What makes us become human is the intimacy and intensity of our cooperation with the mystery of life.

A full transcript of the talk can be read below:

Thank you for inviting me to give the first talk, which is, on the one hand, a little difficult because you are not yet in the spirit of the whole. But, on the other hand, it gives you an opportunity to look at the whole topic. And so I would like to put my own topic, which is “What will make us human?” into the context of the overall theme of being human in a technological world.

Notice already that there is a slight discrepancy between the idea of what will make us human and being human in a technological world. And that indicates that I’m convinced that being human that it’s not something that you have. But it is something that you become, will become human. It is a project. Becoming human is a project.

One of the questions that we will have to ask is, “How do we become human?”

How do we become human?

And I would like to tackle, under this aspect, three questions. The first is, “What does it mean to become human in a technological world?” And, “Why is this particularly difficult in a technological world?” And, finally, “How could science and technology help us in the process of becoming human?”

It’s not necessarily as negative as it sounds in the overall topic.

So, the first question is then, “What does it mean to become human in any kind of world?” Not only in the technological one.

And I would like to proceed experientially. What does it mean for you, personally, each one of you, to become human?

Unless we link it to this personal experience, it will just be talking, feeling, up there somewhere. Try and think of a moment in your life in which you, you were really at your best. Where you somehow glimpsed, for a moment at least, that is what it means to be fully human. And that must be the starting point for asking, “What is our goal and what direction are we going when we speak of becoming human?”

The key term in psychology is peak experience. Ideally, if you know what a peak experience is and if you remember one of your peak experiences that would be a good starting point. But, think of any moment that was really a high point in your life. For women, that is very often when they give birth to children. Love, making love. Nature, encountering nature. I particularly like the idea of music. A moment of music in which you’re really carried away. This is already a very interesting expression that is frequently used in this context of this kind of experience that I ask you now to remember, “I was carried away.” “It touched me.” “I was swept off my feet.”

They are not completely passive. They are interactive. But we are certainly not in control…This is something that you can’t bring about willingly. You can give yourself willing to it, but you cannot willfully bring it about.

And there we have already two very important aspects. Think of this moment of music, and it touches you deeply, and you are in a timeless moment. That is one important aspect. It’s now. Most of the time, we are, for the most part of us hanging onto the past or the other half is stretching out into the future. There is very little left to be in the present moment. But in this kind of peak moment that I’m talking about, you’re totally present in the Now. And this is one aspect, and the second aspect is, life did it to me. Something did it to me. When you say, “It grabbed me. I took hold of me.” That was life. Life. And life is a mystery. And this keyword, mystery of life, will be very important for everything I have to share with you. The mystery of life. And with regard, because in that moment, in our best moments, we are confronted with the mystery of life. But, with regard to mystery, we have to be very careful.

What do we mean by mystery?

First, there are three challenges with regard to mystery. Whenever you take this burning word into your mouth, you have to be very careful and read three challenges. One is, not to mystify mystery. We are to know exactly what we mean by it. The second is, not to disregard mystery. We will come to that. And the third one is, to trust and cooperate with this mystery of life. But trust, don’t mystify it.

What do we mean by mystery?

And it’s very clear. It is an actuality, and I explicitly use this word–actuality instead of reality. It has everything about reality but it goes beyond it. It acts on us. It is really real. But it has nothing to do with the thing. It is an actuality that acts on us but we cannot analytically grasp. We cannot get it into our grasp. We think of this moment of music. It took hold of you. You cannot grasp what, in larger terms, what is the essence of music. Nobody can do that. But you can understand it. So mystery, the mystery of life is what I refer to, is an actuality that you cannot conceptually grasp but that you can understand if you allow it to do something to you. If you interact with it. And understanding, in the English language means, that you stand under it. One of my Zen teachers used to say, “Oh, you in the West, you always want to, you say you want to understand but what you really want is to over stand, and hold everything and grasp everything.”

Understanding is to open yourself and to interact with this actuality that you cannot grasp but that you can understand if you allow it to do something to you. And that allows us, now, to put this concept of mystery into the model of a human person.

As a human person, before I come to speak about the mystery in this context just as a human person, you are a self. You are Self. Your Self is the observer. If you want to find yourself, you just step back, poetic expression, step back and watch yourself. I can watch myself talking and you watch yourself listening. Watch yourself. And as long as there is an observer, that observes that observer, you’re not far enough. But when you reach the point of the observer, you are the observer whom nobody any more observes, can observe, the optimal observer, that’s your Self.

And when we say, “I myself,” and I really want to emphasize I myself, we speak of this double realm in which we normally live as human beings because we add to the Self the I. I, myself. And the “I” is in time and space. There was a time when I was not, and there’s a time when I will not be. And so I am in time and in space. But, I am also myself. And the observer, whom nobody else can observe, is not in time and space. But these are not two halves of one whole. They are one. They are simply one. You cannot emphasize it enough. Rilke, the poet Rilke, speaks of the double realm. Only in the double realm can you really touch the truth and that double realm means not two halves, not two, but one with two aspects. The I, myself.

And now it can happen that this I forgets the Self. Or, acts as if the Self were not here. And that is the moment when we get the third possibility. We have the Self, we have I myself, and then the I forgets the Self, then this I myself breaks apart, and what remains is the I but now it shrivels up into the ego. Now we have the ego. The ego is not an additional something. It is the I that has forgotten the Self. And therefore, shrivels up into practically nothing and is afraid. We immediately become afraid because it has lost the Self and the Self is one. It cannot be divided. There are not many Selves. The language doesn’t allow to speak of self in plural. It’s one Self. All of us have only one Self. But we have billions of individuals Is that are completely different from one another. When I speak of I, myself, then I hold the two together and I don’t have to be afraid. We are all one, whom shall I be afraid of? But when I forget the Self, then, suddenly, I get fearful. Fearful. Because I’m just my little ego now and I’m confronted with billions of other little egos and they want to get ahead of me and maybe there isn’t enough for all of us and so we get into all the problems that characterize our world. Fear leads to this power pyramid that characterizes our society in which the ones on top are fearful that others could get to the top and those a little further down use their elbows in rivalry to get ahead of one another and everybody from top to bottom is afraid that there isn’t enough for all and so everybody gets greedy. And that is the unfortunate situation in which we find ourselves because our society is an ego-driven society. And the opposite of that, because we disregard mystery, and now you come to mystery. How does mystery get into this model of the Self, the I myself, and the ego?

The Self is aware of the mystery. Our Self is that observer, is that, I don’t want to say part of us because it’s an aspect of our Self that is aware of mystery. It’s aware of mystery under the aspect that I am through you, so I. I can’t have a relationship with this mystery. We have to say more later on. But, that I can say, I, I myself, is founded on the reality that I can have a personal relationship to this mystery. The I myself, participates in mystery. But to participate does not necessarily mean being aware of it. It can be aware or it can not be aware. If I’m truly I myself then that Self that is aware of mystery, is part of my life. If I forget it, then I come to the ego, that’s unaware of the mystery. That characterizes the ego. So, to truly become human, we need to interact with mystery because we know from our own experience, you know from experience, that when you were at your best, you were interacting with this mystery. It did something to you and you gave yourself to it.

And when you become aware of it, don’t disregard mystery. That is the next point, don’t disregard it, we have already mentioned it. Because this whole power pyramid has for its foundation a disregard for mystery. It’s an ego culture that we have created. A disregard for mystery. But when you regard mystery, when you interact with it, you find that life has a direction.

Life has a direction. Life wants certain things and doesn’t want certain things. Mystery is not just sitting there. It wants something. It’s a movement. And it moves. Life moves towards further and further integration. Wonderful title of one of Flannery O’Connor’s novels or short stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Everything That Rises Must Converge. Life, as it arises, wants more and more interaction, and more and more variety at the same time. There is not such a thing as the generic leaf. There are millions of different forms of leaves. Why? They all do the same when it comes to function. They all have the same function. There’s no reason why evolution… The leaves. You have to look at them very carefully. The beaks of the finches, okay, Darwin could show that this is a cause, that has a cause. But that an oak leaf is different from a maple leaf, and they are different from a strawberry leaf. Where’s the evolutionary advantage of that?

If you look carefully, life wants variety. Wants it. Craves variety. So those two things. Life wants interaction and life wants variety. And if you apply this in your own life, as our life unfolds, our human life, what ought to unfold is belonging. Interaction, belonging, interaction, relationships. A human being grows to be more and more truly human the more relationships and the more valuable relationships we have. Interaction. And, allowing your uniqueness. Affirming your uniqueness. And there we come from a very strange detour, so to say, by following the direction of what we want in our life, and that is human dignity.

Life, human life, develops towards human dignity. And human dignity, psychologists tell us, comes about when a child, naturally will come about, when a child feels part of, unconditionally part of the family. Unconditionally loved. And love is the “yes” to belonging. A child feels, even if I misbehave, I might be punished but the main thing is I belong. Unconditionally, regardless of what I do. And if that is given to a child, plus the second aspect, the value of your uniqueness. You’re not part of the family because you shape up and you are like everybody else. No. We like you to be different. And if these two things come together, then the lucky child grows into a sense of dignity. And if a human being has dignity, we cannot be corrupted. Now imagine what – I cannot develop that any further but that is one the most important aspects. A human being with dignity cannot be corrupted. Now imagine what that does, would do, could do, to our society.

My first thesis, to each one of those questions I have a little thesis. The first is, is what makes us become human is the intimacy and intensity of our cooperation with the mystery of life. What makes us become human is the intimacy and intensity of our cooperation with the mystery of life. Because that will give us a sense of dignity. In our peak moments, experientially for each one of you, at your best moment, at your most truly human, fully human moment, you had this cooperation with the mystery of life, this interaction, it did something to you. And that brings us now to the next question, what makes becoming human so difficult in the technological world in which we live today?

What makes it so difficult?

And the short answer is, it is a largely an ego world. It has forgotten the mystery. It disregards the mystery of life. And you can think about that. I can’t, in this short time at our disposal, unfold all that. Just at first sight it is pretty obvious that our technological society forgets and even disregards the mystery of life. It doesn’t ask, “What is the direction of life, can we go along with the direction of life?” Completely different.

Explore this a little further. I ask the question, “What made our society so?”

“How did we get here?”

Because if you know how we got here, it would help us maybe… At least maybe it will indicate the direction of how we can get out of this mess. How did we get here?

That’s a very interesting historical process. It is a historical development, a mis-development, I would call it. An historical mis-development. That was based on a misunderstanding. Or on a series of misunderstandings. So, I don’t want to glorify previous times, but the historical period that we are talking about, where it got worse and worse with regard to awareness and cooperation with mystery, begins in the second half of the 16th century. At the same time, all the science and technology began to develop in the way in which we know them now.

And three periods characterize that misunderstanding that leads to this mis-development. And the keywords, that I will pick out because I find them helpful and I hope you find them helpful, is God, faith, and religion.

God, faith, and religion

God. I’m very careful unless the subject explicitly calls for it, as in the present moment, to avoid that term God. Because the moment you say, “God,” you have as many misunderstandings as you have people in the audience. But, what does it really mean correctly?

There must a correct understanding of the word God. And etymology helps us to understand that because the word God comes from a root, a German root, that means something like calling. Calling. Dialogue is the abstract of it. Very briefly defined, God is the mystery, that we have been talking about, under the aspect of being called upon. And calling us. In the moment in which we are carried away, it calls us. And not only then, if you’re attentive, every moment life calls us. Because every moment life wants something from us. The fact that we are so unaware of mystery is that we don’t ask and we don’t stop and then we don’t listen. “What does life from want from me at this present moment?”

If you’re doing that, that’s the ultimate fulfillment of spiritual life. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of human life. Moment by moment, to be in contact with the mystery of life, well what do you want from me?

And do it. Stop, look, and do it. But we are far from that. We are far from that. But God, the word God, means, be in personal relationship with mystery. One aspect of it is… But e.e. cummings, the poet e.e. cummings, puts into the line, “I am through you, so I.”

It is in view in the mystery that I am I because that I can say I presupposes a you. And it’s this you that makes my I is more than the sum total of all human yous. And again, I can show you that experientially. From your experience.

You think of your life as a story. I speak my life story. If I ask you to tell me your life story, you’ll tell me a little something. Life is not a sequence of episodes, it’s a story that unfolds. And we carry this story with us and we want to share it, especially with people whom we love. And when you try this, to share your deepest life story, with the person whom you most love and who most understands you, there still remains something that you can’t get across. Have you experienced that?

We all experience that we begin to think about it. To the most beloved person, you still cannot get it across. And that points to the fact — mystery is listening. The observer is listening to our life story. And in that sense, “I am through you, so I.”

Mystery is what a person is, for heaven’s sakes, that is where it gets us into all this trouble with the idea of God. You see how easy it is to jump now to the conclusion that mystery is a person. Mystery is not a person but mystery has all the perfection of personhood. You see?

It goes immensely beyond person but must have all the perfection of person. And I tell you a story that helped me see that from an unlikely source. And that was, I spoke to my Zen teacher, “Is there a God?”

Don’t think about God for very good reasons. But I said to him, “When you use this image that we, each one of us, is a wave that comes forth from the ocean and goes back into the ocean, a very frequently used image, when you speak about that, then your…get nervous. Because they feel now I have something very positive, being a person, being conscious of myself. Being able to interact with others. Being able to love. Then I just go back into some sort of a cosmic pudding.”

And he gave a perfect answer. And he said, “Personhood, being a person, where would the wave have it from if the ocean didn’t have it?”

Perfect answer. Where do you have it?

You didn’t invent it. You didn’t create it. You have it because mystery, the ocean, is interactive. As I am now with you. You can interact with it. That is a tremendous mystery. It’s the mystery of mystery. That is the main point because we are totally immersed in it, you see?

Even in the Christian tradition, when Paul speaks to, not to Christians but in Athens, he speaks to the philosophers, he uses a poet, of course I’m quoting one of your poets, “In God, we live and move and have our being.”

God isn’t somebody else. And yet, you can have a personal relationship to that mystery and under that aspect, we use the word God. That’s what it denotes if you use it correctly. And under this aspect, you can even speak as the mystery, too, of your lover. You see, mystery is your ultimate lover. And I would like to read in this context a short poem by Kabir, an Indian mystic, translated by Robert Bly, and Kabir says, “I talk to my inner lover and I say, why such a rush?”

And, “Why such a rush,” is the poetic expression of technological society. Why such a rush?

And then he says, “We sense that there is some sort of a spirit who loves birds and animals and ants.”

It would be very unpoetic to say, “A spirit that loves birds, animals, and insects.”

He wants to be specific. Not just insects. And the ant, and every hind leg of an ant he loves. That spirit. That is the great mystery. It loves it. Love means “yes” to belonging. Doesn’t that hind leg of the ant belong the whole and if it’s missing, something’s missing from the whole?

Listen there to the, “sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves birds and animals and ants. Perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you in your mother’s womb.”

How did we grow from an almost invisible fertilized cell into the people we are now?

The babies that are born, it’s totally mysterious. It has aspects that can be analyzed. But ultimately, it is mysterious. And not a kind of mystery that we’ll sooner or later solve. It’s the mystery. It’s the mystery of life that confronts us here.

“We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves birds and animals and the ants. Perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you in your mother’s womb. Is it logical you would walk around entirely orphaned now?”

Is that logical? No, you belong. You belong. That’s why he calls it the inner lover.

And then, he concludes, also very appropriate to our technological society, “The truth is you turned away yourself. And decided to go into the dark alone. Now you are tangled up in others and have forgotten what you once knew.”

Forgotten what you once knew, in your mother’s womb you knew.

“And that is why everything you do has some weird failure about it.”

Everything we do, in that society, has some weird failure about it and the rush is one aspect of that weird failure.

“I talk to my inner lover and I say, why such rush?”

“We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves birds and animals and the ants. Perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you in your mother’s womb. Is it logical you would be walking around entirely orphaned now?”

“The truth is you turned away yourself and decided to go into the dark alone. Now you are tangled up in others and have forgotten what you once knew. And that is why everything you do has some weird failure in it.”

The second keyword for things that go wrong is faith. Faith can mean, the word can mean two things. Trusting. I have faith in you. Or believing something. And more and more emphasis was put on believing something. And less and less on trusting, ultimately, the mystery of life.

What Kabir describes here, “this some sort of a spirit that gives a radiance to you in your mother’s womb,” that belongs to our natural religiousness. The natural religiousness is our interaction with the mystery. We like to call it today, spirituality. It’s fine, too. Religiousness is beautiful because it comes from the source of religare and that means, it ties broken ties. This aptitude of interaction with mystery ties, again, the relationships that are broken, relationships to ourselves, our true self, relationships to all others, including animals and plants, and the relationship to that ultimate mystery. A natural religiosity, or spirituality.

And how do we get from this beautiful reality to the religious?

That is one of the big problems. And your answer, is, inevitably.

Because now we can go back to your own experience, to your peak experience, and ask yourselves. In that moment, the peak moment, listening to that music, being carried away by it or whatever else it was, in that moment, you were neither thinking nor feeling, nor wanting, you were just there, present. But a moment later, your intellect kicks in and says, “What was that?”

And you have to give an answer. Out of the situation, out of what you know. You connect the unknown with the known. You give some answer. And you have the beginning of myth. Myths. Myth being a very positive, a truth expressed, a deep truth expressed, in poetic language. But the intellect is not the only thing. Your will also answers, not that we have different things inside but another aspect of yourself, your will says, “That was great. I felt wondrous awe. One ought to live like that.”

And that is the beginning of ethics. All ethics is reducible to that is how one should live, when one belongs. And the third is our emotions. The emotions also do something with that peak experience. And the emotions say, “Let’s celebrate that. That was beautiful. Let’s celebrate it.”

So we have the beginning of ritual. Ritual, the celebration of life. And that is why it is inevitably, even with your own peak experience comes about, and so in the course of history, there come along human beings who, in a very special way, are connected with this mystery of life and they become the founders of religions. They translate their peak experience into teaching, myth, teaching, into a moral code, and into ritual. And then you have a religion.

We all know that the religions have a tendency to become doctrinaire, dogmatic. Moralistic and ritualistic. Forgotten what the ritual is all about but they do it. How can we rescue that with our heart, our whole human person? Heart stands for the whole human person. It’s like life giving water that gushes forth there in the beginning, in the peak experience, and then in this cold climate of our world, it freezes. And when it’s frozen, the only way to thaw it out again is the warmth of your own heart. And the heart of every religion is the religiousness of the heart that has warmth enough to thaw out the great frozen dogmatism, moralism, ritualism, and turn it back into that living marker of interconnection with mystery.

Because of the misunderstanding of God, as I’ve indicated, God became a god. And of course, for a god, there is no room in the world of fact. So it had to be eliminated. We forgot the interaction of mystery. For faith, it became, the interaction between society, led by a church, that insisted on holding on to the truth over, against the extraordinary reality. It became believing something. And what both the church and science and technology misunderstood, both misunderstood, but now and then, with God, and misunderstood what faith meant. Believing something. And therefore, technological society, to develop as a human venture, has to refuse these two things.

But now we have to affirm them again because, and that is my second thesis, society can disregard mystery at its own peril. And what the peril is and has led to is what we experience every day. And finally, the question, “how can science, technology, contribute to our society’s becoming more human?”

How can science, technology, contribute to our society’s becoming more human?

And we can say that, very briefly, because it can contribute in the same way in which knowing and doing contribute to an individual’s becoming human through interaction with mystery. But for this, it is necessary to be aware of the mystery of life, to respect the mystery of life, and to be guided by the mystery of life. And then we will recognize that facts, all the facts we are after in science, are charged with value.Our facts are charged with value. If you don’t close yourself off, listening to mystery. And the values are factual. They’re not floating around somewhere. Factual. In our interaction with life.

For my final thesis, becoming human is a community project. You can become human, and ought to become human, individually. But actually, ultimately, we all belong together so intimately that becoming human is a communal project. And it’s a project of interacting with mystery and science and technology can contribute to that project because it can provide the methods and the tools for knowing and doing.

I would like to close by a poem, or only the first part of a well-known poem, by William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming. It describes the technological world as it is meant in our title. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre.”

Gyre is a circle.

‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”

We hide our relationship ’til the mystery’s gone.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The center, it cannot hold.”

What is the center? The mystery. Rilke calls it the center of withinness. That is the mystery. The center of withinness. The center cannot hold.

“The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

What is the ceremony of innocence? The celebration of the mystery in and through life.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Look at our particular scene in this technological world, and read, “The best lack all intention, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

And that is how I would like to sum up everything that I have to say here.

I wish you that passionate intensity of interaction with mystery that should transform our whole life and make us gradually more human.

Thank you.


This talk was given in Todi, Italy, June 2019. The week in Todi is a program to foster a new class of world leaders. A sequel to Cortona Week, the week in Todi is an interdisciplinary residence where graduate students and young leaders from all over the world and from all disciplines meet with artists, musicians, spiritual leaders, poets, professionals in medicine and psychology, and politicians. Br. David Steindl-Rast is co-founder of A Network for Grateful Living known and an important figure in the modern interfaith dialogue movement. Video by Hong Zhang.