< Back

The Revd Preb Nick Mercer

Consciousness, prayer and the Holy Spirit

6th November 2016

 “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8.16)

Of course hyenas don’t really laugh. Rather, like the chimpanzees in the tea adverts, we are anthropomorphizing animals and giving them what are uniquely human characteristics. Dogs, if they look as though they are giving you a toothy grin, are usually about to bite you.

Human beings alone (as far as we know) in the universe, laugh. Only humans can blush or be embarrassed. Only humans need to feel embarrassed.

All this is part of our self-consciousness. The fact, that unlike any other creatures, to our present knowledge, we can reflect on what we are. This is the joy and pain of being a human animal: homo sapiens.

Julian Jaynes puts it this way in the opening of his fascinating book with the snappy title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Penguin 1990): (cf Neal Stephenson Snow Crash)

“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! … A secret theatre of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries… A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do… This consciousness…”

But where did self-awareness come from in our evolutionary history?

Well, we don’t really know. About 3 million years ago – a mere nothing in comparison to the age of the earth. (If the 4 billion years of the earth’s existence are represented by a clock, then we are looking at just over half a minute ago.) About 3 million years ago, early humans appeared with brains the size of the planet; brains bigger than any other animal on earth. And they used only a tiny proportion of that massive brain.

It’s like the computers some of us have at home or in our office. They are capable of rocket science, and all we use them for is as a glorified typewriter and for playing card games.

So late Neanderthals or maybe Cro-Magnon man began to use this spare brain capacity for inventing language and tools and weapons; and then art and music; religion and laws; and eventually political parties and Kentucky Fried Chicken…

At some point, and the experts differ as to when, these humans started to reflect upon themselves. They realised they would die, like the animals which they killed to eat. They developed burial rituals.

They realised they were conscious – they were self-conscious. Julian Jaynes reckons that self-consciousness as we know it appeared less than 4 thousand years ago. Most scientists think it was much earlier.

Well what has all this got to do with our text?

As far as we know, human beings are the only animals that consciously worship. Our God-consciousness emerged as part of our self-consciousness.

Non-realist theologians like Don Cuppit and the Sea of Faith group, and many philosophers of other faiths and none, assert that God-consciousness is only an extension of our inward monologue.

In other words, it cannot be an awareness of a Mind that is ‘other’ and somehow separate from our own minds. It is a defence mechanism that religion provides to make sense of our existence. It is talking to ourselves. It is whistling in the dark to keep our spirits up.

This argument runs, that the elaborate development of religions is an internal trick that has served human evolution quite well.

It has socialised us and, for quite long periods, stopped us living like the beasts we are, red in tooth and claw.

Rather like the self-deception, which equates joining a gym with actually doing exercises…

But there is another explanation which our Christian faith provides and which many of us prefer to believe.

The Garden of Eden describes humanity coming to self-consciousness; and asserts that, that self-consciousness is a reflection of God’s self-consciousness. We are indeed made in imago Dei, in the image of God, knowing, and self-knowing. And so part of the human condition is bound up with knowledge of God: who is self-conscious within the Holy Trinity.

Adam is separate from the other animals, and to show his self-consciousness, he names them: they are tiger and horse; they are other; they are not flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.

Unlike the other creatures, Adam and Eve know good from evil, and know that they are capable of choosing evil. The tiger and the horse can know no shame, but Adam and Eve hide from God, full of remorse and embarrassment.

Cain slays Abel, not for food nor for evolutionary superiority; but because of jealousy and on account of religious convictions.

Self-consciousness leads to self-doubt and so to strong convictions to counter self-doubt.

I remember hearing Peter Ustinov remind us again on the radio just before his death, that “It is our doubts that unite us. Our convictions divide us.”

Indeed. But we can have no doubts without convictions and it is those very convictions which determine what we do with our convictions; and how we handle our doubts and differences.

The Christian story unfolds through the centuries until the second Adam comes: Christ, who as he matures as a man and grows into self-consciousness; grows also into that unique and aweful destiny that is his alone – that unspeakable agony of inner thought – God-consciousness: the horror of realisation that he is God.

For us, the realisation is that we are loved and that we will never be alone. In St Paul’s words, in our text: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

But for Christ, the Spirit testified to his spirit that he was the only-begotten of the Father.

One of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to direct our inner consciousness – to work alongside it, if you will. And he does this whether we are hectically busy, or whether we are in retreat: the Holy Ghost working alongside the ‘ghost in the machine’. [The “ghost in the machine” is British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s description of René Descartes’ mind-body dualism. Cf Arthur Koestler.]

Maybe the human soul is a sort of virtual reality created by the world’s most complex computer, the human brain.

But that does not invalidate the belief that there is a Divine Consciousness, before all things, incarnate in Christ, and interacting with us by way of the Holy Spirit.

We believe that there is an internal dialogue – not monologue. We believe that our Divine Lover is literally, always in our thoughts.

And as we pray to God for healing of body, mind and spirit – for ourselves or for others – we dare to believe that we are caught up in that Divine nexus which is beyond our understanding but at the very root of our being and personhood.

Put another way, this is the testimony of the saints and the men and women of God down through the centuries: that they have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. The Spirit has enabled them, sometimes with faltering conviction, to cry ‘Abba’, Father.”

This understanding of human self-consciousness, certainly encourages us to make times each day when with conscious effort we open ourselves to the Divine Consciousness. It encourages us to make space in our lives in retreat to let our Older Brother heal and remould us in his image.

It allows us with Solomon to believe that God can speak to us in our dreams. It allows us with St Paul to believe that there is nothing that can separate from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.

And it encourages us to believe even through the guilt of prayerlessness and overbusyness, that even then God’s Spirit is at work in us: we are still useful servants.

We must not be robbed of that joyful conviction that

“The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8.16)