I was not prepared for the level of awe that I would feel walking into the Pantheon for the first time. I was in Rome on vacation, and we had already seen the Colosseum earlier that day, which I found to be fascinating but to be honest, it didn’t sweep me off my feet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome, I’m very glad I saw it, but I didn’t really “feel” anything when I stepped inside. There was no sensation of “being in its presence." I was just there, and it was there too. On the other hand, when I took my first few steps into the belly of the Pantheon, its cavernous, shadowed dome looming like an oncoming storm high above my head, it hit me right in the gut. I know this is not a controversial opinion, but it is truly awe-inspiring. I had seen pictures for my entire life, and I had never felt a thing. Which one is that again? Parthenon? Something like that? But being there, being enveloped on all sides, breathing in the cold, dark atmosphere of this ancient, hallowed place, it isn’t difficult to understand why even after the fall of polytheism, and then ultimately the Roman Empire itself, no one who came across it could bring themselves to tear it down. I am not a religious person, but I have to admit that standing in the circular pool of light beneath the Pantheon’s oculus as people were hustled out for closing time around me, I did find myself thinking: “there is something superhuman about this place.”
Since then, I’ve thought a lot about that feeling, where it comes from, what it may actually mean. Of course, many would say that I was simply feeling the presence of God. But as someone who believes that the concept of “God,” the concept and the word itself, are inventions of human beings, I was curious to try and step back to our earliest stages of cultural evolution and see the more malleable and fluid origins of this, before language came along and ruined the ambiguity.
Over the last few months, I’ve been taking an online course called “Big History,” taught by renowned historian David Christian. Basically, it’s a series of 48 lectures that begins at the Big Bang and ends with the modern day (holy crap, I know). Slowly but surely, I am making my way through it, and it has been consistently fascinating. In a lecture entitled "What Makes Humans Different,” Christian said something that I felt was pertinent to this Pantheon experience. In short, he said that the most notable advancement that Homo sapiens made over all other preexisting species was in their capacity for “collective learning.” Meaning, while apes and other intelligent animals were not necessarily less clever or resourceful, what they lacked was our unique ability to communicate complex, symbolic ideas to one another, which could then be stored in the collective communal consciousness and be used to benefit future generations. He compares the learning capacity of other species to Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill. Individuals would make progress in gaining knowledge and adapting to new environments throughout their life, but without any substantive ability to communicate it, their progress would be lost when they are. The boulder rolls back down, and the big push has to happen again from scratch. “We face the world as members of a large extended community that reaches out in time and space to include everyone who has contributed anything to our cultural heritage,” explains Christian. “Chimps have to do it, more or less, alone. If you doubt this for a moment, just ask: how much of the knowledge in your brain or the information imbedded in the objects you use around you could have been generated by you alone in a single lifetime?” Chimps, and all other species, function like isolated computers. We, on the other hand, are networked. Our collective computing power is beyond anything this planet has ever seen, which explains our unprecedented adaptability and our exponential rise to dominance.
In accepting this hypothesis as the explanation for our uniqueness as a species, I found myself thinking about that “awe-struck” feeling again. Is it possible that this feeling of a “superhuman” presence is in fact an acute awareness of raw power of billions of compounded human lives? Might the concept of “God” as we define it feel all-knowing because we are sensing the aggregation of all human knowledge, all-powerful because we sense the aggregation of all human power? There’s no doubt that the resonance of all ancient religious texts fits this hypothesis. Most historians agree that the wisdom contained in the Bible, for example, did not spring up out of nowhere. Not only did it initially arise as an aggregation of all the most poignant folk stories and spiritual lore of the time and place it was written, it also stems from generations and generations of moral evolution in our species. All of this has been gestating in our hive mind for hundreds of thousands of years before anyone got the chance to write it down, let alone print it and distribute it widely. And, while this is a controversial topic amongst believers, the Bible went through plenty of evolutionary stages as a text, often being tweaked by translators or church leaders to more adequately reflect their current needs or expectations. As theology professor Hugh Pyper says, “If 'survival of the fittest' has any validity as a slogan, then the Bible seems a fair candidate for the accolade of the fittest of texts.” This kind of evolutionary success is never accomplished by standing still. It is accomplished by adapting, and by building on previous success.
The same goes for the Pantheon. When I walk in and I think to myself “no mere mortal could build such a place,” I’m not wrong. No one human being could ever build such a place, not in a single lifetime. Not in one hundred lifetimes. Not only did this creation take ten years and hundreds of craftsman, it was all done from atop the shoulders of the individuals who first invented and experimented with concrete, brick, and granite. Pioneers in measurement, architecture, and design. No wonder it hits you as superhuman. In a sense, it truly is. Just imagine being a lowly peasant in the Roman Empire, visiting the Pantheon in its prime. You would have no education, no cultural context. Perhaps you haven’t even seen some of these building materials before, let alone an entire city built with them. The divine explanation would be literally all you could muster. Surely the Gods dropped this otherworldly perfection from the clouds! In truth, it is aggregate human knowledge masquerading as a spontaneous supernatural act, and I think even in the present day, we all experience this spiritually profound lack of context in the presence of great human work.
Years ago, I read a book called “The Evolution of God,” written by one of my intellectual heroes, Robert Wright. The book outlines the cultural evolution of the Judeo-Christian deity, from its roots in hundreds of anthropomorphic nature gods unique to particular villages or regions, to the mighty merged conglomerate and divine monopoly that is the One God. Another way to frame this movement, in the context of collective learning, is that as the world got smaller, as communication across continents became commonplace, humanity became more and more aware that it is a single entity, with a single collective history, and therefore, our collective aggregate knowledge and sense of morality is no longer fragmented and specialized to small groups, but in fact exists as a single, unfathomably deep and rich well of history. The One Story.
I believe you could go so far as to frame all spiritually, all moments of “awe,” as a subconscious involuntary reaction to the profound power nested in the aggregate depth of humanity. Perhaps we’re all aware of it, like a constant hum in the background. It’s always there, behind every human creation, behind every pair of eyes. I think instead of mislabelling these moments as a connection with the divine, with something above, I think we should see them as a connection with something foundational, something within.