On the threshold of the seventeenth century in 1596, Rene Descartes was born in France to a noble family where as a child he was encouraged to study and learn a variety of subjects, yet when he became an adult, he was perceived by his family as a failure. During childhood, Rene was often ill but spent hours sitting in bed reading while actual rest and play eluded him. Even at a young age Rene criticized himself for “not knowing enough.” Some people around him whispered that his birth had caused his mother’s death, and although there is some evidence that his father rejected him for that reason, Rene was fortunate enough to be raised by his maternal grandmother and a nurse. Nevertheless, when we read what little he wrote about his childhood, and particularly about the subjects with which he was fascinated, it is clear that insecurity dominated his psyche, and he speaks of being drawn to mathematics because for him, it offered “certainty,” whereas poets and philosophers, he said, were driven by enthusiasm and imagination. While this information about Descartes’ childhood is a mere snippet, it is enough to illuminate the origins of the aphorism for which he became famous throughout time immemorial: “I think, therefore I am.”
Many of Descartes’ contemporaries and descendants built on his work and forged what has come to be known as The Age of Reason. A principal burgeoning assumption during this era was the notion that only humans have emotion, but that emotion must be subjugated to reason. Furthermore, from this perspective, all human emotion can be explained physiologically. Therefore, the reasoning goes, emotion is really nothing more than a series of biological events, all of which can be understood logically and none of which have any significance beyond physiology. Frantically seeking to escape the religious dogmatism of the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason eviscerated all things spiritual and demanded that reason alone govern human interaction.
This brief back story illumines how subsequent to Descartes, Western civilization steadily developed a “use” mentality in terms of its environment, its economy, all of is institutions, and interactions between individuals. The nineteenth century brought the predictable pendulum-swing reaction to the Age of Reason in the form of the Age of Romanticism and myriad revolutions throughout Europe, as well as the advent of the man whom Descartes might have perceived as his worst nightmare, Freud.
A New Cosmology
Yet it would not be until the twentieth century when a Catholic priest of the Passionist Order holding a Ph.D. in history would begin challenging the notion of “use” and insist that humans who had nearly “used up” the planet must now begin intimately communing with it. That man was Thomas Berry. So adamant about relationship with the earth was Berry that he stopped calling himself a theologian and began calling himself instead, a geologian. Frequently remarking as he did in his book The Sacred Universe, that “the universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects,” Berry spent the rest of his life writing and teaching humans how to develop and nurture their relationship with the universe.
Obviously, we must “use” the earth to some extent if we are to live on this planet. We need to grow food or obtain it from the animals around us. We must drink water and use it to water our crops, bathe, and clean our houses. Therefore, the issue is not refraining from ever using natural resources, which would be impossible if we are to survive, but rather, allowing our primary relationship with the earth to inform all of our interactions with it. How do we do this? According to Berry, humans need “to go into the earth, as the source whence we came, and ask for its guidance, for the earth carries the psychic structure as well as the physical form of every living being upon the planet.” (Sacred Universe, 195)
Before his death in 2009, Berry had written extensively on what he called “The Great Story” and finally made a documentary by the same title. He asserted that the most profound manner of developing a relationship with the entire universe is to understand the story of its evolution which in many ways parallels our own story. Most cultures around the world have creation stories which explain their origins and provide meaning, as well as assisting them in finding their place in the family of humanity. Many humans know well the story of their own birth, childhood, and development to adulthood, but few have conscious knowledge of the story of the universe. What is needed, Berry argued, is a New Cosmology that provides that story.
In his extraordinary January, 2013 article, “Religion, Science, And Spirit: A Sacred Story For Our Time,” author, teacher, and former Harvard Business School faculty member, David Korten, explains the three different world views that convey very different understandings regarding relationships, agency, and meaning in Western civilization. Those are: 1) The Distant Patriarch paradigm in which our most important relationship is with a distant God in the universe; 2) The Grand Machine, very much the world of the Age of Reason, in which we are alone in a mechanistic cosmos devoid of agency and possessing no purpose and meaning; 3) The Integral Spirit in which we are intelligent, self-directing agents integrally connected to all of creation with a distinctive role and responsibility to advance the continued creative unfolding of life’s possibilities.
Our challenge, says Korten, is to grasp the New Cosmology because:
In its contemporary expression, the cosmology of the Integral Spirit draws from the many ways of human knowing. It embraces and melds insights from the frontiers of scientific observation, the world’s major religions, and the experience of indigenous peoples and mystics extending back to ancient times. In acknowledging both intelligent agency and material mechanism, it recognizes that agency plays out in an ordered living cosmos within a framework of rules, and it clearly distinguishes between free will and license. It affirms our human nature as spiritual beings with an epic calling to advance a sacred purpose, and it frames a vision of possibility to guide us to a viable future consistent with the divine will as revealed in our most comprehensive understanding of the cosmic unfolding. (Yes Magazine, January 17, 2013)
Throughout the history of life on earth, humans have created stories to explain their origins on earth and their role on the planet. The New Cosmology is a New Story of the universe and our role in it. The cosmologies of some of the earliest humans depicted their relationships with the heavens, the land, the elements, and how interactions with these gave birth to their tribes and sustained them throughout their time on earth. Origin stories from the earliest humans depict their interdependence with the rest of the universe and clearly communicate an intimacy with nature and the cosmos on which their lives depended for survival.
Modern humans have lost connection with myth and story and as a result, do not have such sagas to ground them in their origins. While creation stories offer a sense of history for a particular group of people, they offer something equally important for every individual, namely, a sense of relationship with something greater than themselves which serves to instill meaning and purpose. Without meaning, humans become disoriented, exploitative, and destructive. Humans require relationship, and devoid of relationship with the cosmos, their capacity for cherishing relatedness deteriorates into use.
The Age of Reason, the synonym for which is “the Enlightenment,” was characterized by a loathing of emotion and an extreme preference for the rational. When emotion is present, so also is the likelihood of relationship. Devoid of emotion and relatedness, humans easily become callous and exploitative, and we can easily fall prey to the notion that people and things exist for our personal use. As a result, we damage other beings, as well as our own psyches. As David Korten notes:
A scientific culture that ignored or denied spiritual consciousness brought with it an implicit denial of life’s capacity for conscious self-direction. This in turn limited our ability to comprehend and embrace the richness, potential, and responsibilities of our nature as conscious, intelligent, self-directing participants in Earth’s interconnected, ever-evolving, ever-learning web of life.
In other words, the cosmology of the Enlightenment was one of use whereas the cosmology of the Integral Spirit is about relationship. What is more, the findings of quantum physics in the twentieth century, according to Korten, “reveal that the apparent solidity of matter is an illusion and at the deepest level of understanding, only relationships are real.”
The New Cosmology, Old Paradigm Resistance
In current time we live in a disintegrating world. The paradigm of industrial civilization with its estrangement from nature and its addiction to the paradigm of the Distant Patriarch and the Grand Machine is collapsing. Few individuals are open to the New Cosmology and prefer instead to grasp industrial civilization by the throat and suck its last drops of oil, gold, water, or any other of its “life-blood” resources. Even as millions of unemployed people around the world have become dispossessed, ill, homeless, and are dramatically drowning in despair, most are incapable of imagining the New Cosmology because they are tenaciously clinging to the old paradigm and insisting that sooner or later, it will regain its power and deliver the goods which many of us know it is now incapable of delivering.
I believe that humanity will reject the New Cosmology until it has witnessed the total and unequivocal collapse of the old paradigm. Nevertheless, individuals and groups in current time can embark on the journey of Integral Spirit and study and live the New Cosmology. In order to do so, however, we must confront the “I think, therefore I am” mentality within ourselves which we have incorporated from the Grand Machine paradigm of the Age of Reason.
To confront the Distant Patriarch and The Grand Machine perspectives we can join with people in our local communities who are forging a variety of paths toward the New Cosmology, even if they are not fully aware that they are doing so. Myriad options offer themselves to us: Permaculture design courses, local food movements, involvement with Living Earth Economies, and groups that are studying and using the tools of Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics. Additionally, the study of Thomas Berry’s works and the works of physicist, Brian Swimme, offer in-depth explorations of the New Cosmology
In order to fully engage in the New Cosmology, however, we will need to confront what I call the “Inner Descartes” who would constantly attempt to convince us that our true identity and purpose is to be found by living in our heads and minimizing or ignoring our hearts. I suspect that for young Rene, living outside the “Cereb-esphere” was a terrifying place with virtually no support for experiencing heartfelt emotion. Today, however, the New Cosmology, which is really the new story of every human being in search of meaning and purpose in a world unraveling, can provide an integration of feeling and thinking where even in exceedingly troubled times, we may experience our wholeness on a deeper level than we could have imagined.
Congruent with the path of Integral Spirit and the New Cosmology are my books Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition (2011) which delves deeply into the integration of thought and feeling, and my soon-to-be released book Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times.
But as usual I am having trouble finding the Cosmic meaning and happiness with a 1 in 1000 chance of survival that us optimists fantasize about.
I believe that the story is this…
Don’t make it any worse for others than it already is. Otherwise, do whatever it is that your soul commands. Don’t deny yourself your impulses.
Thanks for your comment. Finding meaning isn’t necessarily “cosmic” but more importantly, is internal. Both are connected and complement each other. Helping people find that meaning is the crux of the work I do. I’m happy to help if asked.