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Page: The Ecological Age

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Thomas Berry, a foremost Catholic figure in the development of a Catholic response to the ecological crisis, ponders the role of humans within earth’s systems. Here are some of his observations, taken from his article. 


As humans, we are now just emerging from a technological entrancement – our entrancement with an industrially driven consumer society. During this period, the human mind has been placed within the narrowest confines it has experienced since consciousness emerged from its Paleolithic phase. Nothing less than entrancement could have so obscured scientists and technicians that has led to the devastating ecological impasse which humans face today. However, the excessive analytical phase of science is over.  


Even primitive tribes have a larger vision of the universe – and of our place and function within it. Theirs is a vision that extends to celestial regions of space, and to interior depths of the human being – in a manner far exceeding the parameters of our own world of technological confinement. They felt themselves sustained by a cosmic presence that went beyond the surface reality of the surrounding natural world. The human sense of an all-pervasive, numinous, or sacred power gave to life a deep security. 


Over time, a realm of consciousness of high spiritual, social, and artistic development occurred – then further developed in the age of the great traditional civilizations of the Eurasian and American worlds (the age of Confucian China, of Hindu India, of Buddhist Asia, of the ancient Near East, of Islam, of medieval Europe, of the Toltec, Mayan, Aztec, Pueblo, and Incan civilizations of Central and South America). 


Our deepest convictions arise in the contact of the human with some ultimate mystery whence the universe itself is derived. 


The human structure of life in all these civilizations had many similarities: the sense of the divine, ritual forms, social hierarchies, basic technologies, agricultural economies, as well as temple architecture ands sculpture. 


But then, in the Western world a new capacity for understanding and controlling the dynamics of the earth came into being. By the mid-eighteenth century, the invention of new technologies had begun whereby we could manipulate our environment to our own advantage. At this time also an “objective world” was born – a world clearly distinct from ourselves and available as a vast realm of natural resources for exploitation and consumption. 


The new scientific attitudes and technologies became the modern substitutes for the mystical vision of divine reality and the evocation of spiritual forces by ritual and prayerful invocation. Human effort, not divine grace, was the instrument for progress. All this achievement was associated with a sense of political and social transformation that would release us from age-old tyrannies. With such expectations came a new exhilaration in our powers to dominate the natural world. This led to a savage assault upon the earth such as was inconceivable in prior times. As with all such illusory situations, the awakening can be slow and painful and filled with exaggerated reactions. Our present awakening from this enchantment with technology has been particularly painful. 


Presently, we are entering another historical period, one that might be designated as the ecological age. The transformation will require the assistance of the entire planet. It is a radical change in our mode of consciousness. Much of our trouble during these past two centuries has been caused by our limited modes of thought – we centered ourselves on the individual, on personal aggrandizement, on a competitive way of life, and on the nation, or the community of nations, as the guarantor of freedom to pursue these purposes. A sense of planet Earth never entered into our minds. 


The ecological age, into which we are presently moving, is an opposed, though complementary, age that succeeds the technological age. In a deeper sense, this new age takes us back to certain basic aspects of the universe which were evident to the human mind from its earliest period, but which have been further refined, observed, and scientifically stated in more recent centuries. 


These governing principles of the universe have controlled the entire evolutionary process from the moment of its explosive origin some fourteen billion years ago to the shaping of the earth, the emergence of life and consciousness, and so through the various ages of human history. These principles, known in ages past by intuitive processes, are now understood by scientific reasoning. The ecological age must now activate these principles in a universal context if the human venture is to continue. These principles, on which the universe functions, are three: differentiation (meaning the number of different things in the universe), subjectivity (meaning the move to consciousness and the rise of the numinous or mystical), and communion (the communion of all reality in the universe). 


Differentiation: Life on planet Earth finds expression in an overwhelming variety of manifestations. So, too, with the human: as soon as we appear, we immediately give to human existence multiple modes of expression. 


Subjectivity: With the nervous system and the brain comes greater freedom of control over the activity of the organism. In this manner, planet Earth becomes ever more subject to the free interplay of self-determining forces. With subjectivity is associated the numinous quality that has traditionally been associated with every reality of the universe. 


Communion: A third principle of the universe is the communion of each reality of the universe with every other reality in the universe. Here our scientific evidence confirms, with a magnificent overview, the ancient awareness that we live in a universe – a single, if multiform, energy event. The unity of the entire complex of galactic systems is among the most basic experience of contemporary physics. Although this comprehensive unity of the universe was perceived by primitive peoples, affirmed by great civilizations, explained in creation myths the world over, nowhere was the full genetic relatedness of the universe presented with such clarity as the by the scientists of the twentieth century. 


The ecological age fosters the deep awareness of the sacred presence within each reality of the universe. There is an awe and reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun, and all heavenly bodies; to the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in the sea; to the animals of the forests and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice. 


It would be easier for us if we would remember that the earth itself – as the primary energy – is findings its way both to interior conscious expression in the human and to outer fulfilment in the universe. We must simply respond to the urgencies imposed on us by the energy that holds the stars within the galactic clusters, that shaped the planet under our feet, that has guided life through its bewildering variety of expression, and that has found even higher expression in the exotic tribes and nations, languages, literature, art, music, social forms, religious rituals, and spiritual disciplines over the surface of the planet. There is reason to believe that those mysterious forces that have guided earthly events thus far have not suddenly collapsed under the great volume of human affairs in this twenty-first century. 


What is clear is that the earth is mandating that the human community assume a responsibility never assigned to any previous generation. The human community is passing from its stage of childhood into its adult stage of life. We must assume adult responsibilities. In its prior period, the earth acted independently as the complete controlling principle; only limited control over existence was assigned to ourselves. Now the earth insists that we accept greater responsibility, a responsibility commensurate with the greater knowledge communicated to us. 


What we need, what we are ultimately groping toward, is the sensitivity required to understand and respond to the psychic energies deep in the very structure of reality itself. 


Source: Thomas Berry, “The Ecological Age”, in The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra, 1990), 36-49.

Photo credit: Intellimon Ltd.

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