The Next Stages in Human Spiritual Evolution, Part One

Originally printed in the March - April  2001 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Elwood, Robert. "The Next Stages in Human Spiritual Evolution, Part One." Quest  89.2 (MARCH - APRIL  2001): 56-61.

By Robert Ellwood

Theosophical Society - Robert Ellwood is emeritus professor of religion at the University of Southern California and a former vice-president of the Theosophical Society in America. He currently resides at the Krotona School of Theosophy.We are now entering the twenty-first century and the third millennium. A perceptible feeling hangs in the air that the world is rapidly approaching one of history’s decisive seismic shifts. Changes are looming ahead of us that will tremendously affect the total context of human life from here on out. They will profoundly change our political, economic, social, cultural, religious, and spiritual lives.

We sense that things somehow cannot and will not go on much longer just as they are—not with what is just over the horizon in cosmology, physics, the technology of the computer age, biological engineering, and above all shifts in our inner spiritual attitudes toward ourselves and the universe. We don’t know just what those changes will be, so we look at them with a combination of hopefulness and dread. But we sense they will not be just another turning in human history; what is coming now may change not only human history but the nature of human history.

What waits just over the horizon will be something more than just the fall of one empire and the rise of another. The impending hinge in time may well swing far more widely than even such turnings as the French and American revolutions or the Protestant Reformation, for though they deeply affected the shape of politics and religion in their spheres, and indeed in the world, the basic structures, the nation state and the organized church, went on though with internal modification.

Even the European discovery of the New World, the Industrial Revolution, and European imperialism, at first and almost up to the present, simply continued the old order of nations, money, and work in new forms, in new expansion franchises, one might say. What is approaching, what is now just beginning to light the sky, may change even such basic institutions as these beyond recognition. They may go so far as to modify beyond recognition the ways we think, communicate, and live in our bodies.

What will come in the course of the next millennium, and probably starting very early in it, is of an order that can be compared only to the emergence of humanity as we now know it from proto-human primates. The third millennium will recall humanity’s rather sudden evolution to its present brain size and upright stance, complete with tool-making and sophisticated communications capability in the form of speech and symbol. That breakthrough is now dated to about two million years ago; the new era will bring changes in mind and communication of comparable scale.

As far as religious, political, and cultural shifts are concerned, the coming change could also be compared to the discovery of agriculture about 12,000 years ago and to what has been called the axial age, the time around the fifth century BCE of the great religious and intellectual leap reflected in the work of the Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, Zoroaster, the great Hebrew prophets, and the early Greek philosophers. (The axial-age transition to a more individual-centered religion and in some places to a more systematic, protoscientific view of the universe was only the beginning of a process later continued in the labors of Jesus and Muhammad and the universal faiths of which they were founders, between 2000 and 1500 years ago.)

Three Human Eras

According to commonly accepted norms of anthropology and the history of religion, these three eras—humanity before agriculture, humanity after agriculture but before the axial age, and post-axial humanity—are the most fundamental stages of human material and spiritual development thus far, since the evolutionary breakthrough two million years ago. As always, material and spiritual development interacted with each other.

The first stage was the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age culture, based on hunting and gathering, tribal in nature. After the discovery of agriculture, it was followed by the Neolithic or New Stone Age, comprised of archaic farmers in sedentary communities and all that implies: rapid population growth, towns, division of labor, commerce, political organization and kingship, some surplus wealth to support professional artists, priests, and even philosophers. The ancient agricultural empires, like those of ancient Egypt, Babylon, or China, though post-Neolithic were really but the last phase of the archaic agricultural world. That world had ended not only in empires on the banks of rivers like the Nile, but also with writing, and a sophisticated awareness of history and literature.

That ending in empires and writing produced the conditions that gave rise to the axial age of the great individual religious founders and their religions, with their written scriptures and their institutions. How could we have modern religion without writing, temple or cathedral cities, and priestly bureaucracies? It was essentially out of the womb of those ancient empires, in India, China, the Middle East and the Mediterranean that the axial age was born, and the great religions of today emerged.

According to a revisionist view of the Theosophical concept of “root races” proposed by one of the students at the School of the Wisdom I recently taught at Adyar, which many of us felt made sense, the anthropological stages can fit very neatly into the Theosophical. The Paleolithics would then be the Lemurians, who according to The Secret Doctrine were quite primitive, yet were ruled by kings and able to build vast but crude cities, and who religiously combined a simple primal monotheism with remarkable psychic powers, later largely repressed.

Of particular interest is a very recent analysis by scientists at the University of Massachusetts which produced the date of two million years ago for the emergence of humanity. These researchers propose that, somewhere in Africa, a small group of individuals became separated from other Australopithecines. This population bottleneck led to a series of sudden, interrelated changes in brain size, skeletal proportions, and behavior that jump-started the evolution of our species, setting it directly on the course to Homo sapiens. The study pinpoints this breakthrough just before the first tool-making by Homo habilis, suggesting relatively sudden new patterns of hunting and social organization. Based on a full spectrum of paleontological and genetic evidence, the report powerfully brings to mind the assertion of The Secret Doctrine that in the middle of the Lemurian era, the Lords of the Flame arrived on earth to serve as a catalyst for the evolutionary jump between proto-human animals and true humans.

“Nature unaided fails,” The Secret Doctrine avers. Biological evolution alone can prepare the vessels for humanity, but the awakening of the full capability of the human manas, as well as the first dim awareness of the higher spiritual self, requires an outside push. Perhaps it was actually in Africa, to a small isolated population able to become prototypes of the new humanity, that the push came, and from this incentive came ultimately Homo erectus, the Neanderthal, Homo sapiens, and finally air-conditioning and spaceships.

In Theosophical technical terms, it seems that the “push” was the joining of physical bodies prepared by biological evolution to etheric bodies from the “lunar stream” of evolution, and the awakening of their higher nature, atma-buddhi-manas. No doubt is was then that these Paleolithic or Lemurian peoples began to conceptualize the characteristics of Old Stone Age religion: the Sky God, initiation, shamanism, and the Sacred in the animal so well epitomized in the famous cave paintings.

The next great stage, Neolithic or archaic agriculture, compares well to the fourth or Atlantean root race, with its emphasis on sorcery and a profoundly cosmic view of the human situation, essentially what Mircea Eliade meant by cosmic religion, in contrast to the later religions of historical consciousness. The Atlanteans, we are told by Theosophical sources, achieved some remarkable technological advances, but above all embraced a magical worldview, though they were divided into light and dark factions, peaceful and violent. (This matches with what anthropology tells us of archaic agricultural societies, which can and do go to marked extremes of both tendencies.)

Archaic agriculture is, moreover, the world of what Mircea Eliade has called the myth of the eternal return, a world without much sense of history but in which every New Year is a recapitulation of the creation, and every year therefore a chance to start over. This is also the world of the labyrinth, the megalith, the way to the gods in sacred caves and mountains, and in the turn of the seasons. Holidays such as May Day and Halloween, and even Christmas and Easter as seasonal festivals of midwinter and spring, are remnants in our culture of those times. The Theosophical classics especially identify Atlanteans with the Chinese. Certainly traditional Chinese spiritual cosmology, with its five elements and their cycles of dominance, and the eternal interplay of yin and yang, suggests a highly sophisticated, civilized version of cosmic religion.

Then enters the next great stage, the axial age with its great religious and cultural changes. This epoch, in whose aftermath we are still living, sounds like the fifth root race. Its deepest vocation is to explore physical, material nature fully, hence the emphasis on science and technology and its concomitant: the rational, scientific model of reality and how it is known. The centuries around the axial age and following it have therefore been a time of material as well as spiritual invention.

Perhaps the most decisive of all inventions in the ancient world was writing, which came before the axial age and clearly was a prime stimulus for it. The pen and the scroll, or the stylus and the clay tablet, facilitated not only commerce and the exchange of ideas, but also new kinds of religion with scriptures and abstract philosophies. Above all, writing made possible the keeping of historical records that showed we live not in eternal-return time, but in irreversible linear or one-thing-after-another time. In it, things change and do not change back. In due course writing made possible scientific and mathematical thinking as well.

The new axial-age religions dealt with what Eliade called “the terror of history,” and so they talked of God or the gods acting in history. The religious narratives of the Hebrew scriptures depict a moment of creation followed by wars and other events in which God intervenes and look forward to a culminating event at the end of history. All axial-age and post-axial-age religions posit a decisive moment within history—the time of Moses, the Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster, Jesus, or Muhammad—when the deep structures of history shifted, and time with all its terrors was ultimately redeemed. In the words of the Christmas hymn of such a historical moment, “The hopes and fears of all the years / are met in thee tonight.”

The new religions—Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, as well as new updated forms of Judaism, Hinduism, and Chinese religion—saw themselves as having a world destiny in history, one spelled out in sacred written texts and personal identities. They had their bibles, and they emphasized individual sin, karma, faith, and salvation, more than that of the family or the tribe. Above all, the new kind of religion led to a religious consciousness in which rational, propositional models of truth were important.

Doctrines about spiritual things were defined as true or false, as though they were heavenly parallels to the “laws of nature” of emergent science from Aristotle to Newton, and were structured with as much logical detail. God’s existence was as rigorously proved as atoms, and karma or grace was like a spiritual version of gravitation. All this is what we would label, in an expression Theosophists have used, a “very fifth-root-race way of thinking.”

What I am proposing is that now we are about to move beyond the fifth root race and the axial-age way of religion and thought, and that is why I say what is coming is comparable to the origins of Paleolithic humanity, the discovery of agriculture, or the invention of writing and axial-age religion. It is really a new step in human spiritual evolution, which Theosophists have particularly useful tools for understanding.

The Future of Communication

First, what future changes are likely in the world of communications? As we have seen, the last great change, the one that prompted the vast axial-age, fifth-root-race shift in religion, was writing—a fundamental change in the nature of communication that in turn led to awesomely immense changes in ways of thought and in religion. And the beginning of humanity itself some two million years ago was as much as anything a change in the nature of communication: nothing about the primal human experience was more important than the emergence of human words and language. If we were now to move on to a stage beyond writing—or even beyond words and language—that would be something. At the least it would mean a new root race; at the most . . . what?

To start where we are on a dizzying voyage into the future, it is widely predicted that we will move to electronic instead of paper books as the main vehicle of reading within two or three decades. But that may only presage more significant changes that could mean profound shifts in consciousness: the replacement of words in linear order—the basis of writing, of formal speech, and even of human thought as we now know it—with wordless moving images as the fundamental visual medium of communication. They would allow communication to present itself the way the world presents itself to us before we sort it out in word order, as images on the screen, or in holographs, that can be layered and put in synchronicity with other moving images.

All this is possible now on the computer monitor. To change from words and letters to moving images and symbols does not require any major change in technology, but only in the psychology of what we mean by reading. It would mean using other “triggers” than words in the process of visually absorbing programmed knowledge or ideas, or vicariously entertaining emotional experiences, or indulging suggested poetic fancies.

In fact, television has already begun this change in thinking, together of course with cinema, videos, and the Internet screen. As an example, consider how television has midwifed a transition from baseball to football as our most popular national game. Baseball is supremely a linear sport, in which only one thing happens at a time, and so it lends itself very well to narrative description and radio broadcasting. But football is a game in which many things can happen at once, like multiple synchronous moving images—the quarterback setting up the pass, the running receiver going deep, the line trying to do interference—and so the game is ideally suited to television, with instant replay in case you didn’t get it all the first time.

These new media are more and more making the reading of linear words not the sovereign vehicle of communication among people and down the ages, but only one among several options, and for some not the most inviting. Recent generations are abandoning the idea that the only way to read seriously is to read hardcopy paper-based books. When I was in college in the 1950s, movies and even television were available, but they were just entertainment—the great books were still the great tradition, the serious vehicles of knowledge. It was universally assumed that if you really wanted to learn a field, you read the best books about it. Now books are still there, and professors still talk, and rightly so, about the importance of the great books of Western and Eastern civilization, but students wanting to know about something—even about those books—are as likely as not to check out a video or get up a website. And the fact that the website is still mainly linear words is no doubt only transitional—before long they will more and more embrace wholly new ways of communication truly suitable to the medium, moving images and wordless symbols.

The present transitional state is leading up to a critical point at which, to reverse the gospel image, the new wineskins of technology will no longer contain the old wine of words. The novel potentials of the emerging communication technologies will take over, and we will behold new languages with new minds to go with them. A change of consciousness may be on the way in which words in linear order, even words themselves, come to seem inadequate compared to the knowledge and experience transmitted by moving synchronous images and symbols—though that experience is of a nature almost unimaginable to us. The transition might require practice of the order of a blind person learning to read Braille or of a deaf person learning to read lips.

When we make a change that drastic in the way we communicate, we will find ourselves not only reading in new ways but thinking in new ways. Consider that a function of language, equally as important as communicating with others, is serving as a tool for silent thinking. Try thinking through some halfway complicated idea or problem in your mind without silently using words. But when we “read” wordless moving images and symbols rather than words, we will begin to think more and more without words. Who knows what trans-human species we shall then become?

Consider the implications of changing from linear word-based communication to synchronous moving-imaging thinking, like going from a storybook to a movie, or from an abstract book of economics or philosophy to a video with moving charts and symbols. At least that is the best I can conceptualize it, though I am sure it will become more than that. .Communicating with wordless moving images and symbols—is this a reversion to animal or preverbal infantile modes of thought, and so a regression? I don’t think so, although it will certainly be different. The human need and capacity for language will still exist, but it will be for languages of unimaginable new kinds.

Of course spoken language, and the need to transcribe spoken communications, will still persist even as book-equivalent “writing” assumes new and different shapes. Possibly on some (not all) levels it will be like a reversion to the shaman bard reciting epics before the invention of writing, as she or he acted it out and created an atmosphere to go with the story, very different from the mood of analyzing words that are black and white on the page and create emotion and atmosphere only in one’s imagination.

The new media might do the work of imagination for us in holographic 3-D. They might even lead to a postmodern realization there is something illusory about the ideas of history and chronological progress that have been so much a part of the modern way of thinking. Our sense of history is based on narrative word-records and on a linear model of how things happen rather than on a synchronous one. And “moving-image writing” is only one phase of the future, the sixth-root-race stage. Ultimately, as we shall see in the second part of this article, words and speech may be altogether transcended in other, more direct modes of communication appropriate to the seventh root race.

What about Theosophy? Theosophy as we know it is very much dependent, indeed over-dependent, on books. That’s about all Theosophists do, it sometimes seems, at least in formal meetings—read books and talk about them. But can Theosophy make the transition? It seems to me that The Secret Doctrine would lend itself incredibly well to the new moving-image and symbol-based communication, almost as though that massive text was itself actually a verbal portent of the coming trans-book age.

Indeed, I wonder if The Secret Doctrine will not even begin to be fully understood until it is translated into the wordless language of the future. I see its cosmogenesis unfolding silently on a screen, telling its story in its own symbolic rather than verbal way, as silently and wordlessly as space itself gave birth to energy and mass and to pure preverbal consciousness. And then I see images of all the ancient races and civilization and their symbols, moving synchronously.

It may take those who know how to read in this new way to start understanding aright what Blavatsky gave the world, though I suspect we will never more than start understanding that book. Perhaps The Secret Doctrine is not just a musty tome from the past, as we may sometimes fear, but a book for the future, which only the far future will truly know how to translate and read.

This transition in communication could mark the end of the axial age, fifth-root-race religions as we now know them, because they are based on historical time, sacred texts, individual sin and salvation—all those things associated with fifth-root-race ways of thinking and reading. Following the great law of evolution, they must change or die.

And even more dramatic and radical changes, with their challenges to Theosophical understandings of humanity, are on the way in the new worlds, new races, and new minds that will be made by genetic engineering, neurotechnology, and radiotelepathy. To those astounding evolutions we will turn next.

(To be concluded)

 Robert Ellwood, Professor Emeritus from the University of Southern California, was Bashford Professor of Oriental Studies in the School of Religion until his retirement. He is an internationally noted and widely published scholar in the history of religions. His textbook Many Peoples, Many Faiths: An Introduction to the Religious Life of Humankind was published in its fifth edition in 1996, and his scholarly writings are numerous.