The more rational a culture seems to be, the more irrational will be its underside when the dark times come, the veils lift, and more is revealed than most want to see.
~Michael Meade, Why The World Doesn’t End~
For most modern human beings, it is difficult to imagine that the Western world was essentially dominated by religion from approximately the fourth through the fifteenth centuries. For more than a thousand years, humans functioned in a world without a scientific perspective and with little that resembles what we know as scientific exploration in the twenty-first century. Overall, their lives were ruled either by religion or superstition or both.
The culmination of what we have come to know as the Dark Ages was the Black Death—a pandemic that swept Europe in the fourteenth century and killed some 30-60% of its population. The scientifically determined etiology: bubonic plague. The explanations offered by religion and folklore in that era: cats and witches. Three centuries later a number of great minds such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes, horrified by the irrationality of responses to the Black Death and centuries of religious oppression, vowed to devise standards of rationality for testing beliefs against reality. Thus the scientific method was born in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment.
However, Enlightenment thinkers were committed not only to the scientific method as the gold stand of reason, but inherent within their world view was the notion of infinite progress. Because they valued reason as the crowning achievement of humans, they assumed that when applied, it would guarantee unmitigated advancement of the species. Inherent within the Enlightenment were the seeds of the Industrial Revolution and the paradigm of industrial civilization that flowered from it.
In the twenty-first century, industrial civilization is crumbling around us, and we are compelled to notice that a number of Enlightenment assumptions no longer apply or at the very least, have outlived their utility in a world unraveling. One of these is the notion that the universe is rational and orderly. The word that perhaps best describes the current era is chaos. So does this mean that reason is dead, and chaos reigns? Does it mean that we must choose which of the two is actually true, despite what our instincts tell us?
I believe that rather than debating the primacy of order or chaos, a wiser perspective is to notice that both are real, and both exist alongside the other. The British author, James Joyce, explored the concept of chaosmos in which chaos and order exist as polar opposites on a continuum and are symbiotic and often undefined. In other words, we live in a world where by use of reason we have the capacity to solve problems, yet at the same time, humans have also created predicaments which cannot be solved but only responded to.
Clearly, we are being challenged in present time to explore aspects of the ecosystems and the human condition which lie beyond the scope of either reason or chaos. Some perceive this in terms of a conflict between science and spirituality. Specifically, science has not proven to be the magic elixir that our Enlightenment ancestors believed, yet we fear exploration of the non-rational, spiritual aspect of our psyches and our human experience as it may lead, we believe, to yet another form of pre-Enlightenment superstition and religious oppression.
For this reason it may be more useful to consider that in an era of chaosmos, what matters most is not an attempt to choose one or the other, but rather, to integrate them. In fact, I believe that is precisely what we are being compelled to do, whether we are aware of it or not, as humanity transitions from the limited dyad of either the Enlightenment paradigm or abject superstition into the age of consciousness.
Please do not misinterpret that statement as an affiliation with New Age thinking. From my perspective, New Age thinking is yet another form of superstition and is profoundly vacuous in its capacity for delivering an embodied spirituality that embraces and savors our full humanity. Anyone who doubts my disavowal of the New Age will be reassured by reading any of my other works such as Sacred Demise and Navigating The Coming Chaos.
Science provides information about how the universe works, but it cannot provide meaning for us. That is neither its function nor desire, yet humans are the only animals who seek and demand meaning. Many life forms are capable of experiencing or having an awareness of experiencing; however, humans have not only the highest capacity for consciousness but also the capacity for being aware of their awareness. They can witness their knowing and explore the process of knowing as well as the knower.
We have reached the limits of the Enlightenment paradigm. Its rational, scientific method cannot resolve the issues that confront us. In fact, it gave birth to those issues and their consequences. For me, the crux of our dilemma is not one of conflict between science and spirituality or what I call the sacred. Rather, the issue is that both have their limitations, and when we can integrate the two, rather than hold them in conflict, we expedite the transformation of consciousness.
I do not believe that humanity will solve its great problems. In fact, I believe much of humanity will be eliminated by them, but some humans will prevail, and it is likely that they will be inexorably reshaped by their experience of living through the cataclysm. Transformation of consciousness, whether in the microcosm or the macrocosm, is never achieved without a price.
Unlike our indigenous ancestors, few humans in the modern world are comfortable with talking about death. Consumer society has been constructed and impeccably refined to avoid any telltale hints of death. How foreign the ancient notion that death is a part of life and that there is no separation between the two! Yet an irrevocable aspect of saying goodbye to Enlightenment and hello to consciousness is our willingness to deal with death and include it and passionately embrace it in the moments of our greatest vitality and aliveness. Chaosmos is asking us to recognize all that is dying around us and within us and make the demise as sacred as humanly possible by living and dying with utmost consciousness. What does the collapse of industrial civilization mean for us as individuals, and what does it mean for the earth community?
For many, the collapse of industrial civilization and the Long Emergency have become synonymous. The emergency has become much longer than many of us anticipated when we first awakened to it, and we need to deeply contemplate what we are doing with our lives, our time, our resources, and our personal gifts.
Moreover, we need to be taught by this Long Emergency. That means constantly asking ourselves: What is it trying to teach me? Who do I need to be in the face of this Great Turning—or Great Churning? What is my purpose in all of this? What opportunities are presenting themselves for me to express my gifts?
These are profound existential questions that erupt in peoples’ lives when they pass through crises. One of our wisest teachers at this juncture is Victor Frankl who survived a Nazi death camp and wrote Man’s Search For Meaning. As a result of his experience, Frankl departed from the Freudian theory that our primary drive is the drive for pleasure. He discovered, as many survivors of myriad horrors do, that our primary drive is to find meaning and make sense of our experiences.
The questions that arise within us in the Long Emergency are not ones that have quick, easy answers. They baffle the mind at times as we grapple with them, but the wise poet, Wendell Berry, writes that “the mind that is not baffled is not employed.”
Once we admit the demise of the Age of Enlightenment, the end of infinite progress, the collapse of a paradigm and a way of life on which we have become inordinately dependent, we have embarked on a journey of struggling with these questions, and the purpose of the struggle is not the answers we arrive at but the struggle itself. Within the struggle we subtly but steadily discover a deepened capacity for accepting chaosmos and the ability to say hello to the Age of Consciousness.
A New Cosmology: The Great Story And Our Story
Thomas Berry, Ph.D., (1914-2009) was a Catholic priest, an historian, and later in life called himself a geologian, as opposed to a theologian. The turning point in Berry’s life was falling in love—not with another human being but with the earth. Among his works, The Great Work, The Dream Of The Earth, and The Sacred Universe. Berry’s life experience of developing a conscious relationship with the earth led him to forsake the label of theologian and embrace the label of geologian as he increasingly came to believe that the sacred resides not in the farthest reaches of the cosmos, but within every aspect of the earth and within the human spirit.
Whereas I am describing a transition from the perspective of the Enlightenment to an age of consciousness, Berry spoke of a transition from the Cenozoic Age to the Ecozoic Age. “The Cenozoic,” he wrote, “is the period of biological development that has taken place during these past 65 million years. The Ecozoic is the period when human conduct will be guided by the ideal of an integral earth community, a period when humans will be present upon the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.” Berry certainly did understand the collapse of industrial civilization and its ramifications. He did not teach that we would move seamlessly from the Cenozoic to Ecozoic Age without an unraveling of the old paradigm, but he offered voluminous teaching on how we can alter our perspective:
The first principle of the Ecozoic era is recognizing that the Universe is primarily a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. This is especially true of the planet Earth. Every being has its own place and its own proper role in the functioning of the planet, its own presentation of itself that might be identified as its voice.
The best preparation for the transition, Berry believed, was to recognize that the story of the universe and our personal story are inextricably connected. Nowhere is this articulated as clearly as in his book The Sacred Universe and his DVD entitled “The Great Story.” What we need, according to Berry, is a new cosmology—a new understanding of how the universe evolved and how we find our place in it. In an article “Mind, Psyche, Spirit,” Berry writes:
To achieve this intimacy with the Earth we need new religious sensitivities. The redemption- oriented religions in their traditional forms have fulfilled a significant part of their historical mission. Cosmologically oriented religion is the way into the future. We need to recognize the story of the universe as we know it through our empirical sciences as our sacred story. From its beginning the universe has had a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical-material dimension.
Earth in a special manner has given expression to this psychic-spiritual dimension of the universe. The human belongs among these forms. It establishes with them a single community. There is no effective spiritual or religious mode of being for the human in isolation from this community. The visible world about us is our primary scripture, the primary manifestation of the divine, and this for human communities throughout the entire planet.
Our willingness to adopt a new cosmology—a deep appreciation for the story of the universe as aligned with our own story, may profoundly facilitate a shift from the old paradigm to the new. Throughout my work I emphasize Berry’s writing and urge my readers to it. For me, no one summarizes a more resilient response to our predicament than Berry who tells us that as we stand on the current precipice, we have three options. We can: 1) Freeze in despair, grief, and rage; 2) Throw ourselves over the precipice into oblivion; 3) Turn back from the edge, walk back, and reclaim our whole story.
In becoming a student of the Great Story, science is indeed our handmaiden. Before his death, Berry worked closely with mathematical cosmologist, Brian Swimme, collaborating on a number of projects. Integrating hard science and deep spirituality, Swimme has produced a beautifully mastered DVD “Journey Of the Universe” and a captivating lecture series “The Powers Of The Universe,” as well as a number of other books and DVD’s.
Clearly, the earth community is in the midst of a profound and unpredictable
shift—a transition from the paradigm of the Enlightenment to a species-altering New Cosmology that integrates not only the opposites of order and chaos, life and death, science and spirituality, but virtually all opposites we can imagine. The shift will be harsh, terrifying, enraging, heartbreaking, enlivening, joyous, inspiring, unifying, and profoundly transformative. It will compel us to confront that “something greater” that is within us and all around us in the earth community. It is now no longer appropriate to live our lives from the Enlightenment paradigm. Consciousness is the only game in town and may well be for a very long time.
From the standpoint of consciousness, not merely reason, we desperately need science to cultivate within us a reverence for the Great Story, and alongside it, we must join with poets, artists, and musicians, but most importantly, the earth, and see ourselves and each other through the lens of our terrestrial home. Or as Thomas Berry wrote in The Dream Of The Earth, “Until the human is understood as a dimension of the earth, we have no secure basis for understanding any aspect of the human. We can understand the human only through the earth.”