Tuesday, June 30, 2015

 

EVOLUTIONARY RELIGION and DEEP TIME


So let me tell you about how Evolutionary Religion led me back into the land of Hope. My last post on hope, “Letting Go of Honest Hope,” grounded me in the biblical hope that was at the core of the still-incomplete Quaker renewal of Christianity. Evolutionary Religion moves that hope from the heavenly kingdom to the vast prospect of a billion years of religious evolution, many of whose basic tenets have already been addressed by Friends' peculiar spirituality.

The focus of my faith, and the basis of my hope, has been for many years one of trusting the indwelling Spirit, the First Mover, the Creator who is wellspring of the material universe, source of our breath and soul. I wrote an essay at the request of the National Council of Churches about this, first calling it ecological faith, then moving to the more inclusive term cosmogenetic faith. Ecological faith takes me beyond faith in our brave, flawed species to a trust in the system, trust in Gaia as one self-regulating being, its intelligence sustaining the whole by being distributed throughout it. Cosmogenetic faith moves beyond planetary ecological processes to the radical Good News that the Creator creates on an infinite scale, ecosystem after ecosystem, universe after universe.

Despite this eco-theological buttress, I have been obsessed these last several years with near-term human extinction. As I have struggled with this frighteningly probable event, I have come to realize what the crux of it for me is. It is not just the unimaginable suffering of billions (human and non-human). It is not just the specific imagining of the untimely demise of my grandchildren. Nor is it the loss of so much that I hold dear in the Cenozoic Era and Holocene Epoch, the context of our blessed opportunity to work and dance on the material plane. What it really comes down to is the consequences this would have for one of Thomas Berry's central realizations, that the universe is aware of itself through us, homo sapiens. In The Universe Story, he names this reflective awareness a ”new power, a power of consciousness whereby Earth, and the universe as a whole, turned back and reflected on itself.” (143) So my question, what happens to this essential self-awareness, radical creative generativity being conscious of itself as world-making, if we go extinct?

Even as I have pondered and written about this these last eight years, astronomers have discovered a vastly-increasing number of exoplanets that may harbor intelligent life, and of course some are open to the possibility of parallel worlds. A few, those with a more Eastern sensibility, even entertain the notion of serial universes, as the Hindus believe. But this particular place, the Garden of Yahweh, is my home, and the rest is a thoroughgoing mixture of conjecture and faith. Human extinction matters to me perhaps most importantly because I was raised with the biblical story of Yahweh having a special, chosen relationship with us. And I am not aware of any other species for which this is an intimate, felt relationship. You could call this a failure of imagination, but it is related to a trait that I value, namely that I am more interested in experience of the divine mystery than in any belief about it.

Evolutionary Religion comes back to the spiritually modest, materially expansive proposition that though development of a mature religious perspective on this Earth is still quite rudimentary, “we” still have a very long time in which to make more progress, even if we destroy much of the gift we were given in terms of the 63 million year bloom of the Cenozoic. That destruction would involve ecological and civilizational collapse, including an epochal number of extinctions, perhaps including our own. It is quite possible that positive feedback cycles will become so severe that the earth becomes uninhabitable for higher life, in which case Schellenberg's thesis would be moot. But if the conditions for higher life remain after the ongoing series of shocks we have already started have reached equilibrium, then “we” may survive the bottleneck industrial humans have created. The referent for this “we” is intelligent life on this planet with a thirst for ultimate meaning, necessitating a deep religious faith. Homo sapiens can suicide, yet Berry's intuitive proposition about the self-reflective quality of the universe can survive! This is crucial to the possibility of meaning in this universe, which Schellenberg sees, without reference to Berry, as crucial, even as a religious skeptic. And it cognitively restores the grounds for my faith and hope.

DEEP TIME. This is key to Schellenberg's argument, and something with which I have a modicum of familiarity. Joanna Macy introduced me to the concept through some exercises in my training with her in California in 2000. We did a “Dance of the Ancestors” in which we moved through evolutionary history, experiencing our hominin forebears, as well as our ancient Old World ones. We experienced guided meditations of cosmic history since the Big Bang, and a couple in which we imagined future beings, presumably human, who thanked us for making it through the evolutionary bottleneck caused by climate change and habitat loss. But explorations of future time remained in the relatively near future, as Joanna had us imagine beings a hundred or perhaps a few hundred years in the future. When I have asked groups to choose future moments in some of my workshops, they have ventured as far as 10,000 years. (This is the figure Gary Snyder says is required for our maturation as a species.) But Schellenberg has his sights on really deep time, which he says we have missed in our backward-looking habits.

According to Schellenberg, the Darwinian revolution is only half finished, and our religious quest barely begun. Geology and Darwinian evolution, with their focus on the past, have achieved the initial half of the needed revolution. They discovered deep time, but stopped in the present. He argues that it extends as well into the evolutionary future, “Darwin's Door,” and evolutionary religion banks on that time for developmental advances in our maturity as a species, towards which religion is essential. This involves cultural evolution as well as biological. Intelligent life has the capacity to extend into what is rather unfathomable, a billion years of evolution of life on this planet (perhaps up to 2.4 billion years, the latter figure based on potential variations in atmospheric pressure as the sun gets hotter and hotter in its progression towards star death in another 4 billion years). Clearly a careful and imaginative teacher, he outlines exercises he uses with students for them to start to imagine, to move from vague cognition to gut recognition, the vast time scale involved here.

For myself, having been opened to a sense of deep time through exercises such as plotting on the floor the spiraling history of this universe since the supposed Big Bang, I had a second moment of recognition. If you assume the I behind the we witnessing evolving space-time, that is, the Creator within us, and sense that I in a continuing series of present moments, you begin to feel the vastness of possibility. And i, as the little perplexed, neurotic thinker who is worried about near-term extinction, find my fear for the near term (tremendously multiplied by reading Guy McPherson, Carolyn Baker and their ilk) eroding so fast that joy and hope return. When you look at it, virtually nobody in the current climate debate tends to think beyond 2050 or “a hundred years from now,” which has crept forward 12-15 years since climate scientists first ventured to project present trends, with respect to human presence in the earth's evolutionary history. We are collectively so enormously frightened of the near future, we cannot imagine anything beyond it, except the return of pre-conscious geological time. Replace this by a vigorously imagined (no daydreams here!) billion years of persistence of that I-thought, and we are in different territory indeed.

Up next: A "beliefless faith” is the necessary basis for a truly evolutionary religion on this planet.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

 

FULL CIRCLE


It's been a long time, the longest that I have not posted since my sabbatical period 2006-7 to research nuclear power and come to grips with its potential to help reduce CO2 emissions.  In the fall, I led a retreat in Knoxville, “Collapsing Consciously.” In my related post, I explained how the group held me up, healing my own despair. This was critically important, for if the leader models despair, what are the retreatants learning?

This March, I led two retreats, one for the revitalized Earthcare Action Network of Southern Appalachian Meeting, the second another version of “Collapsing Consciously,” on sacred aboriginal ground, now called Common Ground, aka Swannanoa Valley Friends Meeting, in Black Mountain, NC. Back in Knoxville, a retreatant from the fall session sat with me at lunch before I left, sharing her own depression induced by the Bad News that I had summarized as context for our work in that retreat. Thankfully, she found she had the spiritual resources to overcome her despair/depression. This was very valuable feedback. In two weeks, I was going to be leading a very similar retreat, and I decided to warn participants in a letter prior to our gathering of this danger.

I should have heeded the warning myself more deeply. Though each of the March retreats included the central exercise of despair-empowerment work, the Truth Mandala, the Earthcare Action retreat was within the context of renewal, and had some lighter touches built into it. In Black Mountain, collapse on virtually all fronts was again our context. The retreat was a powerful one, my deepest experience of the Truth Mandala, including that experienced in my training with my mentor Joanna Macy fifteen years ago. As was the case in the fall, the make-up of the group strongly influenced the overall tone, and this time there were four people (including myself) who had deeply shared the Earth's pain, actively working with/through it for a number of years. So we went much deeper, and our brave cohorts went with us, including a couple of newbies, one of whom went from initial shock to acceptance of a world condition he had ignored heretofore. One woman went through a transformational experience. This was why I did this work, I told myself as I headed for home, completely spent.

The next month took me full circle, back into the despair I had not fully acknowledged in the fall, this time bottoming out, with images and experiences returning from a breakdown in fall 1984. I was down with a bad cold for a full month, and depressed. In February, I had watched several in Michael Dowd's series of interviews, “The Future is Calling Us to Greatness.” Though I had read many of these folks, I benefited from hearing the lively dialogue with Michael, and watching their beautiful, thoughtful, brave faces. And I met some new figures, including Kathleen Dean Moore. But the key that eventually turned me around was looking up a reference from his interview with Brian McLaren ( a Quaker professor of religion from Claremont) to JL Schellenberg's Evolutionary Religion. Clayton noted that Schellenberg was confident that, even if our species went extinct, there would be “beings like us” on this planet who would continue to function as intelligent creatures capable of religious experience and thought.

This was the turning point for me, and I steadily climbed back out of my slough of despair as I read the book. I learned yet again that I cannot – and I suspect this is true of virtually everybody – do ecospiritual work without hope. In the next post, I'll talk in some detail about how Evolutionary Religion led me back into the land of Hope.



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