President, Congress, people of faith, people of America:

I want to suggest to you today that you see the flow of effective foreign assistance as tithing…. Which, to be truly meaningful, will mean an additional 1% of the federal budget tithed to the poor.

What is 1%?

1% is not merely a number on a balance sheet.

1% is the girl in Africa who gets to go to school, thanks to you. 1% is the AIDS patient who gets her medicine, thanks to you. 1% is the African entrepreneur who can start a small family business thanks to you. 1% is not redecorating presidential palaces or money flowing down a rat hole. This 1% is digging waterholes to provide clean water.”

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he declares, “Do not be conformed to this world…” “This world” can be thought of as the primitive brain that has prevailed in human history with its endless attitude of us-against-them, whereby fight-or-flight is seen as the only two options. “But be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Let us embrace the evolutionary leap to which God is calling us.

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