Monday, August 10, 2009

#52. "Exciting Times"


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For readers who did not receive the announcement I sent out about starting a new series of posts dealing with the convergence of science and religion, here's what I said:


If you're receiving this, it's because at some point in the last two and a half years you expressed interest (in one way or another, positive or negative), or because you're attracted to the new cosmology, or because your work (in science or spirituality-- or both) is mentioned, or simply because I know that you're goodwilled and would like to receive this announcement.

It's a one-shot. You won't hear from me again about it-- unless you would like to be notified when a new post appears, as some readers in the past have requested. Let me know if you want to be on the new list.

That's it. We live in wonderfully exciting times. My good wishes for your part in it.

Those last lines resulted in some interesting comments from readers who sent a request that they be put on the notification list.

The comments were primarily about the environmental crisis, and made two main points: that "we also live in frightening times" and that the reason why our times are so frightening is that "people just don't give a damn."

Those comments suggested to me that I should say why I think that we do indeed live in "wonderfully exciting times."

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As I see it, the essence of what's happening in the contemporary world is that humanity is moving out of the patriarchal worldview.

We are in the midst of an immense transition, a great turning away from those long-held static attitudes of the past which are responsible not only for the Earth's present environmental crisis but also for innumerable injustices to the Earth's people.

We are recognizing-- thanks to 20th-century science-- that we live in an evolutionary world.

We can see, now, not only that the universe is developmental rather than static, but that we ourselves are the world coming to its conscious stage of development on our planet. This is the very essence of our new scientific understanding of the cosmos.

But it is also a new understanding of anthropos. That, as the famous British biologist Julian Huxley worded it, "we are the universe become conscious of itself."

Of course, even in the static worldview, it is obvious that humans are uniquely self-aware creatures. But now, thanks to modern science's dynamic worldview, we are also aware that our self-awareness is the self-awareness of the evolving universe.

And that's what allows us to see, in a way that our recent ancestors could not, that we are participants in the Earth's evolutionary development, that we belong to it and are part of it all.

In the most literal sense, all the creatures of the Earth are our relatives. And if they are our relations, then they matter to us. And we know from experience that we take care of what matters to us. As I see it, the fact that we take care of what we value is the only "solution" to the environmental crisis.

I wrote about the idea of our time of Great Turning in several previous posts, specifically #35 (Aspects of the Immense Transition, Parts 1 & 2) and #36 (Aspects of the Immense Transition, Parts 3 & 4). But it is the central idea in this entire blog. Almost every post deals with it in one way or another; for example, #14 (Person as Process), #17 (What is the Universe Doing?), #22 (The Other Half of "Person"), #47 (The Growing Edge) and #50 (The End of Patriarchy).

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While our Paleolithic ancestors understood well, as do the peoples of surviving tribal cultures, that all the living things of the Earth are our relations, an understanding of this "human-Earth relationship," as Thomas Berry calls it, was lost to western culture and patriarchal religion a long time ago.

Its recovery, in this time of Great Turning, is one of the reasons why the Earth-centered spirituality of Native Americans is so attractive to those who are aware of the new cosmology. What's "new" in the term "new cosmology" is precisely humanity's beginning to see again the connection between ourselves and the evolving universe. This new view of both cosmos and anthropos together is precisely what makes our times so exciting.

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I certainly don't deny that our times are also frightening. But life has always been frightening.

We are easily injured and often get sick. Our parts break down or don't work right. Just being born is a major accomplishment; most human embryos don't make it through the nine-month gestation period. And once we're born we begin life totally helpless and clueless. It takes us months and years to become aware of ourselves and the world around us.

Parents usually do the best they can, often in difficult circumstances, but our emotional and psychological development is easily distorted; we readily get scarred by what happens to us-- or what doesn't happen to us when it should. And imbalances in society make for unequal opportunities and unfair availability of decent supplies of food, shelter and education.

Our whole existence is fragile. And no matter how healthy and well-off we are, we know that our life will come to an end, just as does the life of every living thing on Earth.

So, as I see it, it's not so much our times as it is our very existence that's frightening.

And yet it's no less true-- specifically because of our growing awareness of the global environmental crisis-- that our times are especially frightening as well, since we are beginning to realize that by destroying the environment we are damaging our home-- our own human habitat, our ecos. Words like "ecology" and "economics" are based on that Greek word for "home."

We know that most plant and animal species become extinct if their habitat is destroyed-- that they can't survive in an inhospitable habitat which isn't really their home. And neither can we.

So what's really frightening is that even though we are more adaptable than most other living things-- that adaptability is part of our uniqueness as self-aware persons-- to not "give a damn about saving the Earth" is the pathological destruction of our own our habitat.

But I think it's exactly that pathological situation that's changing.

We are coming to see that planet Earth is in fact our mother, that we're not aliens trapped in the natural world but participants in it.

Just recently I heard a young person say to her father, "I want to be 'green'." It's exciting when little people, you and me, want to care about the physical world of nature, our mother, our home. They do "give a damn."

And this really is new. After several centuries of the static and mechanistic worldview promoted by 18th-century rationalist science, and the depression, discouragement and despair that characterized much of the 20th century which resulted from it, human existence is once again, and this time thanks to late 20th-century science, becoming meaningful.

Life is indeed frightening, biologically and culturally, but what makes our times so exciting is that for the first time ever we're coming to see not only that we can do something about it but also that that's what we're supposed to be doing.

We are becoming aware, as never before in human history, that what happens to us is up to us. We're coming to see that things like poverty, hunger, racial and gender injustice, war and violence of every kind-- including violence against our mother planet-- are not simply "fate" or "the will of God" or "just the way things are." Doing something about it is our very vocation in the cultural evolution of life on Mother Earth. It's what we're for. It's our purpose, our calling, our role, our task. In Thomas Berry words, it's our "great work."

After several centuries of the static mechanistic perspective, we're coming to see our own significance. And that to me, by any meaning of the word, is exciting.

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Thomas Berry notes that the necessary "transformation of human priorities" won't come easily. But, as he says, from now on “the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.”

When we are aware of our place in the grand scheme of things, we can see that the promotion of "a mutually enhancing relationship" between anthropos and cosmos is indeed our task and that it is our "great work.”

In academic anthropology, a people's understanding of their "place in the scheme of things" is called their cosmology. The new cosmology which results from the dynamic-evolutionary worldview-- the growing awareness of the human-Earth (anthropos-cosmos) relationship which we have in our day from the findings of modern science about our place in the grand scheme of things-- is one that all of the peoples of the world can share in common. And every day more and more people are becoming aware of it.

Ours is the first time in world history that all humanity has a common cosmology. That's at least part of why I can say, "We live in wonderfully exciting times."

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Berry specifies that, in this transformation of human priorities, we need to put our energies into four big areas: "politics, economics, education and religion."

When it comes to evaluating the area of politics-- in terms of whether it is inhibiting, ignoring or fostering "a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship”-- probably nothing helped us more than the disasters of the American presidency in the first eight years of the 21st century. Even those who lives are caught up in the distractions of so-called "reality" TV such as American Idol eventually became aware that something was drastically wrong, that our political leaders had betrayed us.

And in the area of economics, probably no one in the world remains unaware that in terms of inhibiting, ignoring or fostering "a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship,” our economic leaders have also betrayed us.

Neither politics nor economics has been a personal focus of my life.

But the areas of education and religion have been-- especially science education and a viable everyday spirituality. The need to share my thoughts about their convergence led me to begin this blog.

Religion never meant for me following a list of dos and don'ts about private behavior that was handed down by authority figures. It was always about understanding the world we live in-- how it works and how it got to the way it is and where it seems to be going-- and of entering into it and enjoying it.

While there's no question that our political and economic leaders have betrayed us, it has taken much longer for an awareness of a betrayal on the part of our religious leaders to become widespread. I think it's simply because religion is such a conservative thing; its patriarchal-institutional forms remain stuck in the old static worldview.

But that awareness has begun to dawn on many. The fastest growing "religious" group in the United States is now made up of those who don't want anything to do with institutional religion.

A question we may ask is, "Why is it that our religious leaders remain so clueless?" My response is that I don't think they're any more clueless than our economic or political leaders. In all three areas, our leaders simply don't know any better. They are ignorant in the most basic sense; their betrayal is due to their lack knowledge about themselves and about real people in the real world.

What they lack is precisely the dynamic worldview of new cosmology, that human beings as responsible participants in the cosmic process.

This is why I think education-- the fourth of Berry's areas of our great work-- is the most central one. You are probably thinking that I'm now going to say that our education leaders have also betrayed us. But I'm not. The fact is that the field of education doesn't have any leaders.

There are certainly lots of good teachers, and even some good administrators. But they are good at their jobs in spite of the educational system they work in, not because of it. Lack of leadership in the field of education makes even the institutional churches look like growing edge cultural phenomena.

If you think I'm being too hard on education and religion, I repeat again Berry's words, that from now on “the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.” (Italics added, this time.)

Using that criteria, we can see that if there's any area where putting our energies to our great work is a "do it yourself" project, it's the area of education. And no greater gift along those lines has been given to us than the internet. A tremendous amount of the world's knowledge, and even much of its wisdom, is available at our fingertips.

A good example of the promotion of self-education is Ryan McCarl's web site Wide Awake Minds. I first came across McCarl's work while reading his article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about religion and imagination. It appeared on December 10, 2007, the same day I had published post #26 (Help From Uncle Louie). Both deal with the same topic-- although obviously from very different starting points. But even that coincidence seems to me to be one more example of the fact that we live in exciting times.

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When a few paragraphs back I said that religion has always meant for me "understanding the world we live in-- how it works and how it got to the way it is and where it seems to be going-- and of entering into it and enjoying it," you may have thought, "that sounds more like science than religion."

For me, it's a description of both. Obviously they're different, although just how they are different is not as obvious as it may seem, and understanding how they differ is important if we are to see their convergence. I'm planning to write about that distinction in my next post.

Why religion and science are similar is more clear: they are both doors to wonder and awe.

In a strong essay on the connection between the environmental crisis and the encounter with one another of the world's religions, Dr. Heather Eaton of St. Paul University in Ottawa says that wonder and awe are the very basis of that area of human life we call "religion." I agree, of course, but I think they are the basis of science, too. At least that's been my experience.

That's why I called this blog "sharing thoughts about the convergence of science and religion." Those two areas of human life, which seem so utterly different as to be mutually exclusive for some of us, really do converge, as I see it, with our experience of wonder and awe.

Dr. Eaton has some very important things to say in her essay about dealing with the environmental crisis in terms of wonder and awe. Her analysis of how the different views about it tie in with religious perspectives is simply excellent. I hope to share my understanding of it with readers in the very near future. So I have an agenda for the next few posts. Your feedback is welcome.

Sam's Sum: We are moving out of the static patriarchal worldview. We're turning away from those long-held attitudes of the past which are responsible for the Earth's present environmental crisis. And we are, thereby, waking up to our ability to deal with what makes our times so frightening. That's encouraging. And, for me, makes our times wonderfully exciting!

sam@macspeno.com

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.