Wednesday, August 11, 2010

#77. From Theory to Practice

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This post is part of the series I began with post #73: "Two Important Books."

In posts #74, 75 and 76 I spelled out some important ideas from Ken Wilber's The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Integrating Science and Religion. He provides a wonderfully clear explanation of why science has been at odds with religion ever since it began about 400 years ago and how it came about that science not only "corroded away all of religion's teachings" but also "led to the denial of the very existence of spiritual realities."

What was especially new to me was Wilber's description of Western culture's attempts over the last two centuries to deal with the loss of the traditional religious perspectives.

Those attempts-- known as the "post-modern movements" of Romanticism, Idealism and Deconstructionism-- all failed, but we have learned something of great significance from each of them for integration of science and religion in our day.

Two important principles have emerged.

Thanks to Romanticism, we can see that we do indeed need to recover our communion with the natural world that had been lost because of the take-over of culture by science.

And thanks to Idealism, we can see that the evolutionary perspective isn't anti-religion. Evolution is what religion is all about.

These two Post-modern principles provide us with a good summary of the basic ideas and ideals of the New Story of the Universe that's ours today thanks to science.

And as strange as it may seem, we can even learn something of importance from Deconstructionism. It can be stated both negatively and positively. Negatively, it's that we can see better, now, that no single viewpoint or position-- about anything-- is privileged: every truth, from whatever source, has to be considered partial.

What we can learn from Deconstructionism, stated positively, is the great value of diversity-- diversity of persons and ideas, diversity of ethnic backgrounds and cultural perspectives. Along with subjectivity and communion, diversity is one the three basic principles of the New Cosmology listed by Thomas Berry.

Wilber's Marriage of Sense and Soul has helped me see how all these ideas fit together. The more I learn of Wilber's work the more I think he may go down in the history of ideas as an extremely significant contributor to our self-understanding at this great turning point in humanity's cultural evolution.


I think Michael Dowd may go down in history, too. His book Thank God for Evolution presents us with a wealth of practical suggestions for a daily living out of the ideas and ideals of the New Cosmology. So these two important books go together as theoria and praxis.


The title of his book makes it clear that Michael Dowd is especially concerned with helping people from a religious background to see that the contemporary scientific view of the world-- far from being in conflict with religion-- allows it to blossom in a way traditional religion never could.

Dowd puts into everyday language what the Post-modern movement called Idealism recognized: that evolution is, indeed, "what religion is all about."

His book is not, however, addressed only to people coming from a religious background. With his remarkable ability to address everyone, believers and non-believers and everyone in between, Dowd is himself a model of the Post-modern Deconstructionist respect for the diversity of persons, perspectives and cultures.

So in my next few posts I will be sharing some thoughts about the practical ideas available in Dowd's book.

In this post I want to include some thoughts about just what praxis means in the context of the New Cosmology.


You may be thinking "we know what 'practice' means." I agree that we're comfortable with terms like "football practice" or "band practice."
But because science "corroded away all of religion's teachings and led to the denial of the very existence of spiritual realities," we may not have as clear idea as we can have of just what's meant by "spiritual or "religious" practice. As far as I know, no one has yet used a phrase like "New Cosmology praxis."

Wilber notes that the Post-modern Idealism had "one crippling inadequacy." Although it was "a glorious spiritual flower, the finest the West has ever known," he says "it lacked a yoga." It lacked, that is, an appropriate spiritual practice.

This may seem strange, given the profound religious history of Europe, with its contemplative traditions going all the way back to the early centuries of Christianity; but we need to keep in mind that, for most Western people, the cultural shift to Modernity wiped out all understanding of interiority. The "mind, soul and spirit" part of the Great Ladder of Being simply ceases to be a reality for most individuals in Western culture. Even today the concept of contemplation and spiritual practice remains an odd one for many-- maybe most-- Americans.

The science-religion conflict isn't just in terms of theoria. It's in terms of praxis, too.

After the Middle Ages, the idea of "spirituality" tended to be limited in meaning to a concern for the higher rungs of the Great Chain, so the more recent Western religious tradition overflows with spiritual "how-to" books like The Imitation of Christ and An Introduction to the Devout Life. They focus on an individual's relationship with the Divine-- the "God and me" attitude-- to the exclusion of the physical universe and humanity as a whole.

A contemporary understanding of spiritual practice obviously needs to include cosmos and anthropos as well as theos-- the physical world of human beings as well as of God.

In the perspectives of the New Cosmology, spiritual practice has to do specifically with we humans taking responsibility for our world. The New Story of the Universe lets us see, perhaps for the first time in human history, that we are called to create our own world.


One of Post-modernism's "moments of truth," as Wilber calls them, is the Deconstructionists' understanding that, in expressing itself via language, human consciousness isn't "simply a representation of a pre-given reality." It is, as he says, "a participation in the very construction of our world."

Speech, our uniquely human characteristic, is a powerful creative force: "Language creates worlds."

This idea-- that we human persons are participants in the creation of our world-- is not one found in traditional manuals of spiritual practice. But it is, I think, the very essence of any praxis for the New Cosmology.
In the dynamic perspectives of the New Cosmology, we humans, made in the image and likeness of the Creator, recognize ourselves as responsible for creating our own world. That responsibility-- being creative-- is what the New Cosmology spirituality is all about.


I mentioned in an earlier post that creativity refers especially to our powerful need and desire to know and understand the world-- its meaning, purpose, significance-- and that it refers to the drive we experience to seek to make our existence better. Words like "quest" and "invention" are basic aspects of the creative drive we find in us.

And it wasn't only religion which overlooked creativity. Wilber notes that the understanding of our creative role in the world was totally ignored-- completely missed-- by the flatland perspectives of Modernity as well. It's being newly discovered thanks to the New Cosmology-- as the very essence of New Cosmology's spiritual praxis.

Wilber uses the word "performance" to express this still strange idea that we actually make our own world by our understanding of it. Thomas Berry calls this participatory role in the evolution of the universe our "Great Work."

If "evolution is what religion is about" then, in the evolutionary perspectives of the New Cosmology, what the practice of religion is all about is precisely this Great Work of creating or making our world.
Dowd offers some down-to-earth practical details for going about performing our job. His Thank God for Evolution is a unique compendium or manual of praxis for living out the New Cosmology in everyday life. So I'll be sharing some thoughts along those lines in the next few posts.


Meanwhile, I want to mention another person whose practical ideas are of great relevance to the New Cosmology praxis: Dr. Vandana Shiva, a philosopher and physicist from India who has become world-famous for her work combining concern for the Earth and the rights of the oppressed, especially the rights of women. I hadn't heard of her until a few months ago.

She was principle presenter at a recent conference the Sisters of Earth held on the weekend after the Fourth of July at Thomas Berry's old place on the Hudson, north of New York City. She spoke at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia a few days later.

Her talk has been made available on the web by the Academy of Natural Sciences' Center for Environmental Policy. With the introductions, it runs 80 minutes, but it's well worth watching.

It's a wonderful presentation of what spiritual practice means in the New Cosmology and an outstanding example of what creativity means as the essence of religious practice in our time.

I hope you will be able to view it.
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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.