Friday, September 18, 2009

#55. "All we have to do..."

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We take care of what we value. That's the main point of the very different thinkers, Jakob Wolf and Heather Eaton, whose ideas I described in my two most recent posts.

This post is a followup. It's about the importance of personal experience in taking care of the Earth in this time of environmental crisis. From their distinctive perspectives and in very different languages these two thinkers agree that neither western science, with its intentionally rationalist thought, nor the western religious tradition, with its disdain for the Earth, can help much.

As I described in post #53 (Bridging the Gap), from a philosophical point of view, Professor Jakob Wolf of the University of Copenhagen says we need a third thing. He calls it the "phenomenological apprehension of intelligent design in nature."

He makes clear why science can't provide us with a sense of what's important to us. That's simply not what science is about. It's neither what science was invented for, back in the time of the ancient Greeks, nor what science has been doing for the last five centuries.

As I described in post #54 (We Take Care of What We Value), Dr. Heather Eaton of St. Paul University in Ottawa comes from another starting point, but she too agrees that neither science nor religion are sufficient in themselves.

"The ecological crisis has not made much of a dent in the western religious consciousness," says Dr. Eaton. "The Christian tradition has not been able to deal effectively with evolution." The insight that the earth is our home is "an enormous challenge to our ecologically dysfunctional patriarchal religious traditions."

What's needed in this time of environmental crisis, Dr. Eaton says, is the coming together of humanity's ancient religious traditions with the much more recent evolutionary cosmology of 20th-century science. It's their convergence that we need.

Why? Because "we take care of what we value" and what leads us to ethical responsibility is personal experience.

Whether we call it "the apprehension of intelligent design" or "the experience of the sacred"-- or use more familiar words like "reverence," "mysticism," or "contemplation"-- it's that experience that we need if we are to contribute to the healing of the Earth.


Probably most of us don't respond positively to Professor Wolf's term, the "phenomenological apprehension of intelligent design"-- even though he makes very clear that it's nothing more than a philosophical name for the personal experience of nature's intelligibility.

It's difficult to relate to the idea well, as he says, because the term has been "compromised" by Christian fundamentalists in the USA who use it in support of their creationist views.

For many of us, Dr. Eaton's words speak more strongly when she says that to heal the Earth we need to recover the age-old basis of all religious experience "in the experience of the sacred."

But most of us aren't much more comfortable with a term like "the sacred"-- or even with the traditional religious words such as "contemplation" and "mysticism"-- than we are with Dr. Wolf's "phenomenological apprehension of nature's intelligibility."


What about "wonder and awe"?

Those are good words. I think we need to hold on to them; they may be the best we have to talk about the experience of the sacred.

But even "wonder and awe" has been compromised in our day by the similar-sounding phrase "shock and awe" used by America's political and military leaders to describe what they hoped would happen when they invaded Iraq.

When it comes to "awe," our only everyday use is the exclamation even my five-year-old grandson says often, "Awesome!" And while we know what the experience of "wonder" is, we also know that it's not what we mean when we describe something as "wonderful."

"Sacred" is the one word we still use to describe things that are important to us. When we hear something mocked or treated more lightly than it should be, for example, we tend to say (or maybe just think quietly to ourselves), "Is nothing sacred?"

Clearly, we use "sacred" to refer to things that are of value to us. So our experience of the Earth-- as sacred-- is important for its healing simply because, as both Dr. Eaton and Dr. Wolf each in their own way say, "we take care of what we value."

In this time of environmental crisis, their point is a very practical one.


A major problem, however, is that in our culture the experience of wonder and awe is usually considered a purely personal matter. It is "acceptable as a private experience," says Dr. Eaton, "yet it is often belittled, ignored or dismissed as socially relevant."

Obviously it's not a purely personal matter, however-- not if dealing well with the environmental crisis depends on it. Dr. Eaton points this out even in the very title of her paper: sacred awe and wonder is at the nexus of religion, ecology and politics.

As I mentioned in the previous post, her paper, "This Sacred Earth: At the Nexus of Religion, Ecology and Politics," isn't readily available in print form, but she gave me an OK to share it with friends. If you would like a copy, send me a note:


One of the main reasons why the experience of the sacred isn't readily understood in our culture is because, as Dr. Eaton says, "the primary mode of knowing in Western societies is analytic" and, as a way of being aware of reality, "analysis has its limits."

The experience of awe and wonder is a different kind of awareness.

The fact that there are different kind of conscious awareness is something I've talked about in many previous posts. Because there are four distinct kinds of conscious knowing, this perspective is often referred to as a quaternary or mandalic understanding. I described it in detail in post #29 (The Four-fold Mind).

I've made use of it (in post #30) to talk about the traditional ways of being religious, in a half-dozen posts (#40 through #45) to describe the Sophia/Wisdom perspectives at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and (in posts #35 and #36) to help make sense of the many aspects of the Immense Transition we are presently experiencing.

These four functions of the conscious mind were spelled out explicitly early in the 20th century by Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung. Today they are known to almost everyone in terms of the Myers-Briggs personality typology. It's even on Facebook. (You can find "What's Your Myers-Briggs Personality Type?" on the Facebook Apps page-- along with "Which Teletubbie Are You?")

Long before C. G. Jung, Myers-Briggs and Facebook, however, the fact that we have a four-fold mind was known to the people of many earlier cultures.

On the Native American Medicine Wheel, for example, each of the mind's functions is pictured by an animal and associated with one of the four directions, the four seasons and the four times of day. I've made use of that imagery in many posts. I think it's one of the best tools we have for our self-understanding.

It is especially helpful in understanding wonder and awe.


Our ability to experience the sacred via awe and wonder is pictured on the Medicine Wheel as a shamanic Black Bear. It's an image of the same function of the conscious mind which C. G. Jung calls "Intuition," the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant refers to as "archetypal intuition," and Jakob Wolf calls "phenomenological apprehension."

Black Bear is located on the west on the Medicine Wheel, directly opposite the Gold Eagle of the east. It's this Gold Eagle awareness-- Jung calls it simply our "Thinking function"-- which deals with the rational cause-and-effect workings of patterns in nature and is the very essence of scientific analysis.

It's because "the primary mode of knowing in Western societies is analytic," as Dr. Eaton says, that the experience of the sacred via our Black Bear (Intuition) ability isn't readily understood in our culture. We need to balance our Gold Eagle (Thinking) ability with our Black Bear (Intuition) capacity if we are to heal our home, the sacred Earth.


Jung calls Black Bear (Intuition) "the religious function" because it doesn't make distinctions as Gold Eagle (Thinking) awareness does. It makes connections. Native Americans express this experience of the sacred with the phrase "All my relations!"

One of the most helpful understandings I know of the mind's Black Bear (Intuition) ability comes, rather surprisingly, from the eminent 20th-century German Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner. He calls this capacity we have to experience awe and wonder "self-transcendence."

As a conscious person in the material cosmos, says Rahner, each of us experiences ourselves at a deep level as being utterly open to all things. We don't have any limits; we are connected with everything that exists; we simply do not exist apart from the infinite unbounded reality underlying the whole universe. I've described this more fully in post #34 (Talking About Us).

Obviously, many people in Western culture are not at ease with such an understanding of themselves. But it's much more familiar to people in Asian cultures, and it is one of the reasons why westerners, in this time of Immense Transition, are turning to the religious traditions and spiritual practices of the East.


So, this is not only a time of Immense Transition due to the discovery of the new scientific cosmology, it is also a time of Great Turning for the world's religions themselves. We live in nothing less, says Dr. Eaton, than a "new religious moment" in the history of the world.

And because of the environmental crisis, says Dr. Eaton, "it is pressing for all religious traditions to reclaim their roots in the natural world."

She notes that, East and West, "Each tradition has an awareness that the natural world is a primary place of revelation and religious experience" and that "it is only in recent history that this has not been so."

With regard to the West, for example, she says that the Christian faith in its recent history "has belittled the earth as a religious reality." And that this "diminished Christian awareness of a sacred indwelling presence in the natural world" is "one of the central causes of the ecological crisis and the excessive domination and exploitation of the earth."

Christians are "faced with the task of allowing their theological understanding to be transformed," and as Dr. Eaton notes, this task is "an enormous challenge to our ecologically dysfunctional patriarchal religious traditions."


But it's not the western religious tradition alone that's being challenged by the environmental crisis. All the world religions , she says, "need to reclaim their heritage"-- to rediscover their roots in the world of awe and wonder.

If we are to heal the Earth, we have to "reacquaint ourselves with the divine presence revealed within the natural world." Because we take care of what we value, "to encounter the sacred in the natural world moves us to resist its destruction."

The question, then, is a very practical one: How do we "reacquaint ourselves with the divine presence revealed within the natural world." How are we to "encounter the sacred"?

Dr. Eaton says simply, "Awareness of the power of wonder and awe is available to anyone who spends time in the natural world."
Is it as simple as that?

I think it is.


The experience of the sacred isn't considered socially acceptable but, as Dr. Eaton says, "the capacity for awe remains omnipresent." Awe and wonder is a normal aspect of human experience. It's in our hearts. It's part of our DNA.

C. G. Jung says it. Native Americans say it. Karl Rahner says it.

There's one catch. In Dr. Eaton's words: "To marvel at the natural world requires a transcendence of our superficial worldviews and beliefs."

We may be potentially open to everything, as Rahner says, but we'll never actually experience awe and wonder if we don't literally spend time with nature. We need to "phenomenologically apprehend, " as Jakob Wolf would say, the intelligible patterns operating in the natural world.

Dr. Eaton quotes the famous Jewish theologian who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma in 1965, Abraham Heschel, about the difference between what happens to us when we do, and don't, spend time in nature.

"Away from the immense," says Rabbi Heschel, "cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything. But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight. We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being."

When we spend time in the world of nature and find ourselves aware of our connectedness to everything-- when we experience that all things are "our relations"-- we simply cannot sneer, or mock, or scoff at our own experience. We just need to let the experience happen.


For many years, my wife Anne and I have included on our Christmas cards a few words from Teilhard de Chardin's essay "In Expectation of the Parousia" found at the conclusion of his early work, The Divine Milieu.

Teilhard's words are his way of expressing the profound idea that Heather Eaton and Jakob Wolf are trying to spell out for us.

His words may sound simplistic. But in terms of taking care of what we value, they are profound.

How do we experience the Earth as sacred?

Teilhard says, "All we have to do is let the heart of the earth beat within us."


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ARCHIVE TECHNICAL PROBLEM: Since I started this new series of posts, each time I publish one, an earlier one vanishes from my Archives list; they're still there, just not visible. Until tech support can deal with this, I'm putting links to those "missing" posts here.

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.