Looking ahead to IWC2015 – Religion in the Making: On the Possibility of a 2nd Axial Age

Regular readers of my blog probably already know about the 2015 International Whitehead Conference next summer in Claremont, CA. It is being called “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization.” I am organizing a track on late modernity’s reductive monism. In this track, I’ll be presenting a paper laying out what may be the most pressing problem faced by philosophers living in our increasingly anthrodecentralized epoch: the crossroads between evolutionary panpsychism (or process-relational panexperientialism, in Whiteheadese) and eliminative materialism. This crossroads is a decisive crisis for the modern mind’s self- and world-understanding. Some are calling the present (or just past?) epoch the Anthropocene, which began as early as 8,000 years ago and ended around 1945 (about when the atom bomb and LSD were first detonated before or behind human eyes), at least according to Tim Morton. In naming the period after ourselves, we are also sentencing our species to extinction, placing a period at the end of our existence, noting that humanity, too, will one day be but fossilized bones buried in rock strata. If we ever were “human” (in the sense of being more than animal, supernatural, etc.), we are not so anymore. Perhaps our primal and ancient souls were already participants in a wider cosmic drama. In the modern period, there is no doubt that our socioeconomic system has become inextricably bound up with the dynamics of the entire earth ecosystem. Human and earth have become partners in life and in death. There is no turning back now.

“It may be,” says Whitehead,

“that civilization will never recover from the bad climate which enveloped the introduction of machinery…The world is now faced with a self-evolving system, which it cannot stop” (Science and the Modern World, 181).

Also presenting in my track will be cosmologist Brian Swimme and philosopher Richard Tarnas. This semester (Fall 2014) they are teaching a course at CIIS called “Radical Mythospeculation: Cosmic Evolution and Deep History.” Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial is providing much of the intellectual backdrop. Swimme has written (with Thomas Berry) about the 13.8 billion year evolutionary journey of universe, while Tarnas has written about the 2500 year history of the Western world (from ancient Greece and Israel to postmodernity). In the course they aim synthesize their approaches with Bellah’s while speculating about the emergence of a 2nd Axial Age. Also presenting in my track is Sean Kelly (author of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era), who will present on the emergence of a Gaian planetary consciousness in the wake of modernity.

I’ll also be presenting in another track at the International Whitehead Conference called “Unprecedented Evolution: Human Continuities and Discontinuities with Animal Life.” My paper in this track will seek a synthesis between Whitehead’s philosophy of religion (especially as laid out in Religion in the Making) and Robert Bellah’s sociology of religion (especially as presented in his last book, Religion in Human Evolution).

My main goal with this paper is to convincingly portray human religious activity today and in the past as a fact not only relevant to but illustrative of the nature of the universe. In one sense, I want to explain religion as a natural phenomenon by linking it to play and ritual, behaviors seen throughout the animal kingdom. But unlike Dennett (who used this line as the subtitle to Breaking the Spell), I am not seeking to explain it away by describing its evolutionary genesis out of the earth. Rather, I want to take human religious experience seriously as part of the data that must be included in any adequate account of the cosmos. What must our universe be like such that human religious expression is possible? From Whitehead’s perspective, religious experience is not to be explained away or reduced, but “considered as a fact.” Religious experience “consists of a certain widespread, direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (RitM, 74). Religion, then, is not just man-made make-believe. Its imaginations can have cosmic origins.

Philosophical Experiments Testing the Bounds of Reality – a lecture by Sam Mickey

Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of introducing Sam Mickey at the PCC Forum. Sam graduated earlier this year after successfully defending his dissertation entitled: Philosophy for a Planetary Civilization: On the Verge of Integral Ecology. Along with Sean Kelly, Brian Swimme and Catherine Keller served on his committee. The dissertation weaves together a diverse array of thinkers, including Kelly, Swimme, Keller, Thomas Berry, Ken Wilber, Edgar Morin, Deleuze and Guattari.

Sam has worked with the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale and currently teaches environmental ethics and other courses at the University of San Francisco in the theology and religious studies department.

Sam spoke to us about hopeful new beginnings, for earth and for humanity. He also talked about endings and transitions. It was clear to most of the people in the room at his talk, and increasingly to the rest of the world, that we are in the midst of an event of the greatest possible historical magnitude unfolding all across the planet. This event is multifaceted: there is, of course, an anthropogenic ecological crisis resulting from climate change and mass extinction; there is also a cultural crisis, a failure of ideas and of consciousness, resulting in tremendous economic and geopolitical instability and injustice, in post-factual campaigning where the monetary speech of corporate persons is replacing civic participation, and resulting in global terrorism, whether that brought about by the remote-controlled drones of nation-states or by religiously-motivated suicide bombers. We live in an increasingly wired world, a world woven by an electronic web of instantaneously interconnected media into an ecology of screens; a world, therefore, held fast along the blurred boundary between image and reality, where cartoon pictures of prophets incite violent uprisings in one land, while in another, satellite photographs of melting glaciers, gigantic hurricanes, and shrinking rainforests barely make the news. As far as earth is concerned, our human presence will be making headlines for millions of years. We’ve already left our mark on the very geology of the planet. Literally, we are on the verge of a ground-breaking shift in the nature of nature and the nature of culture that has already reshaped the face of the planet. Too often, philosophy has made itself irrelevant to social and ecological realities, focusing narrowly on texts, on knowledge, and on politics to the exclusion of contexts, wisdom, and the cosmos. Sam is a philosopher, and a friend, who I know has heard the call of the earth to think in this time of emergency the intimate links between the variety of who’s and what’s that have too often gone unthought by traditional philosophies…. Enjoy!

Nature in Whitehead, Hegel, and Schelling

In order to correct what I fear may have been an unfair caricature of Hegel presented in some of my posts earlier this year (HERE and HERE) after reading Iain Hamilton Grant‘s Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, I’ve sought out perspectives from thinkers more sympathetic to Hegel’s approach.

First on the list was the integral philosopher Sean Kelly, under whom I study at CIIS. Sean wrote his dissertation on Hegel and Jung, and though he thinks Hegel is more systematic than Schelling, he agreed with me that Schelling’s naturphilosophy may benefit from being brought out from beneath Hegel’s shadow to be recognized as a distinct project. Sean also recommended a book edited by George R. Lucas, Hegel and Whitehead: Contemporary Perspectives on Systematic Philosophy (1986). I’ve read several essays in it so far, but the one by J. N. Findlay called “Hegel and Whitehead on Nature” seems most relevant to the issues at stake when thinking the differences between Schelling and Hegel.

Findlay focuses in on the relationship between Logic and Nature in Hegel’s system, showing that, although the Concept or Universality as such ranks supreme, it includes Specificity and Singularity (phylogeny and ontogeny, or the species and the individual) within itself as essential moments of its concrete realization.

“Hegel’s philosophy,” says Findlay,

…starts with a ‘realm of pure categories’ which anticipate the specificities that will afterwards be actualized in the objective world and in the subjective experiences of that world… The Absolute Idea is the Idea of an exhaustively specific Universality which also has indefinitely many actual and contingent instantiations and, being what it is, must accordingly be actively dynamic and not abstract, have all the wealth of concrete instantiation that fulfills it, and represent its notional inwardness completely brought to outwardness and actuality (p. 157).

In other words, as Findlay goes on to say, Hegel’s Logic requires supplementation by both his philosophies of Nature and of Spirit. The relation of Logic, Nature, and Spirit in Hegel is strikingly similar to Whitehead’s depiction of an immanent, bi-polar God: the realm of pure categories is equivalent to God’s primordial envisagment of the eternal objects, the Idea’s self-externalization as Nature is equivalent to the objective satisfactions of finite actual entities, and the process of externality’s return to itself as Spirit is equivalent to God’s consequent apprehension of the Universe’s concrescence.

The otherness of Nature, in Hegel, Schelling, and Whitehead, is necessary for God to come to know itself as Spirit. Nature is God’s mirror image, allowing the “everywhereness and everywheness of [ideal categories]” to find the immediacy of “the hereness and nowness of the instance” (ibid., p. 159). This scheme seems to me to transcend the dichotomy between idealism and realism, since universals are merely virtual without becoming realized in concrete particulars, just as particulars are unintelligible without some relevance to universals. This shade of black that I experience here and now may be particular, but its thisness participates in concrete actuality rather than emerging from it. This black may appear again in a different circumstance as the same black, making it as much the ingression of an idea as the prehension of a instance.

Hegel, like Whitehead and Schelling, overcomes the subjectivism of Kant by positing space and time as constitutive elements of Nature itself, rather than forms of intuition imposed upon it by consciousness.

The one area where Hegel may diverge from Schelling, and especially from Whitehead, is in his preference for a logical, rather than temporal conception of evolution.

“Hegel asserts,” writes Findlay,

that Nature essentially reveals itself in a ladder of forms from the most self-external to the most organically unified, since the ladder is that of the logical dialectic. But he repudiates the notion that this dialectical ladder must be turned into a historical temporal ladder… Hegel holds that all stages of the ladder coexist in time: their order is logical, not temporal. This position was modified when Hegel, compelled by the facts of the geological record, was forced to admit that life at least, in its higher vegetable and animal forms, emerged out of mere chemistry at a definite point in cosmic history. But even then he preferred to think of all species emerging together much as Pallas emerged fully armed from Zeus’ forehead… The earth is presupposed by life as having a long pre-vital history, but Hegel does not believe that many of the fossils found in early geological strata ever really lived, [rather] they are products of an organic-plastic impulse in inorganic matter which anticipated the lightning stroke of life (p. 161).

Despite much cognitive stress on my part, and several conversations with Sean Kelly, I’ve yet to comprehend what exactly Hegel is getting at as regards his denial of temporal evolution, short of offering a form of creationism that contradicts all empirical scientific study. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt here, but try as I may, it just sounds absurd. No doubt deep time and cosmic evolution are difficult to imagine, but even more so is the creation of a diversity of biological forms ex nihilo.

Jonael Schickler argues in his dissertation that Hegel’s account of the difference between the organic and inorganic realms (between chemistry and life) is underdetermined. Nonetheless, Schickler agrees with Hegel that individual organisms perish as a result of being unable to reconcile their individuality with their universality (a feat achieved concretely in Christ’s resurrection, but only abstractly in the inner life of Spirit). Hegel conceives of Spirit’s initial emergence as a potentiality seeking actualization (he calls Spirit in its potential phase the “natural soul” that relates to Nature through feelings rather than thought) (ibid., p. 163).

I’ll have to post another essay wherein I more fully draw out how Schelling differs from Hegel, but I’m far less certain now that the two had fundamentally opposed projects. Whitehead, due to his empirical bent, seems like the perfect mediator to bring the two into fruitful conversation.

More soon…

A taste of what’s to come…

Two abstracts for the papers I am writing for courses on Carl Jung and the Philosophy of Relgion, respectively.
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Uncovering the Unconscious: Psychology and the Soul

William James credits W. H. Myers with the discovery of “subliminal consciousness” (i.e., the unconscious) in 1886, a discovery James’ suggests is psychology’s most important insight into human nature. But Carl Jung is still forced to admit more than half a century later that psychology is a long way from the mature state of other natural sciences: “Swamped by the knowledge of external objects, the subject of knowledge has been temporarily eclipsed” (OTNOTP, par. 357). Psychology, so long as it treats the soul or the unconscious as a natural object like any other, remains to this day in a sort of pre-Copernican state. Rather than a science seeking to explain and control the soul, psychology, I will argue, would be better served by seeking out reliable means of opening and sustaining imaginal dialogue with living psychic processes. The rational ego accesses and produces detailed scientific knowledge about the external cosmos, but it is precisely the alienating force of the ego’s outward-focused and divisive eye that pushes the psyche (and indeed the psyche-cosmu) into the shadows and the depths. My paper will ask: “How is the psychologist to develop and articulate a meaningful, systematic discourse concerning the soul if the greater part of her processes are unconscious?” Jung asked the same question, and may have been forced to re-imagine the traditional relation between self and cosmos in order to answer it. Following Jean Gebser’s rejection of a dualistic conception of consciousness and unconsciousness (see The Ever-Present Origin, p. 137, 204), I will attempt to develop Jung’s own intimations of a participatory and cosmocentric psychology.

Sources:
On the Nature of the Psyche by Carl Jung
The Undiscovered Self by Carl Jung
The Red Book by Carl Jung
The Ever-Present Origin by Jean Gebser
Jung and Steiner: The Birth of a New Psychology by Gerhard Wehr

Notes from Gebser’s EPO:

“After the heights of heaven have been lost, the sciences pose themselves the task of “‘exploring the depths.’” (p. 393)
“Since the super-terrestrial no longer affects man, the subterranean surges upwards.” (p. 394)
“If we are sufficiently bold as to consider the ‘unconscious’ as an acategorical element, which is suggested by the spacelessness of the psyche, then the emergent awareness of the unconscious is nothing other than the psychic form of time’s irruption into our consciousness.” (p. 396)
“There is no so-called Unconscious. There are only various modalities (or intensities) of consciousness; a one-dimensional magical, a two-dimensional mythical, a three-dimensional mental consciousness. And there will also be an integral four-dimensional consciousness of the whole.” (p. 204)
“The ‘unconscious,’ if one insists on using this misleading term at all, is the structure of consciousness one dimension less than a particular or given structure; and it is the next ‘higher’ or incremented consciousness structure which makes the unconscious amenable to its mode of understanding.” (p. 204)

Steiner on Jung:
“Everywhere we find important facts that can only be successfully dealt with by spiritual psychology (anthroposophy). At least psychoanalysis has made us aware that the reality of the soul is to be accepted as such, but the devil is at their heals. By that I mean that they are neither able nor willing to approach spiritual reality.” (JS, p. 83)

Sample writing (introduction):

“The hypothesis of the unconscious,” writes Jung, “puts a large question mark after the idea of the psyche” (OTNOTP, p. 77). Philosophers had for many centuries assumed that the structure and function of the soul was already known in every detail, but as the 19th century came to a close, the burgeoning discipline of psychology began to reveal a far more complex and even irrational subterranean source of conscious processes. Rather than the static and easily compartmentalized model of the soul constructed by Scholastic thinkers, Jung was forced by his experience as a clinician to develop a dynamic, living relationship with psychic processes. For him, the soul was not a scientific object; on the contrary, it is what makes such objectification possible: “every science is a function of the psyche, and all knowledge is rooted in it” (ibid.).

But how is psychology, the study of the soul, to proceed if its foundational hypothesis assumes the existence of an autonomously functioning unconscious? The cultural philosopher Jean Gebser recognized this difficultly, and though he had the highest respect for Jung’s groundbreaking work, he nonetheless called into question the concept of the unconscious: “There is no so-called unconscious. There are only various modalities (or intensities) of consciousness; a one-dimensional magical, a two-dimensional mythical, a three-dimensional mental consciousness. And there will also be an integral four-dimensional consciousness of the whole,” (EPO, p. 204). Gebser suggests that the concept may still be used to describe the relationship between a structure of consciousness one dimension less than the incremented structure above it, but rejects entirely the dualistic framework, wherein consciousness is opposed to an unconscious. Jung himself rarely if ever collapsed the psychic terrain into so neat a dichotomy, but Gebser’s phenomenology of consciousness in terms of an unfolding series of structures assures that such a rationalistic reduction is avoided.

In light of Gebser’s important critique of the notion of an unconscious, Jung’s work will be interpreted in what follows as the tentative beginnings of an integral psychology. Both Gebser and Rudolf Steiner will provide important additions and amendments to Jung’s psychology, so as to avoid the undue reduction of spiritual realities to psychic projections. The purpose of psychology, I will argue, is to enter conscious dialogue with the archetypal energies of the soul, so as to heal the split our mental-rational civilization has hewn between instinct and intelligence. Jung’s practice of “active imagination,” as artfully displayed in The Red Book, will provide a working example of how this dialogue can be initiated and sustained.

Outline
I. Introduction
a. The discovery of the Unconscious
b. What have Jung, Gebser, and Steiner to do with one another?
II. Gebser’s structures and critique of the unconscious
III. Steiner’s spiritual psychology
IV. Towards a neo-Jungian re-imagination of the psyche
V. Conclusion

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Towards a Spiritual Science: An New Story of Human Nature

The continuing and indeed growing influence of traditional religious modalities and New Age spiritual practices in the supposedly secular Western world has forced scholars to reconsider the role of such modalities and practices in human life at both the collective and the individual level. The inevitable decline of religion as a result of the march of technoscientific progress long theorized by sociologists has not materialized as expected. Instead, we live in a world both increasingly polarized by a diverse panoply of irreconcilable belief systems and increasingly unified by the planet-wide implications of ecology and the mind-bending revelations of physical cosmology.

In my paper, I’d like to explore the creative tension at the heart of the so-called culture war between science and religion, or more specifically, between New Atheism and what, after Sean Kelly, I’d like to call Gaian panentheism. The categories of “science” and “religion” as popularly understood serve as poor conceptual placeholders for a more complex philosophical terrain. Atheists and traditional believers alike tend to misunderstand the nature and scope of the scientific method; similarly, they over-literalize and so kill the spirit of religion. My goal is to unpack and deconstruct the categories of science and religion by way of a historical overview (with a focus on Platonic, Thomist, Cartesian, and Hegelian sources) and, then, to re-construct a more metaphysically nuanced account of their relation to human being and knowing in light of Barfield’s and Whitehead’s philosophical contributions. My research will focus especially on the rhetoric of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and PZ Myers, whose voices are cheered by a growing contingent of atheists who have begun calling themselves “confrontationists” to make clear their secular belief that religious belief “poisons everything,” as another outspoken New Atheist Christopher Hitchens has put it. (“Confrontationists” can be contrasted with “accommodationists,” or those who feel science and religion need not be in conflict).

My general thesis is that while New Atheism drastically oversimplifies both science and religion, its aggressive mode of discourse may in the end be providing the necessary intellectual and psychological impetus for a sort of second axial revolution. Such a revolution, I hope to show, must overcome the sharp divisions between ancient animism, medieval theism, and modern atheism/agnosticism by making transparent the evolutionary trajectory of our species toward a more wholesome integration of spirit and matter. A Gaian panentheism would preserve the rigor and empiricism of science and at the same time celebrate the participation of divinity in the course of earthly events.

Sources:

Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on Aquinas
A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield
Adventures of Ideas by Alfred North Whitehead
PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula

Outline:

I. Theory and Theos in Western Thought
II. Whitehead’s Philosophy of Science
III. Steiner’s conception of the Human
IV. A Third Option: Gaian Panentheism

Sample pages (introduction):

The last century has arguably brought more change to the Earth, measured either in terms of increased complexity (of culture and consciousness), or in terms of entropy release (as pollution), than any other 100 year period in the planet’s history. Human civilization, and the technoscientific mode of life which has come to dominate it, is largely responsible for this rapid transformation. Whether it be the population explosion and global poverty, the continued threat of world war, civil rights, feminist, and other social justice movements, peak oil, or the ecological crisis, ours’ is a world with much at stake for whom the fast approaching future may just as easily bring tragedy or triumph, or perhaps equal doses of each.

In such an unstable and uncertain context as this, how is humanity to orient itself cosmologically, and in the service of what ideals is it to direct its spiritual aspirations? These are not peripheral questions–they inevitably burn in the hearts of every individual faced with the aforementioned chaos. Answering them in an integral enough way so as to overcome political divisiveness while at the same time avoiding the subsumption of cultural difference is essential to assuring the future flourishing of our species and the planet. The possibility of a planetary civilization rests upon re-inventing our complex human identity, such that it is inclusive of our origins as embodied earthlings and our destiny as immortal spirits.

Whether our aim be scientific investigation of the cosmos, or religious worship of the divine, sooner or later we are going to have to articulate a conception of human nature. Are we creatures of God, or products of Nature? Or, is there an alternative conception of humanity (of God, of Nature) that overcomes this false dichotomy? The following essay is my attempt to provide such an alternative: an integral anthropology, or theory of the human, which is neither exclusively theological nor cosmological. After Pinnikar, my approach in what follows might be called “cosmotheandric,” in that I am attempting to tell a story about human origins and destiny that does justice to our traditional spiritual intuitions and is adequate to our modern scientific realizations. Contemporary debates, especially in popular media outlets, tend to collapse the complexity of the science/religion dialectic into easily digestible slogans derived from the most extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion. The cosmological options are typically dichotomously construed as atheistic scientific naturalism vs. literalistic creationism. These are not the only options.

The process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the spiritual science of Rudolf Steiner will be the primary protagonists in the alternative narrative I hope to construct. Before beginning this reconstruction, however, I must deconstruct the popular conceptualizations of “science” and “religion” which pit them one against the other as if irreconcilably opposed. Only a new synthesis can provide humanity with a viable way forward.

Fragile Gaia: a gift for God?

“Truth, and beauty, and goodness, are but different faces of the same All.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve just returned from the lawn outside the postern here at Schumacher. Sean Kelly lead a discussion circle with several of us that was intended to be a space for us to reflect on how the knowledge we’d internalized thus far was effecting us, both intellectually and emotionally. It quickly became a very intense meditation on the fate of our civilization, the nature of the human, and the purpose of our existence on earth. The magnitude of our ecological crisis is hard to fathom, and the momentum behind the industrial way of life seems too strong to avoid our inevitable collision with catastrophe. In many ways, both human society and the entire earth community have already collided with tragedy.

Phillip, a Frenchman who has lived in London for 20 years pursuing various fairtrade business ventures, wondered aloud to the group if all our talk about the evolution of consciousness isn’t just a defense mechanism, an assuaging story that we’ve projected onto our collective history to feel as though our species hasn’t been a complete failure. What if, in truth, no such spiritual trajectory exists and we’re nothing but an especially industrious ape with more brains than we know what to do with? Personally, I’m certainly aware of this possibility, but the evidence for some sort of evolution of human consciousness seems objective enough. Of all the thinkers who have tried to present the case, perhaps Jean Gebser provides the most thorough. And anyways, from Gebser’s point of view, evolution is as much a movement away from origin or spirit as it is a movement towards it. In a sense, humanity’s relationship with the earth and larger universe had to get worse before it could get better. As Jesuit and cultural historian Walter Ong once remarked, human beings need alienation, as it is in our nature to experience the world as outsiders, and to work upon it artistically in order to bring something more familiar into view. Another Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offered a possible explanation for this odd behavior: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.”

All this is to say that the evolution of consciousness isn’t simply about changing human perspectives on the cosmos, but about the cosmos itself evolving through the deepening of human awareness. We are participating in an astonishing event with cosmic extent and importance: through us, spirit is struggling to incarnate fully into matter. It’s been quite a violent process thus far, as war and ecological devastation testify. But who would expect any different?

Regardless of the human impact today, the entire earth, at least its physical aspect, will eventually be burned up by the increasingly unforgiving power of the sun. Gaia will no longer be able to regulate her temperature once a certain threshold has been crossed. All life will be forced into extinction, aside, perhaps, from a few thermophiles on the sea floor. But even they will be incinerated in several billion more years when the sun begins to swell and swallows the earth whole. Beauty seems inexplicably tied to fragility, and Gaia is no exception. Like all living beings, she, too, must die. But might all the earth’s suffering be worth it for spirit to have been given the gift of life by matter? Perhaps the entire universe has been created so God could experience dying.

Gaian Consciousness

For all ancient cultures, the earth was an all encompassing reality. Hesiod writes that the heavens themselves were birthed out of Gaia, “the steadfast base of all things,” providing her with a sacred canopy spotted with stars. But the moon landings made a reality what had already been true for much of the modern period: the earth was no longer experienced as being wrapped in the sheltering blanket of the sky, but was floating in space with the barren moon as its only nearby companion.

Earthrise

Sean argues that the only appropriate response to our ecological crisis is one that takes the planet as a whole into consideration, but I know he would agree that the planetary must become personal.

As the essayist and cultural critic Wendell Berry writes,

“The planetary versions–the heroic versions–of our problems have attracted great intelligence. But these problems, as they are caused and suffered in our lives, our households, and our communities, have attracted very little intelligence…The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of it’s millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others. Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence–that is, that is, to the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods. What can accomplish this reduction? I will say, without overweening hope but with certainty nonetheless, that only love can do it. Only love can bring intelligence out of the institutions and organizations, where it aggrandizes itself, into the presence of the work that must be done… Love is not, by its own desire, heroic. It is heroic only when compelled to be. It exists by its willingness to be anonymous, humble, and unrewarded. The older love becomes, the more clearly it understands its involvement in partiality, imperfection, suffering, and mortality. Even so, it longs for incarnation. It can live no longer by thinking.” -What are People For? (1990), p. 198-200

My short experience with the Schumacher community thus far has been a direct encounter with the sort of humble household intelligence that Berry wants to direct our attention toward. The planet is suffering because our species has become lost in abstraction, whether it be because of the influence of the general-purpose money of the global economy, or the fragmented growth of specialized scientific disciplines, or any number of the other alienating side-effects of industrial growth society. Ecology is, after all, the study of the home.

An integral component of our learning experience at Schumacher includes joining with the residents in various chores, like cooking, cleaning, and gardening. Participating in these responsibilities really fosters a sense of equality and partnership that would otherwise be missing.

The planetary element of the course is reflected in the diverse group of students who have come for the two week session. Every continent aside from Africa is represented. From Bangalore, India comes the poet and dancer Deepti, whose enthusiasm is almost overwhelming! She’ll often be the first to answer Stephan’s or Sean’s questions to the class. Then there is Tony from Galway, Ireland. He’s a psychologist who has worked with troubled teens for many years. He’s quite the story-teller. Just last night (Wednesday), he, myself, and several others walked ten minutes down the road to the oldest surviving pub in England called Cott. It was supposedly opened in 1320, but Dick, a Totnes resident, told us that there are at least two dozen pubs in England that make similar claims! Dick has children who attend a local Waldorf school, and he is quite familiar with Rudolf Steiner, which has made for interesting conversation. Elias, an architect from Mexico City, also joined us at the bar and shared a bit about his shamanically-inspired spirituality. He works his indigenous sensibilities into his designs, which are among the most eco-friendly (and beautiful!) in Mexico City.

I said every continent was represented, and that even includes Australia. David, who teaches biology and chemistry to aboriginal children, has shared a tremendous amount of wisdom with me about what that kind of intercultural exchange is like. He’s not got much patience for the notion that modern people should somehow return to an indigenous mindset; he witnesses ethical and environmental atrocities on a regular basis in the community he serves. An example is the disregard the natives seem to have for a protected species of turtle, which they catch out at sea in motor boats and drag back to shore, where they flip it over, throw it into a fire, and cook it alive in its own shell.

Another Floridian, Hal, is on sabbatical here. He teaches law at the University of West Florida and is working with Stephan to develop a future course on earth jurisprudence at Schumacher. We’ve spoken quite a bit about the Gulf oil spill and have some advice for Obama should he come looking for any. Hal’s convinced that only a sort of metanoia will allow human beings to include the rights of various members of the earth community into our legal system.

From Norway, there’s an charming woman named Cecil who is absolutely enthralled by the spiritual implications of quantum physics. I’m always a but uneasy with talk of consciousness creating material reality, especially when a very complex field of mathematical science is used (or misused) as support, but I attempted to describe Brian Swimme’s enchanted cosmology to her at lunch this afternoon, and she seemed to resonate quite deeply with it. She also gave me permission to marry her 21 year old daughter, but unfortunately Oslo is a bit far afield from my planned route through Europe.

I decided to give a talk to the group this evening on Jean Gebser and consciousness, which I should probably start preparing for!

More soon…

The Planetary Era

The title of the course I’m participating in at Schumacher College is “Gaia and the Evolution of Consciousness.” Biologist Stephan Harding and philosopher Sean Kelly are leading us through the scientific and cultural history relevant to these issues. Another biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, will join us for a few days next week to share his view of what a re-enchanted study of life might look like. We’re only two days into the course, but I wanted to develop some ideas and introduce you to the other students (see next post).

Earlier today (Tuesday, June 22nd), Sean lectured on the meaning and historical unfolding of the planetary era. When exactly the earth as a whole first became a concept human consciousness was capable of contemplating is difficult to discern. Perhaps a practical awareness of earth’s extent dawned with the age of exploration in the 16th century, when colonial war and commerce began to link Europe with Africa, Asia and the Americas. Copernicus’ heliocentric intimations in On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, published just before his death in 1543, are more than symbolic of the changes in humanity’s self-conception, but it is quite clear that by the middle of the 20th century, both as a result of the global paroxysm of the world wars and the technological feat of landing men on the moon, the thought of all humanity living on a fragile blue sphere drifting through the depths of space was impossible to ignore. World War II ended when the power of the sun was unleashed over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the iconic earth rise photograph revealed the as yet unimaginable beauty of our home planet to human eyes. Sean echoed the panoptic thinker Edgar Morin by suggesting that this photo represented “earth viewed from earth,” both in the sense that it was only first developed and observed by anyone (aside from the astronauts who took it) after the film had been returned to earth, and in the deeper sense that the human organism was born and is made out of the substance of the planet itself, and so represents that part of the earth that is both willing and able to escape its own gravity to experience itself from the outside.

European Preview

The sky is growing bluer as my plane races eastward to greet the rising sun. Below me is the Gulf of Mexico, its sparkling surface now marred by slicks of oil that continue to gush from ruptured pipes along the seafloor. It won’t be long now before the orange glow rimming the horizon is pierced by sunlight, birthing a new day on this our wondrous but ailing planet.

My journey has begun: half spiritual pilgrimage, half worldly adventure, but as a whole something more mysterious than I can yet fathom is luring me to Europe. I await the revelations grace may bestow upon me this summer. I’ll be landing in Fort Lauderdale shortly, where I’ll stay for a few weeks to catch up with family and friends. I realize how much San Francisco has changed me only when I see myself through the eyes of those I left behind.

On June 19th, I fly to London. Upon landing, I immediately catch a train and head 3 hours southwest to the town of Totnes, where I begin a course at Schumacher College co-taught by Sean Kelly (a cultural historian and professor of mine from CIIS), Stephan Harding (ecologist and Gaia theorist), and Rupert Sheldrake (biologist known best for his theory of morphic resonance) called “Gaia theory and the Evolution of Consciousness.” After two weeks of study with these brilliant thinkers, I head to the airport a short distance away in Plymouth to catch a flight to Dublin. There, I’ll meet up with my friend Kelleigh, whose grace and joie de vivre will surely make this leg of the journey especially exciting. Theory will be put to practice in Ireland, as the Gaian ecology learned at Schumacher should give me a renewed appreciation for the beauty of the living landscape. After enjoying the culture (and Guinness!) of Dublin, we head south to the sacred ruins and protected valleys of Glendalough. I’ve recently been reading the story of St. Kevin, who was told by an angel to journey alone to the slopes of Glendalough, where after years of solitary prayer he learned to commune with otters in the lake and birds in the sky, beautifully exemplifying the intimacy with nature so characteristic of Celtic spirituality. The next leg of our Irish adventure takes us west toward Galway. From there, we’ll make our way down the coast by train or bus, stopping in pubs to meet locals and fellow travelers. Eventually, we’ll find ourselves on Dingle peninsula to hike the foothills and gaze across the Atlantic from the edge of seaside cliffs. On the 15th of July, we arrive in West Cork to farm with our WWOOF host, John Dolan, for about a week. Waking up before dawn to tend to the needs of the soil is something I crave, even if I’ll only get a small taste of what such a life in constant communion with the earth is like. From the Dolan farm, we head to Wexford county on the east coast of Ireland to camp and participate in a sustainability and survival skills workshop. That will bring our stay in the land of ire to an end, as we’ll hop on a ferry at the port and cross the sea to Wales. Once there, we’ll rent a car and drive to Brecon Beacon to hike and maybe even camp, then to the town of Hay-on-Wye, famous for its multitude of bookstores full of old classics. I’m on the lookout for some early printings of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, a book of poetic philosophy I’ll be drawing from for my dissertation. I imagine Kelleigh and I, bibliophiles that we are, will need to ship a box or two back to the States before we leave! Next, we head towards Glasonbury to soak in the ancient energies of Stonehenge, perhaps built by Druids, who perhaps had help from whatever is responsible for the regular appearance of crop circles in the area. Hopefully we’ll be lucky enough to arrive at the right time to investigate a new one. Then, the first day or two of August, we drive to London to drop the car off and head our separate ways, Kelleigh to Belgium and I to Dornach, Switzerland. I’m attending an English language conference at the Goetheanum (world headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society) on the future of spirituality. The controversial esotericist and Sophiologist Sergei Prokofieff is the only lecturer on the schedule whose name I recognize, but my advisor at CIIS, Robert McDermott (author of The New Essential Steiner), who is well-known among Anthroposophists, assures me I will not be disappointed with the rest of the line up. Prokofieff is an outspoken critic of Valentin Tomberg, whose spiritual classic Meditations on the Tarot: a Journey into Christian Hermeticism (transl. by Robert Powell) has profoundly influenced me. I’ll be interested to hear the angle Prokofieff takes, as I’ve not yet read any of his work.

From Dornach, I head to Italy to visit Florence and Rome for a week each. I have to thank my friend Fr. Thomas Matus for drawing up an extensive itinerary for me during this leg of my journey. He lived for some time at the monastery of St. Gregory the Great in Rome and so knows the city and the culture quite well. There are too many highlights to mention now. I’ll have plenty to recount afterwards, I’m sure.

Rome is the end of the line. My flight back to Miami leaves out of London on the 23rd of August, but I might try to change it to fly out of Rome to save myself a train ride back to the UK. I’ll spend a day or two in South Florida and then fly back to San Francisco to get ready to drive to Nevada for Burning Man on the 30th. It’s my first burn, but I’ll be camping with a bunch of regulars, so I’ll probably survive!

I’ve been dreaming of this summer since my senior year of high school. I actually almost sold my car and dropped out my freshman year of college to backpack through Europe. I was fed up with the assembly-line education and military-industrial funding funneling into UCF. In hindsight, I’m glad I decided against it. I’m in a much better position now then I probably would have been.

The plane is making its final descent. The sun has risen. My summer is just beginning.

Our Planetary Moment: A Journey Through Cosmic Time

Setting the Stage

There were no eyes to see it happen, and even if there were, there was not yet any light for them to see, nor even any space in which to look. The universe was born out of an infinitely creative quantum womb poised somewhere (or is it nowhere?) between being and non-being. In an instant, since there was “not yet” any time for it to hesitate about its future, with a flash of warmth and light the cosmic embryo began to grow

 

Though there is undoubtedly an organic integrity to space-time, perhaps “grow” is here a bit of an understatement. The universe began with a BANG! From 10-33 cm3 —the smallest volume physicists can measure—the universe inflated to the size of a human being within 10-32 seconds. To put this in perspective, it has taken another 13 billion years for the universe to grow by the same order of magnitude that it did in this initial fraction of a fraction of a second.[1] Our cosmic seed seems to have been in quite a rush to get its evolutionary adventure underway, as if it already had some glorious end in mind.

 

That said, chance and accident have also undoubtedly left their mark on the history of our universe. It only takes a glance upward at the night sky to reveal the seemingly happenstance location of the formation of stars in space. To the untrained eye, we seem to be adrift in randomness. But we must look deeper: there is a certain “fine tuning” at work beneath the surface that continues to baffle the scientists who study it. The rate of the universe’s inflation had to be exactly right for stars to form, and under the pressure of gravity within these enormous sidereal masses, as Teilhard de Chardin describes it, unfolded a “harmonic series of simple bodies, spread over the notes of the atomic scale from hydrogen to uranium.”[2] The elemental music emanating from the core of these spheres made possible the formation of planets, and upon at least one, the emergence of life. The beauty and coherence of this process is evidence enough that our universe longs to express itself, and that some mysterious ordering principle is at work pulling it toward greater complexity and deeper feeling. As Brian Swimme puts it, quite simply, “The universe is about something.”[3]

 

Still, if there be any doubt about the meaning of the music of the spheres, we need only consider the ears for whom they now sing and the eyes whom, awestruck, now absorb and reflect upon their light. With the emergence of mind out of life and matter, the narrative arc of the universe becomes unmistakable. There is a story being told. It is no metaphor: the universe is struggling to be born again within human consciousness by learning all that it has done and loving all that remains yet to do.

 

Knowledge and love: these are the protagonists of our story. Each, the knowledge pursued by science and the love fostered by religion, have been essential in guiding the course of human history. It would be naïve and irresponsible, however, to fail to mention how often these same guides have been our fiercest adversaries. With every increase in knowledge comes an increase in power. Often, the latter overreaches the former, leading to the invention of technologies whose detrimental effects are only understood in retrospect. Similarly, the unifying impulse of love can be so strong that it blinds us to the evils committed in its name. It seems that what our species lacks is not knowledge or love, but knowledge of love. We don’t yet understand, and so have been unable to take responsibility for the full extent of our mission on earth.

 

In the essay to follow, I will delve into my own heart-mind in search of clues concerning the way forward. As Teilhard reminds us, it is upon increased personalization, “the internal deepening of consciousness on itself,” that the emergence of a planetary Weltanschauung “in which each of us cooperates and participates” depends.[4] To help me imagine the future, I will also need to recollect and unpack the Western tradition that informs my metaphysics and cosmology. But before reaching into the past or the future, let us come to grips with the present.

 

Facing the Challenge

For all of us alive today—the nearly 7 billion human beings currently populating the earth—the problems are obvious, but the way forward remains obscure. We are faced with an unprecedented evolutionary challenge. Never before has the universe been in a position to consciously choose the next chapter in its story. Nor have human beings ever been so anxious and uncertain about their collective future. Few remain who are not at least aware of the magnitude of the crisis. For most, it is a fact of daily life.

 

The WHO estimates that 2/3 of the world’s human population is malnourished or starving. In the time it takes to read this sentence, someone, probably on the Indian subcontinent, will have died of starvation.[5]

 

The world wars of the 20th century, estimated to have killed nearly 100 million people,[6] were apparently not enough to convert us to pacifism. Armed conflicts each killing more than a thousand people a year continue to embroil our species in India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico, and Sudan. Smaller conflicts over beliefs and resources wage in twenty-nine countries across the world.[7]

 

Issues of poverty and wealth distribution, racism, sexism, and religious intolerance don’t even begin to round out the human extent of our planetary crisis. Sea level rise due to climate change threatens to redraw continental shores, creating tens of millions of refugees in the coming century. As if this were not bad enough, production of the very fossil fuels responsible for climate change has peaked, bringing the industrial economy we remain so dependent upon to the brink of collapse.[8] But this crisis has more than a human face. Not a single ecosystem on earth has been unaffected by our human presence.

 

In total, 17,291 known species are currently threatened with extinction. This number includes 20% of mammals, 25% of reptiles, 40% of fish, and 70% of plants. Scientists estimate that the background rate of extinction is approximately one per million species per year. At present, this rate has increased by a factor somewhere between 100 and 1,000.[9] Renowned biologist E. O. Wilson claimed in an interview with the BBC in 2009 that the rate could soar to upwards of 10,000 times the average rate by 2030.[10]

 

I could go on listing the social and ecological issues that our planet is confronting, but the only way to understand this crisis, so far as I can tell, is to interpret each separate issue as the symptom of a deeper sickness of soul. Humanity is experiencing the pains associated with every birthing process; but unlike the universe in its embryonic form, which had no time to hesitate, self-reflective human beings can become stuck. We can refuse to participate in this crucial evolutionary moment, whether due to fear or pessimism or ignorance. It is as though our greatest gift, self-conscious freedom, is simultaneously our tragic flaw. It gives us the ability to step back from the immediacy of sensory and emotive experiences as if to understand them from outside—in short, it allows us to doubt; but in doubting our experience of the world, we become alienated from it. The true cause of our crisis is this alienated consciousness.

 

Despite scientifically awakening to the full spatio-temporal extent of the universe, we seem to have forgotten that we are that very same universe. We are not outside it, not other than it. Or, perhaps it is not despite this awakening to the immensity of space and time, but because of it that we feel so alienated from nature.

 

Concerning the relatively recent discovery of the true dimensions of the cosmos, Teilhard writes,

“Leaving some dark prison, we are blinded by light; emerging abruptly onto a high tower, we are overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. We experience the dizziness, the disorientation—the whole psychology of modern uneasiness related to its abrupt confrontation with space-time.”[11]

 

Teilhard acknowledges the difficulty of coming to terms with this spatio-temporal awakening, but suggests our initiation into the universe’s true dimensionality remains dangerously incomplete if we do not also acknowledge its evolutionary trajectory. Modern scientific knowledge has re-situated the human in relation to the rest of the universe, which is a far vaster and more difficult to imagine place than it was prior to Copernicus.[12] But evolution is the thread that ties it all together, placing the human being, if no longer at the center of a static cosmos, at least at the creative edge of cosmogenesis.

 

So what is required of us now that we have woken up to this grand evolutionary process? I believe we must come to recognize that individual self-consciousness and the arbitrary freedom of choice that it wields is not an end, but merely a brief developmental moment in the ongoing noogenic process that is already transforming us in order to bring forth a new human for a new earth. Each of us is being called to become something more, a new kind of person at home with and in love with others and with the rest of the community of life on earth. We are searching for a new collective identity, but to find our true humanity, we must overcome the narrow-minded individualism so characteristic of our Western civilization.[13]

 

Before attempting to investigate, and if I’m lucky instigate the movement of consciousness beyond the isolated ego, I will take a brief detour to explore the role the West has played in world history. I will also unpack the ideas of a few major thinkers, especially as they are relevant to the evolution of modern Western consciousness.

 

Remembering the Past

The West, for better or worse, has according to Teilhard, “lead all peoples, from one end of the world to the other…to put the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very terms in which [it] has succeeded in formulating them.”[14] Similarly, Sean Kelly credits the West with having played a “catalytic role” in the emergence of our still developing planetary era.[15] The European colonial conquests during the course of the past 500 years, violent as they were, have resulted in the economic and biocultural co-evolution of every race on earth. All people are now inextricably netted together in a “complex human fabric [that is weaving] itself around the planet.”[16]

 

This is not the place to speculate about what could have been had the West not been so bent on world dominance. Post-colonial critiques continue to expose the latent Eurocentrism of our modern geopolitical scene, compelling us to overcome ongoing injustices, but it is hard to deny the impact the Greco-Judeo-Christian impulse has had on our now planetary civilization. If we take a Hegelian view of history, it may be easier to understand how the evils of war and conquest have worked to bring forth higher forms of goodness than would otherwise have been possible. The “cunning of reason,” as Hegel famously refers to it, assures that Spirit’s universal goals are met despite the seeming chaos and contingency of particular world-historical personalities and events.[17] Hegel’s philosophy of history allows us to see how conflict is necessary for more ideal possibilities to manifest themselves on earth. Evolution could not occur, after all, unless strife and opposition were met along the way.

 

“War,” according to Heraclitus, “is the father of all things.”[18] But as Alexander the Great exclaimed on his deathbed, perhaps prematurely at the time, but no longer so today, “There are no more worlds to conquer!” There is now only one world. The evils of war have exhausted their dialectical magic, binding humanity inextricably into a single biocultural and economic whole. More war can now lead only to collective ruin.

 

A year before his death in 323 BCE, in an oath given before thousands of his Macedonian and Persian subjects not far from modern day Baghdad, Alexander is alleged to have said the following:

“Now that the wars are coming to an end, I wish you to prosper in peace. May all mortals from now on live like one people in concord and for mutual advancement. Consider the world as your country, with laws common to all and where the best will govern irrespective of tribe…On my part I should consider all equals, white or black, and wish you all to be not only subjects of the Commonwealth, but participants and partners. As much as this depends on me, I should try to bring about what I promised. The oath we made over tonight’s libations hold onto as a Contract of Love”.[19]

 

It seems that love works in mysterious ways to bring about the unity it seeks. It is as if during the course of the historical period, this hidden spiritual force has been driving individual human beings to sacrifice themselves for a future they could only dimly imagine. Alexander’s call for peace and participatory planetary governance still awaits realization, but it becomes more apparent every day that history’s hidden goal is precisely such a “Contract of Love.” But I am getting ahead of myself…before imagining this still nascent future, we must understand the core religious, scientific, and philosophical ideas that have shaped the Greco-Judeo-Christian impulse mentioned above.

 

In discussing the Biblical stories to follow, I aim only to draw out their archetypal meaning, leaving the question of their physical reality aside. As Carl Jung reminds us, “‘Physical’ is not the only criterion of truth: there are also psychic truths which can neither be explained nor proved nor contested in any physical way.”[20]

 

Though the exact date remains unknown, sometime around the 13th century BCE a prophet by the name of Moses lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt, crossing the Red Sea and settling temporarily at Mount Sinai. It is here that Yahweh revealed the Ten Commandments, which to this day represent the essence of moral law for many in the West. But there is an earlier revelation I want to draw attention to, that which first inspired Moses to lead his people out of slavery and toward the Promised Land.

 

While Moses was still a shepherd tending his flock near Mount Sinai, according to biblical legend, he came upon the angel of the Lord in a burning bush that somehow was not consumed by the flames. The voice of the Lord called to him, “Moses, Moses. Here am I!” Covering his face, “as he was afraid to look upon God,” Moses then received his divine mission to lead the Jews out of Egypt. He asked the Lord his name, to which the response was: “I am that I am.”[21] This cryptic statement is significant because Moses, at one time a member of the Egyptian royal family, was an initiate into the Egyptian mystery schools, whose secrets can be summed up with the phrase “know thyself.” This call to attain self-knowledge would later inspire Socrates and Plato, and indeed every genuine lover of wisdom since. Moses’ encounter with the “I am” represents the beginnings of a mutation in human consciousness from tribal to individual identity, but as I will explore below, it seems this mutation will remain incomplete until the esoteric meaning of Christ’s incarnation is understood. Moses was still too afraid to look upon the face of the Lord, which with the benefit of 3,000 years of consciousness evolution, we can safely say was his own. Nonetheless, his powerful experience allowed the Hebrews to come, according to Rick Tarnas, “to experience themselves as the Chosen People.” The revelation of the “I am” lead this particular community “to believe that they existed in a unique and direct relationship to the one creator of the world and director of history.”[22] This was an extremely novel perspective in comparison to the polytheistic religions of other tribes at the time.

 

The Hebrew notion of human history being fulfilled in a future era of universal peace and justice brought about by the coming of a messianic figure is described by Tarnas as the “divination of history.”[23] It set the stage for Jesus, who many centuries later fulfilled the prophecy of Moses by announcing that he was Christ, the Son of God. Throughout the Gospel of John, Christ refers to himself as the “I am” revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. But this time, it was not a chosen few who would have this mystery revealed to them, but the entirety of humanity. Much of the Western world’s subsequent history can be understood as the playing out of the “great code” embedded in the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ.[24] Birth represents the original Garden of Eden, where all was idyllic and humans and nature remained undifferentiated. Death (and the torture that proceded it) represents the Fall, wherein the knowledge of good and evil fractures humanity’s original participation in the earthly paradise, making us aware of our nakedness and giving rise to the sense of homelessness and alienation that the consciousness of our age has come to know so well. The Resurrection represents the promised redemption of the world through the restoration of all that was lost as a result of the Fall, though with the added benefit of a consciousness not present with the original innocence. Not only would humanity return to paradise, it would know it was in paradise.

 

The Western imagination, whether consciously or not, seems to be playing out this code upon the stage of world history. Hegel’s entire philosophy of history is modeled after the great Trinitarian code of Christianity. Indeed, it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the very concept of history, implying as it does the narrative structure of beginning, middle, and climactic end, is a Judeo-Christian invention. Prior to this innovation, most cultures conceived of time as cyclical. The West is unique in its conception of time as providential.

 

Between the time of Christ and the birth of the modern era around 1500 CE, much of great significance occurred, including the fall of Rome and the rise of the Catholic Church. But for lack of space, I will focus for the remainder of this section on three modern thinkers whose ideas continue in subtle ways to shape our worldview: Copernicus, Descartes, and Kant.

 

The timely motions of the planets were a sign to ancient peoples that the universe was a divinely ordered whole and a likeness of eternity, but by the time of Copernicus, the geocentric Ptolemaic model used to predict their orbits was growing more and more cumbersome. Epicycle upon epicycle was required to “save the appearance” of the motion of the planets and the sun around the earth. Copernicus was asked by the papacy to clean up the mathematical mess so that more accurate calendars could be made. While researching possible solutions, Copernicus came upon ancient Greek manuscripts discussing the undeveloped hypothesis of a heliocentric solar system.[25] Working out the mathematical details, he came to realize that “the appearance of the moving sun and stars [was] deceptively created by the earth’s own movements.”[26] The long reigning medieval cosmology, classically depicting the universe as a series of perfect heavenly spheres encompassing the stationary earth, began to fall apart.

 

“The Copernican shift of perspective,” writes Tarnas,

“can be seen as a fundamental metaphor for the entire modern world view: the profound deconstruction of the naïve understanding, the critical recognition that the apparent condition of the objective world was unconsciously determined by the condition of the subject, the consequent liberation from the ancient and medieval cosmic womb, the radical displacement of the human being to a relative and peripheral position in a vast and impersonal universe, the ensuing disenchantment of the natural world.”[27]

 

This radically disorienting cosmology prefigured and perhaps required the ontological and epistemological developments that Descartes and Kant would later articulate. Descartes recognized, as Plato had millennia earlier, that sensory appearances were often deceptive. He needed a new method of arriving at certain knowledge that would allow the burgeoning sciences to continue to unveil the secrets of nature. He began by going into his own mind, doubting the very existence of the external world, including the existence of other people. He was left with only his own thinking activity, and realized that in this, in the very the act of doubting itself, he had found something which could not be called into question. The entire world may be an illusion, but in thinking of this possibility, I undoubtedly am. Or, as Descartes famously formulated it, “I think, therefore I am.” The discovery of the cogito lead Descartes to develop an ontology of two substances: a thinking substance, or soul, which is autonomous and has access to clear and distinct ideas; and an extended substance, or matter, which is mechanically determined according to mathematical laws.[28] Human consciousness was thus alienated from the natural world, and even from the physical body housing it.

 

Kant remained a thoroughly Cartesian philosopher, but his motivations were a bit different. Inspired by the success of Newton’s mechanistic picture of nature, Kant was nonetheless uneasy about the steady march of scientific understanding. If all material motion could be understood to behave according to deterministic mathematical laws, what kept these laws from applying to embodied human beings, as well? Kant saw very clearly that the freedom of the human soul could no longer be taken for granted.

 

In his most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant convincingly argued that the mechanisms science thought it was discovering in the natural world were in fact a necessary result of the inherent structure of the human mind itself. Our relation to space and time, for example, is not a result of our empirical encounter with them in a pre-existing world. A quick phenomenological look at our experience reveals that we do not see space, only colored surfaces; nor do we see time, only movement. The mind, Kant realized, does not passively receive an already ordered world. Rather, forms of intuition like space and time, and categories of understanding like causality and substance, must be presupposed as necessary conditions for any human experience of the world to be possible. We know reality, in other words, only as it appears to us after being filtered through the mind’s pre-existing categories.

 

Kant referred to his epistemological re-orientation as a second Copernican revolution, as objects were now understood to revolve, so to speak, around the subject, their appearance always already shaped by the latter’s cognitive lenses. By limiting science to knowledge of appearances, Kant was able to protect traditional religious ideals like freedom, God, and immortality from being dispelled; though these could not be known with any certainty, either. He famously wrote in the introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason that he found it “necessary to deny knowledge to make room for faith.”[29] But in so doing, he also further alienated human consciousness from nature, which became an unreachable “thing-in-itself.” As Tarnas describes it, Kant’s revolution was fundamentally ambiguous: “Man was again at the center of the universe, but this was now only his universe, not the universe.”[30]

 

Kant’s uneasy dualism between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds inspired a generation of philosophers in Germany, most notable among them Schelling and Hegel, to strive to find a way to re-unite the human mind with nature and the divine. As Kelly writes, “for the Idealists, instead of the machine [as in Newton’s science], the organism and life become the root metaphors for the cosmos as a whole.”[31] Kelly also points out that, in these thinkers, much emphasis was placed on the idea of development and evolution.[32] For them, “the overall drive of the cosmos is toward the production of increasing complexity of organization as the vehicle for the eventual emergence of self-reflexive consciousness.”[33] It is these more organic and evolutionary cosmological perspectives that may provide a way forward, as they reawaken us to our embeddedness in an ensouled and purposeful universe. Let us now turn our eyes to the future to see what that purpose might be.

 

Envisioning the Future

All this emphasis on purpose in general—in the universe and in history—cannot be separated from my personal consciousness. I must admit that I am unable to imagine a universe so absurd as to have no reason for being, just as I am unable to live my own life in the absence of spiritual ideals. I have tried to doubt the teleological picture of the universe, but there really are no viable alternatives that are coherent with and adequate to my actual experience.

 

  The universe is about something. The warmth and light with which it began its story manifest themselves as the love and wisdom at work through human history. The culmination of history, its end, can only be brought about when every human soul has come to know love. Then the world will be transformed from the inside out. Or perhaps it has already been transformed…perhaps, as Teilhard writes, “Omega already exists and is at work right here and now.”[34] In the face of all the earth’s current ills, I am unable to lose hope in the underlying logic of the historical process.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

I must interrupt the linear flow of this essay to offer a stream of consciousness prose-poem written late one evening around Easter of 2010 as an attempt, not only to envision the future, but also to fully embrace the divinity of the present. There is a logic to the historical process, I do not doubt; but this logic is dressed in mythopoeic parable, seeming at first to be obscure. To understand the meaning of history, we must participate in the realization of its end. This requires a certain turning about of the mind—a metanoia. Poetic language is one way to instigate such a mental turning.

 

On this night, like any other, the gospel reveals its light, shouts the good news and becomes an open secret. It is simple in its complexity: We are Each and All the Many eyes of One God, and in dying, we live this Truth Eternally. The Gospel is now open, because Man, through history, has been brought to his utmost extremity, crucified and flayed bare beyond all conception.

 

History has ended.

 

The world and all of its hells are already over. Only heaven remains. This secret will be forever retold. The Gospel here and everywhere is the very mouth of God, the breathing presence of divinity that I know only through my communion with you.

 

Man’s inner most recesses have been exposed, his most ungodly horrors and humiliations have been spread before the witnesses of his trial, their eager eyes like entirely amoral eagles whose only wish was to feast on the delight of spirits adrift in the wind of their own wondrous and self-indulgent melodies.

 

How quickly the world gets lost without wisdom, how empty even the music of the spheres can seem to sound unless in each of the seven is discovered the common harmony, the most secret and the most well-known, the always and undying source of the ever renewing breath of eternity.

 

Only here, at the utmost edges of human life, does the infinite gain entrance and can the holy truly poor into the life of mortal souls.

 

What appears in me is merely the other end of you, the love who through evil became my own enemy. Evil is the inverse of love, the dismemberment of the One. But in being destroyed, the One can only be forever renewed.

 

The good news is now known by everyone. We can only love one another, because we are not other than one another.

 

Spirit is the undulating mystery that brews between our patient and modest human breaths, overflowing in the words we speak to share our souls.

 

What secrets can I keep from you, who know me as clearly as I see myself? There is nowhere to hide from the light of God. It reveals everything, it reveals all to everyone at once. And yet, there is something in the light that remains concealed. The true source of wisdom, the holiest of holies, is hidden within nature’s most laborious of labyrinths, to this day remaining a mystery even unto itself.

 

Know thyself, which means also, love thy enemy. In each of us is the All. The One is none other than you and I.

 

Knowledge truly is of good and evil, and unless in love we are able to remember the good expressed in our mortal nature, we die without having recognized the divinity of our every living, moving moment. There is no eternity but what is here and now… and in this unending surprise the world is created forever anew out of its own ashes. The good news is now an open secret.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

It seems paradoxical to say that the “good news” that reveals the meaning of human history is an “open secret.” If it were open, why would it remain also a secret? Grasping this paradox, I believe, is crucial for humanity’s future on earth. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is reported to have offered a series of cryptic parables to a great multitude that crowded around him on the beach. At one point, his disciples asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”[35] Jesus answered that the multitude had not yet been granted knowledge of the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. “Therefore,” he said, “I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”[36]

 

More paradoxes: seeing that sees not, hearing that hears not. What could this possibly mean? To grasp the subtle meaning of what has been said above, it must be placed in the context of the evolution of consciousness.

 

“Has history any real significance,” asks Owen Barfield, “unless, in the course of it, the relation between creature and Creator is being changed?”[37] The evolution of consciousness, for Barfield, is a continuous movement from immediate, or original participation in the meaningful rhythms of the natural world towards an increasingly alienated “null point,” wherein “a contraction of human consciousness from periphery to center” reduces all the wisdom of the cosmos to an isolated ego housed somewhere within the sinews of the human brain.[38] The human brain is the organic labyrinth nature has labored for eons to produce, the tabernacle meant to house something so much more holy than the “null point” now lost within it. But this is not the end of the movement, according to Barfield. It is, however, where nature’s labors, at least in the human, are at their end. From this point forward, it becomes our own responsibility to evolve into what Barfield calls final participation. While for original participation, the heart was enlivened from a source outside itself, namely, the still spiritually imbued natural world, final participation requires that the heart burn from within, irradiated by the light and warmth of Christ, the “I am” incarnate within each and every human being.

 

In an apocryphal text written sometime in the 2nd century, Jesus is reported to have said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you. Only he who knows himself can find it.”[39] The paradox of an “open secret” may now be understood. The evolution of consciousness has transformed human beings from unconscious participants in the course of natural events into conscious creators of history. The divine is no longer to be found outside ourselves. Divinity is hidden in the only place our eyes could not see, nor our ears hear. Having thus realized our own divinity, we must ask ourselves “whether we ought to shrink from the notion that we are to share the responsibility of maintaining an earth which it has already, it seems, been given into our hands to destroy.”[40]

 

The future of the earth and humanity depends upon our gaining the inner strength and imagination required to re-invent ourselves. The new story of the universe as a living, self-organizing system has made Copernicus all but obsolete, and the “null point” reached in the philosophies of Descartes and Kant continues to be challenged by a flurry of embodied ontologies and participatory epistemologies emerging to meet the needs of our time. Whether we like it or not, as Coleridge writes, “in our life alone does Nature live.”[41] Our presence has already forever changed the face of the planet, but I have more faith than all the world can contain that we will be born again and come to live in peace on earth. What else could human history be than the toilsome work of preparation required for our cosmic seed to finally flower and bear its fruit?

 

 

Bibliography

 

  1. Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances.
  2. Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin.
  3. Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon.
  4. Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason.
  5. Kelly, Sean. Coming Home.
  6. Primack and Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe.
  7. Tarnas, Rick. Passion of the Western Mind.
  8. The Hegel Reader. Ed. by Stephen Houlgate.


[1] All measurements above taken from The View from the Center of the Universe by Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams.

[2] The Human Phenomenon by Teilhard de Chardin, p. 14

[3] ibid., p. xvi

[4] ibid., p. 184-185

[8] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/apr/11/peak-oil-production-supply ; Even the US Military now admits to the severity of the problem, estimating that, by 2012, surplus oil production could entirely disappear.

[11] The Human Phenomenon, p. 158

[12] The Copernican revolution will be discussed in more detail below.

[13] Overcoming individualism doesn’t mean jettisoning values like universal human rights and equality. On the contrary, it means coming to experience our responsibility to other earthlings as strongly as we demand our own rights.

[14] The Human Phenomenon, p. 147

[15] Coming Home, p. xi

[16] ibid., vii

[17] The Hegel Reader, p. 413

[18] Jean Gebser suggests that this, like most of Heraclitus’ aphorisms, is an incomplete fragment whose polar correspondence has not survived the ages. He suggests Heraclitus must also have written that “Peace is the mother of all things.” (The Ever-Present Origin, p. 151)

[19] Recounted in fragments written by Ptolemy and Plutarch based on Alexander’s diary.

[20] Answer to Job, p. xi

[21] All quotes from chapter 3 of Exodus.

[22] The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 94

[23] Ibid.

[24] Coming Home, p. 35

[25] The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 249

[26] Ibid., p. 250

[27] Ibid., p. 416

[28] Descartes also wrote of God as the one true substance, but this is not the part of his ontology that has had great influence on the modern psyche.

[29] Critique of Pure Reason, p. 29

[30] The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 349

[31] Coming Home, p. 61

[32] This was almost 50 years before Darwin would later formulate his disenchanted mechanistic theory of evolution by natural selection, which, unfortunately, still commands the attention of the popular imagination.

[33] Coming Home, p. 63

[34] The Human Phenomenon, p. 209

[35] 13:10

[36] 13:13

[37] Saving the Appearances, p. 160

[38] ibid., p. 182

[39] Gospel of the Hebrews, ch. 38

[40] Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield, p. 160

[41] Ode to Dejection