We close our 2018 voyage with a few passages from a 1993 essay by eco-theologian Thomas Berry, whose words resonate through the decades with ever increasing vibrancy. Images are Arborglyphs from the studio of Linda Everson.
The numinous dimension of the universe impressed itself upon the mind through the vastness of the heavens and the power revealed in thunder and lightning, as well as through springtime renewal of life after the desolation of winter. Then, too, the general helplessness of the human before all the threats to survival revealed the intimate dependence of the human on the integral functioning of things. That the human had such intimate rapport with the surrounding universe was possible only because the universe itself had a prior intimate rapport with the human.
This experience we observe even now in the indigenous peoples of the world. They live in a universe, in a cosmological order, whereas we, the peoples of the industrial world, no longer live in a universe. We live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order, a cultural tradition, in Disneyworld. We live in cities, in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires, a world of business, of work. We no longer see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even in the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner. Summer and winter are the same inside the mall. Ours is a world of highways, parking lots, shopping centers. We read books written with a strangely contrived alphabet. We no longer read the book of the universe.
Nor do we coordinate our world of human meaning with the meaning of our surroundings. We have disengaged from that profound interaction with our environment inherent in our very nature. Our children do not learn how to read the Great Book of Nature or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet. They seldom learn where their water comes from or where it goes. We no longer coordinate our human celebration with the great liturgy of the heavens.
We have indeed become strange beings so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research to developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources whence we came and upon which we depend at every moment of our existence. We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet. A disconnection occurs quite simply since we ourselves have become insensitive toward the natural world and do not realize just what we are doing. Yet, if we observe our children closely in their early years and see how they are instinctively attracted to the experiences of the natural world about them, we will see how disorientated they become in the mechanistic and even toxic environment that we provide for them.
The difficulty is that with the rise of the modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects. We frequently identify the loss of the interior spirit-world of the human mind and emotions with the rise of modern mechanistic sciences. The more significant thing, however, is that we have lost the universe itself. We achieved extensive control over the mechanistic and even the biological functioning of the natural world, but this control itself has produced deadly consequences. We have not only controlled the planet in much of its basic functioning; we have, to an extensive degree, extinguished the life systems themselves. We have silenced so many of those wonderful voices of the universe that once spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence.
We no longer hear the voices of the rivers or the mountains, or the voices of the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. Everything about us has become an “it” rather than a “thou.” We continue to make music, write poetry, and do our painting and sculpture and architecture, but these activities easily become an aesthetic expression simply of the human and in time lose the intimacy and radiance and awesome qualities of the universe itself. We have, in the accepted universe of these times, little capacity for participating in mysteries celebrated in the earlier literary and artistic and religious modes of expression. For we could no longer live in the universe in which these were written. We could only look on, as it were.
Yet the universe is so bound into the aesthetic experience, into poetry and music and art and dance, that we cannot entirely avoid the implicit dimensions of the natural world, even when we think of art as “representational” or “impressionist” or “expressionist” or as “personal statement.” However we think of our art or literature, its power is there in the wonder communicated most directly by the meadow or the mountains or the sea or by the stars in the night.
Of special significance is our capacity for celebration which inevitably brings us into the rituals that coordinate human affairs with the great liturgy of the universe. Our national holidays, political events, heroic human deeds: These are all quite worthy of celebration, but ultimately, unless they are associated with some more comprehensive level of meaning, they tend toward the affected, the emotional, and the ephemeral. In the political and legal orders we have never been able to give up invocation of the more sublime dimensions of the universe to witness the truth of what we say. This we observe especially in court trials, in inaugural ceremonies, and in the assumption of public office at whatever level. We still have an instinctive awe and reverence and even a certain fear of the larger world that always lies outside the range of our human controls.
Here I would suggest that the work before us is the task, not simply of ourselves, but of the entire planet and all its component members. While the damage done is immediately the work of the human, the healing cannot be the work simply of the human any more than the illness of some one organ of the body can be healed simply through the efforts of that one organ. Every member of the body must bring its activity to the healing. So now the entire universe is involved in the healing of damaged Earth, more especially, of course, the forces of Earth with the assistance of the light and warmth of the sun. As Earth is, in a sense, a magic planet in the exquisite presence of its diverse members to each other, so this movement into the future must in some manner be brought about in ways ineffable to the human mind. We might think of a viable future for the planet less as the result of some scientific insight or as dependent on some socio-economic arrangement than as participation in a symphony or as renewed presence to the vast cosmic liturgy.
Many thanks to adventurous DP readers in over one hundred countries across this wounded earth; your messages, queries, soundings and bearings keep us going through the ever-deepening fog.
Onwards into 2019….