The Sacred Space of Lovers (Third in the Series, “A Better Human Story”)


    Never Underestimate the Light Side of the Force

    The answers I promised in the first installment related mostly to the problematic aspect of the human world. I spoke more about the problem of evil than about the good, about brokenness more than wholeness, about the torment of history more than about the potential for joy and fulfillment in human lives.

    And the one particularly fleshed-out piece of this Big Picture of the human story that I identified was about the force of brokenness that has become ascendant in America in these times.

    My placing such emphasis on brokenness is, in some ways, fitting to what I’ve been about. For throughout most of the past half century, I’ve focused much less on the good, the true and the beautiful than on the evil, the lie, and the ugly.

    Whatever that focus says about me – that I’m oriented toward problem-solving, that (being but two generations removed from pogroms) I scan the horizon for potential disasters, that I yearn for the world as it should be — the “integrative vision” I am offering can also illuminate the positive side of the value spectrum.

    So in the previous installment, I sought to establish – by showing how the evolutionary process naturally and even inevitably leads to the “emergence” of value based on the fulfillment experienced by sentient creatures — the foundation for that positive side of value. And in this installment, I want to build a bit on that foundation.


    Something in Human Life Worth Celebrating

    In the saga of our species, as I said previously, the pattern of wholeness comes first, before the unleashing of brokenness, as natural selection crafted us to orient to what serves life and what, therefore, we by nature will find fulfilling.

    It is in that context, that I’d like to introduce here another component of our human story – very different from the pattern of brokenness we are dealing with in America in these times — that I’ve lately been focusing on.

    I call it “The Sacred Space of Lovers.”

    For more than a year, I’ve turned my attention in that direction because – feeling depleted, even damaged, from looking so long into our national “heart of darkness” — I craved a chance to look at something in our lives worth celebrating.

    And what in life is more worth celebrating than the kind of “space” that lovers can create to inhabit together. A space, ideally, of open-hearted intimacy of body and soul, of romantic passion and deep attachment.

    How much is there in life that brings greater fulfillment than experiencing – to whatever degree one finds it possible to achieve it – that kind of space with one’s beloved?


    A Wholeness that Can Be Nurtured

    As a project, “The Sacred Space of Lovers” will mostly be developed separately from this series.

    One aspect of the project that will be developed separately, for example, is a practical, how-to dimension.

    To some extent, that “sacred space of lovers” is something that can just happen. (Falling in love, etc.) But it turns out that to an important degree, it is possible for lovers to build more of this “sacred space” for them to inhabit together.

    The common wisdom is that the fire and magic of romantic connection fades with time. But there are couples who have found that, as the song says, it ain’t necessarily so.

    So, in the belief that some wisdom of value can be gained from the testimony of those couples who have found a way, not only to prevent their space as lovers from fading in value, but to make it deeper, more fulfilling, even more magical over long stretches of time, I’ve begun interviewing such couples. (Any couples who have realized this possibility in their own long-term lovers’ relationship, and are willing to discuss with me how their relationship has grown richer, are invited to contact me at .)

    Among the questions I’m asking them are what have they learned, over the course of many years, about how

    • To increase the love between them; and/or
    • To become more intimate and open together; and/or
    • To increase the sexual and romantic connection between them; and/or
    • To deepen the level of commitment in their relationship; and maybe
    • To bring all these dimensions together)

    But here, in the context of “A Better Human Story,” I will confine myself to only those aspects of “The Sacred Space of Lovers” that help to reveal the nature of “the good” that is an inextricable part of our humanity, and that contribute to the “Better Human Story” that is my purpose here to tell.


    Wholenesses Converging into a Greater Whole

    In looking for something in our lives worth celebrating, one could of course have chosen other positive dimensions of our experience:

    • One could choose the experience of giving and receiving kindness among people. But of course, in the ideal of the relationship of lovers, such kindness is a basic element of what is given and received.
    • One could choose those moments in our lives when we are moved by beauty. Oh wait, this is part of what can go into making “the sacred space of lovers,” as lovers tend to perceive the beauty of their beloved, and to have their hearts moved by that perceived beauty. (In the words of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?”)
    • One could choose to celebrate the value of honesty and authenticity in human interaction, that solid foundation of people’s connections being in alignment with the truth. But this, too — the cultivation of honesty and trust — is part of the means by which lovers can create such a wonderful place of trust and intimacy to inhabit together.
    • One could choose the dimension in human community where the arrangements and interactions honor the spirit of fairness. But fairness supports also achieving the ideal space that lovers can create, where each is inspired to make sure to do right by the other.
    • One could choose to discuss all those moments in our lives when our being is filled with a deep feeling that “this is sacred,” whether it is the feeling that John Muir expressed in his radiant words about Yosemite or a special moment of experiencing a deep bond of friendship. But of course, the feeling of “this is sacred” is one that lovers can feel as all these dimensions of goodness in our human lives come together in that “sacred space of lovers.” A space so many of us have yearned for and that many achieve to one degree or another.

    That all these different dimensions of “the good” come together in “the sacred space of lovers” tell us two things:

    1) it shows something basic about the nature of Wholeness, that the many components of the good tend to converge into something Whole; and

    2) it helps to explain why it is that “the sacred space of lovers” is an especially rich source of human fulfillment, for it is an ideal comprised of elements each one of which we experience as being of great value.


    The Sexual Component

    The idea of “Lovers” implies an important sexual dimension to the lovers’ relationship. Being “lovers” is the human form of a relationship that goes back to way before we were human, even before we were mammals.

    For ultimately, the roots of the connection between human lovers lie in our ancestral history of performing a vital task necessary for all living things: to pass along into the future the pattern of our living form.

    Sex goes way back, and our ancestors – going very far back along with it – came together, male and female, one way or another, to produce the next generation.

    All that is part of the heritage that goes into our becoming what we human beings now are.

    Sexuality has been — by necessity, because the survival of one’s kind is at stake — an important, powerful motivational force. And — for natural reasons, because of how the selective process “engineers” motivation – sexuality has been an avenue into a deep experiential level.

    A powerful motivation means a space for powerful experience.

    This was part of the thrust of the previous piece: that what is selected is, first, what serves survival and, subsequently, what is experienced by sentient creatures as fulfilling.

    And, that the experienced fulfillment of sentient creatures, as the previous piece also argued, is the only possible criterion for “the good.”

    To the extent what we are doing has served our kind of life in the ancestral past, our experience tells us that it is good. Which is why this space of lovers is experienced as a good. Such a deep good, as the ideal gets approached – in its sexuality, and its other dimensions — as to reveal itself as a route into the sacred.


    [So Why, in Civilized Societies, Has Sexuality So Often Been So Problematic?

    Or we civilized human beings would see sexuality and the whole sacred space as good if the needs of our nature had not in some ways denigrated and thwarted by the demands of civilized societies shaped by forces other than those derived from human nature. And often hostile to that nature.

    But how is possible that a creature would develop cultures so antagonistic as many have been to the inherent needs of the human being?

    An answer is “Coming Soon”: THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES.

    (The reason for this “preview of coming attractions” is so that when we get to that idea, there’s an itch for it to scratch.)]


    Sacred Space of Lovers as a Family’s Foundation

    Although the connection between male and female lovers thus originates in mating – the act that is needed to create the next generation of one’s kind — the connection between human lovers is about much more than mating. It is also about romantic passion and about love.

    That’s because for us humans the task of passing along life is about more than conceiving and bearing young. It is also about the formation of families that will nurture those young.

    It is an advantage – in terms of survival – for the young of our species to grow up in a strong and loving family environment. And “the sacred space of lovers” between mother and father provides the template around which a family will grow into such wholeness. (Empirical evidence supporting this will be presented in later installments.)

    About the wholeness ideally achievable between the mates, one might say that the sacred space of lovers brings together the power of the genitals and the depth of the heart. The one generates the offspring, while the other creates the atmosphere of love. And then within the family, the wholeness between the mates forms the template around which a family will develop in which children are most likely to grow into whole people.

    (As I am talking here about the evolution of our nature and our needs, in which the central reproductive task of “lovers” puts an emphasis on male and female, this discussion will focus on the patterns of needs and feelings involved in heterosexual relationships. Those patterns apparently being laid deep into our nature, I imagine that much that is true about opposite-sex lovers is true also of same-sex lovers. I will rely on others, with more knowledge of same-sex lover-relationships than I have, to illuminate what is the same and what might be different as a result of differences in sexual orientation.)


    The special importance of family among humans grows out of two aspect of our path as creatures that differentiate us from the species out of which we emerged.

    First, our young are born especially helpless, so that mother and infant are especially vulnerable.

    Second, our young take an unusually long time to mature. That, in large part, is because our natures have been increasingly crafted for culture, which means that our young face an unusually large task of learning– language, custom, ways of understanding the world – in order to become ready for the mature roles in their societies.

    For these reasons, it is of great value in the evolutionary game –where survival of one’s kind is the goal — for the male of the species to continue his role in fostering the next generation beyond the act of “mating.” The children of a father who invests in his offspring — as protector, as helper, as teacher – are fortified in their own ability to recapitulate the success of transmitting their genetic heritage to participate in the future.

    The bond of heart and body and soul between lovers who have created a sacred space for them to inhabit together, one might say, is something that has evolved with our species to provide the emotional motivation for male as well as female to maintain their connection, providing a scaffold around which a healthy family can best form.


    Made for Love

    The sexual and the romantic-love dimensions are both inherent parts of our human nature.

    That the sexual dimension is a part of our inborn animal selves goes almost without saying. (Though, as will be discussed in later installments, even our sexuality has some specifically human qualities—and many of these distinctive qualities are also conducive to the formation of more stable family life.)

    But also inborn to our natures is the yearning for romantic love. Despite the many cultural differences in the relationship between mates/lovers that anthropologists and historians can point to regarding things like sex and romance and marriage, science has now shown that romantic passion is not just a cultural artifact, but is also, like sexuality, something structured into our bodies. (Helen Fisher, for example, in her book Why We Love, provides much of this science – about the way our brains are “wired” so that neurotransmitters will sweep us up in the power of romance and attraction and bonding.)

    The intensity of our feelings of fulfillment or frustration, regarding any given dimension of our experience, is a gauge of the importance of that dimension to the survival of our kind.

    Intensity in the experience of desire, and intensity in the experience of fulfillment in satisfying that desire.

    Think of the person unable to breathe, and the urgent need for air, or the person parched with thirst, and the intense craving for water.

    And think of the intensity of feelings involved in the human bond that transmits life into the future. Nature (meaning evolution) has underscored the importance of that lovers’ connection by infusing the experience of that connection with unusual intensity along both the sexual and the romance/love dimensions.

    From the feeling of sacredness that can infuse that space, we can infer that important life-serving business is involved.

    We were made for love. In our bodies, in our consciousness, we are built so that we naturally yearn for the sacred space of lovers.


    The Ideal is Not All We Find

    That space represents an ideal—ideal for individual fulfillment, ideal for the flourishing of the next generation. But the ideal is not all we find. For two reasons:

    1) For one thing, that ideal is only one of the things that the evolutionary process (meaning natural selection) creates. (Evolution may create “the good,” but we should not idealize that process which operates wholly opportunistically.)

    2) For another, when the human saga made the breakthrough into civilization, “unnatural” forces eventually arose that have often impeded people’s ability to achieve that ideal.

    Both these factors identify obstacles faced by people along the path to the sacred space of lovers.


    The Male’s Strategic Fork in the Road

    Evolution selects whatever works. And, amidst the opportunistic workings of natural selection, paths other than the ideal toward having a role in producing the next generation have worked.

    The male of the human species has another path available for achieving that goal. That other – less whole, but still successful – way to send his genes into the future might be called “the Cassanova strategy.” This is the strategy of promiscuity, which contrasts with the strategy of a deeper, more lasting bond that tends to accompany the romantic-love connection in the sacred space of lovers.

    The wholeness of that sacred space is built upon a mutuality and symmetry between the lovers. But – as has been widely noted in the scientific literature – there is a major biological asymmetry between the sexes regarding their respective roles in the reproductive process.

    For the male, the role that is unavoidably required (for progeny) is quite brief. The minimum requirement is not only low in cost, but high in pleasure.

    For the female, the implications of that minimally required brief encounter are potentially quite profound. “Success” in the reproductive encounter is something she not only needs, if she is to partake of the genetic future, but it is also quite costly. Pregnancy is no joke. And having a baby to take care of involves a transformation of one’s life in the direction of greater responsibility and more strain.

    The mother will surely be there when the baby is born. The father may or may not be.

    For both male and female, evolution has assured that they have the motives to perpetuate their kind. But the strategies that work for the two sexes can be quite different because one sex can SUCCEED by acting selfishly for his pleasure, while the other sex is by necessity going to have to sacrifice a great deal in order for her genes to make it into the human future.

    (The behavioral strategies of the two sexes do not differ utterly – there’s biological evident that “the sacred space of lovers” and fidelity are not the only female strategy — but some important differences along these lines have been established empirically.)

    Thus it is that the human male comes to a strategic fork in the road in his reproductive role. Two paths can work. He can treat fatherhood as a process involving a high investment in family life. But it also “makes sense” (evolutionary sense) for a male to spread his seed around, making up in quantity what his fathering and family life lack in quality.

    Later we will explore some of the brokenness that can result from this inherent difference in the reproductive cost/benefit pictures between the two sexes.

    For now the point is this. While it is true that out of evolution emerges “the good,” and that the fulfillment of human beings corresponds to what has been life-serving in our evolutionary history, it is also true that evolution is wholly opportunistic in its operation.

    The same selective process that creates predators and parasites — that survive entirely at the expense of other creatures — can also reward behavior in the human male that imposes costs on his mates. Even if the male’s taking that path offers neither male or female the deeper fulfillment of the sacred space of lovers, it is one of the strategies that fulfills the requirements of the evolutionary side of the game: the genetic pattern can go forward into the future.

    The ideal is not all that works.


    A Second Kind of Evolution in Conflict with the First

    But the opportunism of biological evolution is not the only reason that “the sacred space of lovers” is not more universally achieved.

    Out of the biologically crafted system of life on earth there emerged, after billions of years, a new “life-form” – a kind of superorganism — whose structure and workings were not determined by natural selection: the rise of civilization, a form of social organization in which a creature — having escaped from its biologically evolved niche — uses the tools of culture to invent its own way of life.

    A look at the history of these civilized cultures readily provides evidence that powerful forces have been at play, waging virtual war upon the achievement of that profoundly fulfilling experiential space that, ideally, lovers might occupy together. We see cultures that

    • Make war upon sexuality, e.g. regarding it as dirty and evil, steeped in sin.
    • Make war upon the human body generally, e.g. rejecting the human body as disgusting.
    • Make war upon women, inculcating misogynistic contempt and fear toward the human female, and constructing arrangements that oppress and exploit her.

    Of course, no civilized society would survive if it put insuperable barriers in the way of its members’ reproducing. They’d go the way of the Shakers! But short of that, a great many cultures have disabled people from achieving, with their partners, anything like “the sacred space of lovers.”

    And we find cultures that, more generally, have instilled teachings and attitudes hostile to the inherent needs of human beings. Cultures that, moreover, have inflicted on their members wounds that diminish their capacity for wholeness in human relationships.

    It is time to turn toward the question: How are we to understand how it is that a creature would create cultural systems that are antagonistic to that creature’s essential nature?


    NOTE: All the entries appearing thus far in this series are collected at the website for “A Better Human Story.”

    If you want to follow this series, please sign up for the newsletter that will inform you whenever a new entry in this series is posted.

    Are there people you know who would answer “yes” to the question with which this piece began? If so, please send them the link to this piece.


    NOTE: The comments that follow, below, are from people I’ve asked to serve as my “co-creators” on this project, i.e. to help me make this series as good and effective as possible.

    They are people who have known me and my work. And my request of them is that –when the spirit moves them to contribute – they add what they believe will help this series fulfill its purpose and give the readers something of value. I’ve invited them to tell the readers what they think will serve the readers well, and to pose questions or challenges they believe might elicit from me what I should be saying to the readers next.

    I am grateful for their attempting to help me find the right path.


    Mary McKechnie:

    I read the article and found it insightful. I do think that the sacred space is important in all connection however, not just between lovers. Very much looking forward to your insights into the questions posed at the end of the article.

    Andy Schmookler:

    I’ll respond to this together with Karen Berlin’s comment (just below) which makes a similar point.

    Karen Berlin:

    I am pleased to have had time to read, and digest, your latest offering. I found your use of sub-headings very helpful, as it guided my thinking from very broad constructs about human nature to specifics, such as the sacred space of lovers initiated by procreation.

    While I experienced head nodding in agreement as I read, I am left wondering if the “sacred space for lovers” will include other expressions, or if it will be limited to expressions in heterosexual relations.

    I think of those highly accomplished in love, for example, Mother Teresa, who never entered this space you describe, yet was a profound vessel of both love and the sacred. I think of the “sacred space” of friendship, siblings, parent/child, unity around a common cause, and yes, in my case, God…there are multiple expressions of relationships that provide the opportunity for the giving and receiving of love, which I believe is the sacred space. I am neither condemning or applauding, just curious, if the unfolding sequels will be unique to monogamous commitment between man and woman, or if your insights will reach beyond.

    Looking forward to reading more!

    Andy Schmookler:

    The “sacred space” that lovers can achieve is not, of course, the only sacred space there is. But not all “sacred spaces” are identical.

    My focus on “the sacred space of lovers” represents only what I have lately felt moved to celebrate. “All connection,” as you put it, Mary — if “connection” is understood as by definition of a positive sort — can reasonably be experienced as “sacred.” And similarly I agree, Karen, that “the giving and receiving of love” in a variety of kinds of relationships are readily areas where people experience “the sacred.”

    An illustration readily at hand: I became a grandfather again this week, and in response to an especially lovely picture texted us, depicting my daughter with her newborn baby, I texted back, “The Sacred Space of Mother and Child.”

    ((This was a sacred space much celebrated in medieval times –Madonna and Child– as we can see from the prominence of that motif in medieval art, when much of the culture of that time erected barriers to “the sacred space of lovers.”)

    While I agree that relationships of various kinds connect with the sacred, and certainly did not mean to imply otherwise, I would not go along with the use of the word “the” you both use (“the sacred space”), which seems to imply that they are the same “space.”

    Each of those sacred “spaces” available in different kinds of relationships – whether it be between friends, or mother and child, Mother Theresa and the poor of Calcutta, or whatever – is likely to have its own qualities.

    In the case of “lovers,” the inclusion of an essential sexual/romantic dimension would suffice to make that “sacred” space different from those others. Which is related, I would suggest, to why there are issues of “fidelity” (meaning exclusiveness) that tend to be applied to the relationship between lovers in a way not true of other kinds of relationships.

    So yes, many sacred spaces are worthy of celebrating. And the special qualities of each are worth exploring as well.


    Philip Kanellopolous:

    Your statement that civilized cultures “have inflicted on their members wounds that diminish their capacity for wholeness in human relationships” feels particularly poignant. It explains so much of our larger broken world, but also our individual experiences of relationships in it.

    Perhaps most of us, though with differing innate potentials for love, have been wounded to some degree in our capacity to create sacred interrelational spaces by this unnatural civilization. What a monumental tragedy when magnified throughout the global population and throughout the history of such social creatures!

    Personally, I dimly sensed in childhood some kind of battle being waged between my nature and society, a troubling disconnect between the nurturing relationships I felt I needed, deservedly or not, and what the world offered as normal and right.

    Many of us were taught as a matter of course that in such conflicts and unsatisfied yearnings, the fault lies in our fallen natures. In youth, my personal battle escalated terribly, resulting in an uncommon brain injury but also in what I suspect is an all too common intolerance to human contact.

    If the insults, injuries, humiliations, and frustrations of civilized life lead more generally to our fortifying emotional barriers between ourselves and others — “Build that wall! Build that wall!” — certainly it’s no wonder that our world is so troubled and that the ideal of the sacred space of lovers isn’t more common.

    However, inherent in your present insight is the faith that, if we do succeed in creating a more wholesome world, our relationships will, by our very nature, much more commonly approach the ideal you’ve described. And if the insight is widely understood, what a wonderful inspiration for us all, with faith in our natural humanity, to create that better world.

    If I may offer my humble opinion, you’re in your element illuminating so profoundly for the rest of us these issues of the larger picture of who we are, of a better human story.

    Andy Schmookler:

    Thank you, Philip, for being willing to share your own painful experience of how brokenness in the environment in which we develop, can impede our access to the “sacred spaces” for which our inborn nature would equip us.

    I hope that you have found it possible, in the years since your injurious experiences, to heal some of those wounds and move toward greater fulfillment.

    I would also like to commend the way you bring in “Build that wall!” in this context. An illuminating move, very insightful.


    Ed Schmookler:

    This is just awesome what you have done here.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the things you say and how you say it.

    I will look forward to how you go from brokenness to sacred space. How will you go from opportunism to sacred lovers?

    How, for example, do men and women work to build a sacred space amidst their different orientations toward fidelity? Similarly, the broken aspects of family life, with abusive men and women replicating the larger authority structure and their own broken pasts– these create huge obstacles toward loving intimacy. What are the steps toward moving nonetheless toward wholeness into the sacred space of lovers.

    Andy Schmookler:

    Thanks so much, Ed, for that “awesome” comment. That coming from you made my day.

    You broach several points. About “the broken aspects of family life,” you might note that Philip has shared, above, how his own injurious experiences created “obstacles toward loving intimacy.”

    As for the steps to nonetheless moving toward wholeness, you are likely to have more worthwhile to say about that than I—being, as you are, as a psychotherapist, and one, moreover, who has done a lot of work with couples. Perhaps as I get to discuss with more couples how they have succeeded in building a more sacred space, I will be able to say more. (Again, any such couples are invited to email me at

    I imagine that everyone enters adulthood with work to do to become more whole. Later in this series, I will go into the ways in which Wholeness is something that is made and not just born. Not just regarding building “the sacred space of lovers,” but in the human world generally.

    In other words, not all that is not whole is because of injury. (We say “from the mouths of babes,” for example, but actually wisdom is something of an achievement.)

    But clearly, much of the work of becoming more whole involves healing.

    (I know that has been true for me. And just to suggest some of the ways that healing can take place, I can say that part of what made it possible for me to move more deeply into “the sacred space of lovers” is that I’ve spent the past 33 years with a woman who is unfailingly kind, and who is honest and never punishes my honesty. Years of loving engagement in which those aspects of wholeness are being practiced can allow a lot of areas that once were wounded to grow more whole.)

    Finally, you ask about the differences between the sexes regarding fidelity.

    First, I believe – without much more than my intuition to go on – that men vary in their inherent orientation toward one or the other path toward genetically endowing the future; i.e., some are more naturally inclined to go for the “Casanova strategy” of more sexual engagements and less investment in offspring, and others with more commitment and higher investment in the raising of children.

    In addition, there is empirical evidence that those who have grown up in more secure families are more likely to form deeper and more committed attachments in their own love relationships. So genes are not everything. (I expect to be writing more about these things later.)

    Surely, when lovers are unequally committed to fidelity, that can be a source of pain and division. Again, I’m not able to provide much insight to address your question on how that can best be dealt with.

    But again, I can provide something from my own experience.

    I myself have always been faithful. At the same time, feeling that it is part of being fully alive, I have always wanted to remain alive to female beauty wherever I may behold it. Sometimes, that aliveness felt like a source of distraction from my own committed relationship. But then something shifted as our relationship has deepened over the years: with that shift, I found that any energy stimulated by female attractiveness outside our relationship ceased to be a distraction and has instead just increased my desire for our own “sacred space of lovers.”

    It’s as though the deepening of the relationship magnified a kind of gravity that brings all the energy back into the core of the space.

    What was once a kind of unsettledness has become more of a celebration of participating in something of which we two are part. In that context, I resonate to the lines from Leonard Cohen:

    I loved you in the morning, our kisses deep and warm
    Your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm
    Yes, many loved before us, I know that we are not new
    In city and in forest they smiled like me and you…


    Ken Mayers:

    I, too, found your argument for the sacred to be effective and useful. But it also got me thinking about the role that authoritative identifications of the sacred and reactions against them have played in our human story. Perhaps you will be addressing this later in the series.

    Andy Schmookler:

    When you speak of “authoritative identifications of the sacred and reactions against them,” I imagine that you are alluding to the clashes of religious dogma that have created so much conflict. (Our dogma is chasing our karma.)

    I also imagine that you might be raising the question of whether it is possible to talk about “the sacred” in a way that isn’t arbitrary, that allows an escape from “relativism” in the assessment of all such claims.

    Those, if indeed you are raising them, are big topics, which I will only touch upon lightly here, to make three points:

    As with “value” generally, I believe that there is a substratum built into our nature (regarding “the sacred”) that goes beyond our cultural differences.

    Another point: many of the clashes among assertions about “the sacred” are founded upon conflicting factual assertions embedded in religious doctrine. When people hold as dogma such factual assertions of uncertain validity, conflicts will occur.

    I explore the reasons behind such dogmatism, and the destructive consequences of it, in Part III – “God’s Truth” — of my book Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War.

    And a final point, people who are themselves “broken” can develop equally broken notions of what is sacred. (I think of some of the ways the Nazis talked about their extermination of the Jews in terms that suggested they saw it as a sacred task.)

    People can get things wrong. But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as getting them right.


    April Moore:

    Very readable and interesting. I find it especially interesting that while evolution tends to favor the ‘good,’ evolution is first and foremost opportunistic. What works is the main criterion, not what is good.

    Andy Schmookler:

    Right. The universe does not seem interested in value. But it is led (“as if by an invisible hand”) to create life, and then to create living things for whom value is real.


    Jack Miles:

    Let me begin by saying that I found this installment (# 3) both emotionally appealing and intellectually promising. With regard to the emotional appeal, words that popped into my head were from Jackson Browne song, perhaps “Late for the Sky” (and quoting from memory):

    Now for me some words come easy

    But I know that they don’t mean that much

    Compared to the words that are said

    When lovers touch.

    One so rarely finds subjective experience at this level of intensity and intimacy incorporated in a master story that intends to be science-based.

    (ABS: Let me add here one paragraph from Jack Miles’ comment on Installment # 2, which came in after that entry had gone public:)

    While your account of the emergence of value in evolution is both attractive and persuasive, I would underscore a point that I do not think you would reject—namely, that your implicit critique of science is scarcely less severe than your rejection of religion. The locus of this critique is your valorization of the subjective against received science’s devaluation of it. This is crucial to the story you are developing.)

    I am reminded, too, of a passage in William James’s Will to Believe where he imagines a man determined to base his marriage decision only on objective evidence. What happens? He never marries because, of course, further data can always revise any incipient commitment, so the moment of commitment never comes.

    Love makes the world go ‘round, as the saying goes, or go forward, as you claim here. Your stress here on the subjective does not duplicate but seems to me to complement recent work that I have found particularly interesting in cognitive science as it has turned to the phenomenon of religion. Two years ago, at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion where the overall focus was on the climate change crisis, I attended a fascinating presentation by Ara Norenzayan, who is the author of the book Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict (Princeton University Press). That presentation definitely whetted my appetite. I’ve also lately received Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty, How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us (Doubleday). The centrality in this work (a big, intimidating book!) on mate choice might appeal to you.

    I can send you, too, if you want, a book chapter* that I downloaded from somewhere or other by Norenzayan and two colleagues from the University of British Columbia, which is, I believe, a strong center for related research. This chapter is entitled “The Evolution of Prosocial Religions,” and its abstract includes the following:

    Five different hypothesized mechanisms are presented through which cultural group selection may have operated to increase the scale of cooperation, expand the sphere of trustworthy interactions, galvanize group solidarity, and sustain group-beneficial beliefs and practices. The mechanisms discussed involve extravagant displays, supernatural monitoring and incentives, ritual practices, fictive kinship, and moral realism. Various lines of supporting evidence are reviewed and archeological and historical evidence is summarized from early China (roughly 2000 BCE-220 BCE), where prosocial religion and ritual coevolved with societal complexity.

    On this list of mechanisms, what might pop out as particularly relevant to installment #3 is fictive kinship. The most natural love-unit is the couple and their offspring. Extending the kind of trust/love/allegiance that operates within the family or the moderately extended family to larger groups involves developing mechanisms of “brotherhood,” whatever may be the language employed to enable it. Norenzayan’s Big Gods may be particularly interesting in this regard because, I gather from the Amazon description of it, he includes the functionality societies that have been but no longer are religious. They continue somehow to enjoy the “brotherhood” benefits in social solidarity that religion will have conferred in their pasts. How do they do it? Evidently, he discusses this.

    Fictive kinship as a heading, though, points to a critique that I know some gay colleagues of mine at the University of California would quickly make of installment #3—namely, that your emphasis on procreation and therefore on the heterosexual couple is “hetero-normative” and excludes them from the broader story. They would want room made for generativity outside the biological family. I’ll be surprised if you haven’t read—probably years ago—Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society. Generativity in that book is one of the predictable challenges (identity crises) that must be overcome as we mature and then age. Physical reproduction is, actually, the usual form that generativity takes, and perhaps it must inevitably be what scholastic philosophy would call the analogia analogans—namely, that to which analogies are drawn from other areas. The family has got to be central, and it’s obviously connected with neoteny and the extended period of sexual latency and physical dependency in the human young during which they must be sustained by some network of love relationships as they are acculturated into the system that ultimately will maintain physical as well as cultural life in a host society. But nowadays, of course, gay couples are sometimes parents. And even when one is a parent, one way or another, one’s real generativity can easily extend to many with whom one has no familial relationship.

    Your concern is with how the right story can make such generativity possible, or how the lack thereof can hinder it. The hindering, and the Parable of the Tribes, is, I know, your next topic, but the fostering as in this new research—building to some extent, as I point out, on a critique of widespread scientific assumptions—is where I myself would be headed if I were younger and not already contractually “booked up” with very different projects.

    * From what book? Alas, I don’t know. I am a terrible intellectual magpie. My nest is full of colorful scraps of lost origin.

    Andy Schmookler:

    Thanks for your thoughtful discussion here, Jack. Two points here I want to address.

    First, on the notion that “your emphasis on procreation and therefore on the heterosexual couple is ‘hetero-normative’ and excludes them from the broader story.” Such a complaint would not surprise me but, while I am quite sympathetic to the historical/cultural experience that would give rise to such a complaint, I think it misguided.

    The reality is that sexuality in evolutionary history is rooted firmly in the reproductive process. That’s true not only for mammals like us, but throughout the living world where “sex” operates, even in the world of plants.

    From pistils and stamens to things closer to home, the main thing about sex has been about bringing male and female parts together.

    That gives the heterosexual dimension of lovers’ relationships a centrality in the picture.

    That doesn’t mean that sexual relationship among people are or should be confined to reproductive couples. (In my own case, the time I have turned to celebrate “the sacred space of lovers” is at a time of life when I am part of a couple that has outlived its capacity to produce offspring.) But any valid inquiry into what evolution has instilled in our nature with respect to lovers would necessarily have to “privilege” the function that represents the whole raison d’etre of that aspect of our being.

    That need not exclude anyone for whom the lovers’ space is a reality. That includes same-sex couples.

    Some evolutionary questions do arise, such as what are the factors in the operation of the gene pool that lead to the persistence of an apparently naturally occurring component of the human population that are sufficient to outweigh its obvious selective disadvantages.

    Evolution does not seem to favor uniformity. The great majority of humans are right-handed. But the persistence of a left-handed minority is clear, and presumably the reasons for that will point to some kind of advantage for the gene pool as a whole. Likewise, the great majority of humans are heterosexual (for reasons clearer – to me, at least – than the predominance of right-handedness). But I gather it is increasingly clear that here, too, the human gene pool has favored the persistence of a minority whose sexual orientation does not lead to offspring.

    In previous times, the left-handed were condemned and persecuted (sinister, gauche). Across the world, heterosexuals have condemned and persecuted homosexuals. Both sets of attitudes and practices seem a manifestation of human brokenness on the part of the majority, intolerant of diversity. And I wish to say nothing to perpetuate that.

    Even if the root of sexuality in its role in the perpetuation of the species has implications regarding the central importance of the heterosexual bond of lovers, as I say in the piece, I hope that others will testify as to what is the same for same-sex lovers, and what is different.

    The second point of yours I’d like to address concerns science. Two things you say: your suggestion “that your implicit critique of science is scarcely less severe than your rejection of religion; and your commenting — appreciatively it would seem — that, “One so rarely finds subjective experience at this level of intensity and intimacy incorporated in a master story that intends to be science-based.”

    About the religion, and about the science: I do not recognize that my position is a “rejection” of religion; and that “implicit critique of science” you see I would describe as a critique, rather, of “scientism.”

    Or, to state my position on both in one swell foop: I am in favor of believing what the evidence, as processed by reason, makes seem most likely to be true. That approach to knowledge I regard as being the essence of what I would call science.

    When a religious belief is inconsistent with that general approach, I will not adopt that belief. (But I would say there is much more to “religion” than such beliefs.)

    And to the extent that “science” as an institution violates that general approach, I will critique that violation.

    For example, also I understand the importance of replication in the gathering of scientific knowledge, not everything worth attending to is replicable.

    Any “science” that defines itself so that all evidence that is of a non-replicable nature is to be ignored, then I would regard such a “science” as less than “scientific.” Or, if “science” insists on defining itself in ways that exclude some forms of evidence, maybe a different word is needed to name some approach to knowledge that refuses to define away whole bodies of evidence, rather than look at them and try to figure out what they tell us about what is true.

    Which brings us to the issue of “subjective experience,” which you raise. Once again, I can respect how the elimination of the subjective and the focus on what can be objectively measured is essential to acquiring reliable knowledge pertaining to a great many of the questions that science addresses.

    But to exclude the “mental” and the “subjective” altogether… Once again it is to cut ourselves off, a priori, from much that is essential.

    When it comes to the issue of value, as was a major point of installment # 2, reason alone mandates that subjective experience be central to our understanding of what is real and true.

    And when it comes to the evidence that comes from the realm of subjective experience, our experience is surely one of the richest sources of evidence we have into all sorts of important matters. The evidence may be messy. But it’s there, and there is no legitimate reason – as I see it – to define any source of evidence out of the process of our search for truth.


    Margee Fabyanske:

    You ask, “How is it that a creature would create cultural systems that are antagonistic to that creature’s essential nature?”

    In your book, “Parable of the Tribes”, you discuss how civilization brought on the struggle for power. And you spell out the lesson of the parable of the tribes (p. 21): ” . . . no one is free to choose peace, but anyone can impose upon all the necessity for power.” (All it takes is one in the sandbox who decides to throw sand!) Despite this pessimistic thought, you end the chapter with hope in the possibility that human ingenuity could possibly “design systems that use power to disarm power”—for only then can mankind be free.

    The rule of power is an age-old problem that effectively snuffs out freedom of choice. We can only hope and trust in our own innate moral compass combined with our creative imagination and inventiveness to lead us in a direction of the common good.

    I believe we have a sacred power in our capacity for compassion and love, which can never be under estimated. Somehow we must overcome our distrust of out differences in order to celebrate our unique qualities and common bonds which can diffuse anger and resentment and thus promote a climate for finding a common purpose.

    I love your symbol of victory over evil: the human form, rooted like a tree with arms outstretched toward the heavens. (Have I got that right?)

    Andy Schmookler:

    Thank you, Margee. Thanks for giving this little preview of that part of the “integrative vision” that explains (a lot about) how brokenness has entered the human world. That will be the subject of at least the next two installments. It will begin with how the evolutionary framework illuminates what an extraordinary situation that our species inadvertently and unwittingly created beginning about 10,000 years ago.


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