“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.