What is it that makes humans human? Is there an overarching element or component that is central to our being? I would argue a resounding yes. For me it’s our need to understand and explain nature as well as our place in it. I think most aspects of our life work their way back to this element. I also believe it is a necessity that manifests itself on a multitude of levels. . .and this is where the proverbial “juice” lies for me. Now I’m hardly an expert, but this blog post, the first of at least a two-parter is intended to explore these levels. Heavy thinking and pondering is fun every now and again. And with this subject matter especially, very quickly, one comes to the realization that there is profound philosophical depth (think Marianas Trench) in exploring our need to understand nature and our place in it. So buckle up!
Nearly twenty-eight years ago in the Otzal Alps, a mountainous region that borders Austria and Italy two people stumbled over the remains of a human being that had been encased in the surrounding snow and ice for over five thousand years. The person discovered in September 1991 became affectionately known as “Otzi the Iceman” and was one-of-kind for two distinct reasons. First, Otzi is one of the oldest, if not the oldest human mummy ever kept intact by freezing. Second, Otzi’s possessions included warm furs, a bow with arrows, axe, knife with woven sheath, a belt pouch and perhaps most interestingly a medicine bag containing birch fungus- often used as a laxative and natural antibiotic. Otzi the Iceman was prepared for his mountainous environment carrying along medicinal remedies that would better his chances for survival against his harsh climate. He needed to understand his world and did the best he could. Although the exact circumstances surrounding his fate are not known the evidential facts indicate that Otzi was prepared and knowledgeable about his world. Just like today crazy stuff can happen even to those that are most prepared. Perhaps that was the case with Otzi.
And as much as we are different from Otzi today we still very much are trying to understand our world and environment like Otzi. All aspects of society really pivot off this premise- politically, socially, economically, culturally, etc. Granted our tools, technology and resources are different but that inner drive or need has not changed. Why is this the case? Because the alternative is our destruction and death both in a micro and macro sense. Said historian Clark G. Reynolds-
“Humanity’s ultimate desire or need is to explain its surrounding environment because failure in the capacity results in death.”
Like primitive humanity and its cyclical world (which goes back well beyond the days that Otzi roamed the Alps) there still exists today a tremendous amount of mystery regarding the three great mysteries- birth, death and rebirth. The seasons bore out these mysteries in nature by offering birth in the spring, death in winter and rebirth once again come the next spring.
So humanity has a built in need to survive, like all species. Where is our uniqueness? Isn’t it the ability to reason? I would say yes that is a defining aspect of our uniqueness but to me it is beyond that, or maybe in addition to that. Reason alone does not completely explain spirituality, transcendence or the basis of faith. Our true uniqueness can be found in this spiritual aspect of humanity. For some this plays out through religion but for many others it is rooted in simply humanity’s desire and ability to extend beyond itself, recognizing or acknowledging that human beings are a part of a higher order, that human existence and human meaning cannot always be explained through the tangible world. Indeed, it is a sentiment that there is something beyond us and more powerful than us- a belief in God for example.
Generally speaking one can be spiritual but not necessarily religious, however to be religious (practicing one’s faith) and not spiritual is rather incompatible. One may for instance have been forced to go to weekly mass as a child, however, at some point this child now a mature adult would hopefully make a conscious choice to go or not go to mass based on their personal beliefs of faith- not merely the fact that they went as a child because they were forced to by their parents. It should be noted too that it is possible to be spiritual and not possess a belief in God, however, I would argue that the fact that humans are spiritual showcases the concept that essence precedes existence. But I am getting a little bit ahead of myself. . .more on that in greater detail later.
I had mentioned in the first paragraph that our need to understand nature manifests itself on a multitude of levels. What I mean by this is that for many people understanding our environment and our place in it is more than just having birch fungus available when scaling the Alps like Otzi. It is more than just physical survival and being comfortable. Indeed for many, it is recognizing the role of our spirituality in helping to understand nature and explain our place in it. Put simply, being spiritual is our defining essence or distinguishable trait as humans. It is baked in or pre-programmed in who we are as humans. Due to spirituality’s built-in aspect it’s therefore unavoidable. All of which brings the concept of the existence or belief in God to the forefront.
But that will all have to wait for my next blog post. . .