Sunday, January 30, 2011

#86. Global Consequences of Recovering Reverence


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At the end of the previous post I mentioned a fifty-year-old book of essays, recently reissued, with the title The Transfigured Cosmos. I said that for me the title is a wonderful summary of the consequences of what Thomas Berry calls the "new mode of religious understanding" that's ours thanks to modern science. Because of the new cosmology we are, as Berry says, "recovering reverence." And when we do, our world is indeed transfigured.

I see three big areas of the global situation where the consequences of recovering reverence are especially significant: our environmental problems, our on-going concern for social issues such as gender and racial equality, and the seemingly insolvable question of ever-deepening religious conflicts. It's not that these areas of human need are being ignored-- they are discussed daily in the media-- but in this post I want to share my thoughts about them specifically in terms of the recovery of reverence.

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One of my main points in the previous post is that we are genetically coded to the Cenozoic era-- to the Earth's "lyric period," as Thomas Berry calls it. Primal religion is in our genes. I think it's especially important for us to appreciate the fact that this fact has been established, as Berry emphasizes, not by any of the religious traditions but by the efforts of modern science to understand humanity and the world we live in.

From the point of view of "Big History"-- the longest long-range perspective available to us, starting with the Big Bang and ending only with the present moment-- the major religious traditions as we know them today began quite recently.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the West, and the spiritual traditions of the Eastern world such as Buddhism and Hinduism, all appeared around the same time in human history-- about 25 centuries ago.
In contrast, primal (Cenozoic) religion was the religion of our earliest human ancestors, and for countless centuries was the religion of all humanity.

Those early humans and to a great extent indigenous peoples still today, says Berry, are attuned to the natural world and the numinous nature of the cosmos spontaneously. For them, "Mountains were spiritual modes of being. Sunrise and sunset were sacred moments. Animals were spirit presences."

And it's from this spiritual communication with the natural world that all "religious ritual, prayer, poetry and music were born."
The important point here is that the ability of our ancient ancestors to be attuned to the numinous nature of the cosmos is still in our genes today.

We are no less capable of experiencing communion with the Earth-- the sacred, the holy, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans-- than were our very earliest human ancestors a million years ago.

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In Western culture, that sense of communion with the Earth was, as Berry says, "lost for a time." We became "doubly estranged"-- by both religious dualism and scientific rationalism. But thanks to the new cosmology provided by contemporary science, we are discovering again the story of our origins and of our place in the universe.

Berry emphasizes that we learn to hear this story by listening to the voices of nature: "the stars at night, songs of birds at dawn, the smell of honeysuckle on a summer evening."

He says those experiences of "wonder for the mind, beauty for the imagination, and intimacy for the emotions" are experiences of "that numinous reality whence the universe came into being and by which it is sustained in its immense journey."

Especially important for us today is appreciating that these voices of nature are "dimensions of the human soul, revelations of the divine being communicated to us, and inspiration for our spiritual life." Berry sums it up nicely by saying that because of the new cosmology, we know today that "Evolution is our sacred story."

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Despite the strong unitive and sophiological perspectives in the scriptures of the Western religious tradition, Judaism, Christianity and Islam could hardly avoid adopting the patriarchal and dualistic attitudes of the culture in which they arose. And early science, with its tremendously practical successes due to its focus on physical matter, greatly enhanced that loss of communion with the natural world.

But it was the Industrial Revolution, with its extraction technologies such as coal-mining and oil-drilling in the 18th and 19th centuries, which put an apparently definitive end to Western culture's sense of unity with nature.

"With extraction," says Berry, "the planet lost its beauty, wonder, majesty, grace and life-giving-ness. It became an object to be used." The engineers took over, he says-- "the mechanical, the electrical, the chemical and now the genetic engineers." The result is that in our contemporary world "the radiant presence of the divine is no longer recognized."

The most important point here, once again, is that our unique human ability to experience the numinous is still in our genes. We remain "genetically coded" to recognizing "the radiant presence of the divine" by listening to the voices of the Earth. And thanks to the new scientific cosmology, we are in fact recovering reverence.

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With regard to the consequences of our recovery of reverence, I think the most important practical result has been global humanity's growing awareness of our responsibility to take care of the Earth from which we have emerged.

When we see that "evolution is our sacred story" and that we are participants in the evolutionary process, we recognize immediately that, as Berry says, "Every geological, biological and human component of the Earth is bound together." His point is that "what happens to one happens to all."

He quotes a Native American speaker who expresses these thoughts with simplicity and power: "We live with all that lives and is, and it calls us to take care of it."

I learned a chant along these lines many years ago, on my first vision quest. It's sung to a steady drumbeat, with the last three words getting two beats: "The Earth is our mother; she will take care of us. The Earth is our mother; we must take care of her."

When we know our life to be a participation in the cosmic process, then our numinous experience of communion with nature calls us take care of Mother Earth.

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In the same way, it becomes clear that we are called to take care of one another.

Berry says that this sense of being responsible participants in cosmic evolution is now the context for every kind of social action. No "good works," he says, "will succeed in our time apart from the larger context of the natural world; it is the only effective context for survival."
"We live or die," he says starkly, "with this world."

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I'm sure that most readers agree with the thoughts I've shared so far in this post. They are relatively familiar. But it's the importance of the recovery of reverence specifically in terms of global religious conflicts that may be new for many readers. That's what I want to give more space to here.

One of the most immediate and significant results of recognizing that our numinous experience of the sacred goes back to our earliest human ancestors is that we recognize, in this larger context, that "primal" or "Cenozoic" religion is the basis of all humanity's religious traditions.

In light of the unitive perspectives of the cosmo-the-andric unity-- whether we call that numinous awareness "contemplative" or "mystical" or "spiritual"-- we can readily see that all the religions of the Earth have the same fundamental source.

It is our inborn genetic sensitivity to the numinous in the natural world that allows us to see-- not via any external authority but from our own personal experience-- that all the religions of the Earth are expressions of the sacred.

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In an earlier post (#84), I quoted Thomas Berry's remark about how hard it is for those of us in Western culture to believe that science that has established the fundamental spiritual aspects of human nature:
"Secularism, materialism and rationalism have prevailed for so long that we can hardly believe (Sam's italics) that the long course of scientific meditation on the universe has finally established the emergent universe itself as a spiritual as well as a physical process and the context for a new mode of religious understanding."

I think it's just as difficult-- maybe even more difficult-- for those of us in Western culture to believe that our personal experience establishes the validity of all religious traditions. But it's the essence of our new mode of religious understanding.

This new understanding was expressed well by the British monk Bede Griffith, who went to India in the middle of the 20th century to live in the style of Hindu ascetics.

In an essay published in 1994, Bede speaks of the need for a universal wisdom "which can unify humanity and enable us to face the problems created by Western science and technology." It is, he says, "the greatest need of humanity today." And he stresses that the "religions of the world cannot answer this need. They are themselves part of the problem of a divided world."

Bede notes explicitly that even our ancient religious traditions need to be reinterpreted in terms of the new scientific cosmology:
"The different world religions-- Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam-- have themselves to recover the ancient wisdom, which they have inherited, and this now has to be interpreted in the light of the knowledge of the world which Western science has given us."

The especially important point Bede is making here is that there is a much earlier wisdom which the present religious traditions of the Earth have inherited. The "wisdom" he is referring to is of course precisely the experience of the sacred-- the holy, the numinous-- which is still in our genes and which is the basis of all humanity's religious traditions.

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In terms of the numinous experience of our early ancestors, Thomas Berry spells out nicely this essential idea of the validity of all the Earth's religious traditions: "From these primordial indigenous experiences have come the diverse scriptures of the world, the various forms of worship, and the variety of spiritual disciplines."

Speaking to a Western audience specifically with regard to the world's religious scriptures, Berry says that it would constrict rather than expand our understanding of divine-human communication if we were to consider "only the Western Judeo-Christian Bible as revelation and eliminate the Koran of Islam, the Vedas and Upanishads of India, Buddhism's Lotus Sutra and China's Tao Te Ching."

"It would not be an improvement on our understanding of the numinous but an impoverishment," he emphasizes, if we were to eliminate "India's Shiva and Vishnu, Asia's Kuan-yin, or Native America's Manitou and Wakan-tanka."

In words that I hope will bring to readers' minds my earlier posts on the two mavericks C. G. Jung and Wolfgang Pauli, Berry makes an especially important point with regard to the validity of all the world religious traditions. "While every archetype needs multiple realizations," he notes, "the sacred [needs] more than any other."

Asian cultures seem to understand, better than Western people do, that the idea of the holy needs multiple expressions, that the numinous-- the Tao, the Great Mystery tremendum et fascinans-- cannot be limited. If it's in our genes to experience the sacred, we can expect that our cultural experiences will differ.

The point is that in our day we can trust, as our grandparents would never have been able to, that we don't demean the Mystery of God by recognizing-- via our recovery of reverence for the world of nature-- the validity of all humanity's religious experience.

Indeed, if anything does demean the divine mystery, it's religious conflict. I see this realization on the part of the Earth's religious traditions to be an especially significant global consequence of our recovery of reverence.

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I also see that this global consequence of recovering reverence comes just in time.

In February of this year (2011), data is scheduled to be released of the observations made by NASA's space telescope "Kepler" about the number of nearby planetary systems containing Earth-like planets.

Early word is that the data will include tentative identification of several hundred planets similar to our own. The implication is that our whole Milky Way Galaxy may contain tens of billions of planets roughly the size and mass of the Earth.

And there are billions of galaxies besides our own Milky Way Galaxy!

[Added 31 Jan 2011: An introductory background report appeared in today's New York Times: see Gazing Afar for Other Earths, and Other Beings.]

[Added 3 Feb 2011: See today's Astronomy Picture of the Day for a good diagram comparing the newly found 'solar' system containing six planets to our own solar system.]

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If "the cosmic process has a human dimension from the start," as Berry emphasizes, we can expect that biological life and reflective-- self-aware-- consciousness eventually will have emerged on some, if not many, of the billion-billion planets in the universe.

And so we can look forward to someday learning of the many forms of religious experience that have appeared on them.

Won't it be exciting to see how religious ritual, prayer, poetry and music find expression on planets other than our own!

Won't it be exciting to see how "that numinous reality whence the universe came into being and by which it is sustained in its immense journey" has shown itself to our cosmic cousins.

Surely the most significant global consequence of recovering reverence will be this truly cosmic perspective. We'll see better than ever that, as Berry says, "the universe is a vast celebration," that "it is our role to enter into it," and that "this is the purpose of all existence."

I think that will be quite literally a "transfigured cosmos."

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I loved your theme and the way you elaborated on it. I found your article by googling, " universal consequences of sin." Yours was one of the few articles on the subject. I loved your term, "reverence," as I have written about the importance of "reverence for life."
What I did not find in your article was the physical planetary consequence of sin in the world: like the aberrant weather of recent years and months. I believe there is a connection between human sinfulness and universal consequences, weather being only one of thousands of consequences, the others mostly affecting humans directly as a result of their choices. Thank you.

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.