It's a wisdom problem

Sept 2010, Volume II, No. 2

In recent years, serious thinkers have increasingly been emphasizing the need to enhance social consciousness in the world - indeed, to achieve a global transformation of consciousness. This issue of Open Space explores the content of three books, with more focus on The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation, by Mark Hathaway and Leonardo Boff.

There are moments in human history when deep change seems not only necessary but also inevitable. Sometimes people experience such moments as a kind of springtime: an unfolding, an opening, a rush of growth, unprecedented opportunity. Sometimes these fateful moments face us as a collapse—or a threatened collapse—of the pillars of the known world: a grinding together of an impatient planet’s hidden tectonic plates, a rending of the surface as terrible as the recent Haitian earthquake.

In our lifetime, it seems that the whole human race is being driven, lured, invited or pressed into one voracious global economic system, which steamrolls away many modes of diversity.

Exciting though that prospect can be from the point of view of a growing human unity, the machine that currently drives globalization has truly fearsome aspects. Many prophetic voices are warning that our economic machine is at war with nature, and that we, urgently, need to learn to live in peace within nature, its biodiversity, and its limits.

And a more ancient warning is also heard in this globalizing moment: our economic machine is widening the chasm between rich and poor. Unless we bridge that gap, there will be no healing for us on any level.

There are different (and differently useful) ways of responding to the sense that we live in a kairos, a time of reckoning.

Recently I participated in two excellent conferences in Ottawa. The first was organized by the Halifax Initiative, a coalition of social justice NGOs. They were asking: “What’s missing in the response to the global financial crisis?” The second conference was sponsored by the Canadian International Council (CIC) on “The World in 2015: Implications for Canada.”

Bold analytical theories, institutional projections and reflections abounded, as well as calls for fundamental changes in our economic and political structures in order to engage China and Asia effectively in the future. The need for “new eyes” and new paradigms was recognized.

But I noticed little awareness of the crippling lack of trust, community and social consciousness in our individualistic Western culture. And without community and communal consciousness, there is little nourishment for achieving the profound transformation of minds, hearts and structures which this hour in history demands.

In recent years, serious thinkers have increasingly been emphasizing the need to enhance social consciousness in the world—indeed, to achieve a global transformation of consciousness. Let me tell you about two recent books which approach this issue, each in its own way. I’ll try to give the gist of their authors’ thought, mostly in their own words.

First there is Jeremy Rifkin in his Empathetic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World of Crisis. He sees the global drama as a struggle between empathy and entropy, between the surges of empathy that have accompanied great transformations in consciousness, and the steady increase in the consumption of energy as civilizations developed.

He does not look to either faith or rational philosophy for a solution in this struggle; he finds them too preoccupied with mind and spirit, to the detriment of interest in the concrete experience of the human body. He will take whatever help faith or reason may offer, but he puts his hope in empathy.

A predisposition for empathy, embedded in our biology, is presently exploding into our social consciousness through rapid developments in global communications systems. Rifkin considers this upsurge of empathy as a kind of fuel for a potential increase in solidarity and community among people, making possible what he calls an empathetic civilization.

David Korten, in The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, takes a more cultural approach to the challenge of global solidarity. His thought is very much in line with that of the Earth Charter (see side-bar).

Korten’s work contrasts, as he puts it, “the stories and deep assumptions underlying the values and relationships of Empire [our present capitalist system] that legitimate a hierarchy of domination and wealth concentration on the one hand, and on the other hand, Earth Community: networks of partnership, sharing, and mutual learning. [He] draws on the deeper insights of both science and religion to make the case that learning and partnership are integral not only to life, but as well to the whole of Creation.”

For Korten, world religions in general and Christian churches in particular have a natural role in facilitating inter-racial exchange and dialogue, an essential aspect of awakening and deepening social and cultural consciousness. The story of God is integral to our changing human story, nourishing in us the great dreams that provide an ever-widening horizon in our waking lives.

A third new book on which I will dwell longer is The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation. It has two authors: Mark Hathaway, an adept in transformative education and research, and Leonardo Boff, a liberation theologian from Brazil. Their book is a wide-ranging search for liberating wisdom that can lead us toward an Earth Community, toward healing of our world so torn by the rich-poor chasm and by ecological crisis.

Hathaway and Boff (both Catholic Christians) use thematically the ancient Chinese word “Tao”. For them Tao evokes “walking wisdom” – expressing not only deep integrated human understanding, but also the wisdom that is already at work in the natural evolution of our universe, to which we must listen more carefully.

The early chapters deal with the obstacles and openings for transformation found in recent developments in cosmology, evolution, ecology, economics and psychology. Their findings are largely consonant with those of Rifkin and Korten but they include insights from Asian religions and cultures that temper an overly western bias.

Here, in limited space, I will reflect only on their final two chapters, highlighting (in their own words) a few of their more important insights into Christian spirituality as it helps us integrate our various types of intelligence - rational, emotional and spiritual—into an integrated wisdom.

The authors call for a reinvention of ourselves as human—nothing less than a spiritual awakening and revolution. If we look to our origins, evolution, destiny and purpose we can contemplatively encounter God as the Source of all. The human psyche is desire that knows no limits. We are fully satisfied only with all and the All.

Spirituality has often been presented as a looking inward to cultivate the Spirit or to experience God within one’s own soul. But what if spirituality is explored holistically as our way of being a person in the context of all creation? We are created, embodied persons. Spirit (or soul) and body are not so distinct and separated as we have sometimes imagined.

Here we are not talking about a received definition of God but rather the God of our personal journey - the ultimate source of value and of the sacred dimension within us. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” This awareness is a lived experience rather than a concept or doctrine.

The experience is that we are linked and relinked [the meaning of the word religion] to each other, and all of us to the originating Source.

“A thread of energy, life and meaning passes through all beings, making them a cosmos instead of chaos, a symphony instead of a cacophony.”

Experience of God is not always linked to religion. However, over 80% of humankind is associated with religion in one form or another. It is the task of religion to provide the conditions necessary to allow each person and each community to dive into the divine reality and attain a personal experience of God. God is not distant. God is immanent to all being. In faith we know what St Paul told the Athenians, echoing the intuition of their own ancient poets: “In God we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17: 28)

From the perspective of cosmology we might well name God “Energy”—at once supreme, conscious, organizing, sustaining, living –the most mysterious of all realities.

Through revelation we know God as love - as Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit - whose whole reality is relationship. As we are now discovering through science and personal experience, all creation is a web of dynamic relationships. And we can embrace and experience God in all creatures.

These are some of the important elements the authors highlight in Christian spirituality. They also point to comparable elements in the “wisdom schools” of other religions.

The integration of spiritual intelligence with other forms of intelligence [cognitive, emotional, etc] opens us to living communion with all things in an atmosphere of respect and reverence for other beings. St. Francis of Assisi embodied this integration.

Meister Eckhart, a Dominican theologian and mystic born in the 13th century, wrote:

“Every creature is full of God, and is a book about God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.”

And yet we are not pantheists - we know we are not God!

It is these spiritual insights that give us the freedom to transcend our present worldview – to escape our “monoculture” (to use Vandana Shiva’s expression) and discover a way of transformation.
Absurd conventions – such as the idea that unbridled greed, competition and pursuit of self-interest result in the well-being of all – lose their grip on us.

The breakthrough solutions to present crises are to be found not primarily in technology but in “wisdom politics”—in the free creative thinking and action of people enlightened and motivated by something deeper than greed, fear or narrow reason alone.

In his foreword to The Tao of Liberation, Fritjof Capra, physicist, systems theorist and author, suggests that ecology seems to be the ideal bridge between science and spirituality because both emphasize connectedness, relationship and interdependence as fundamental concepts. We are interwoven with each other and with the whole web of life by the One whose loom holds all of creation.

That is why the option for poor and the option for earth are inseparable in a new, compelling conception of sustainability as liberation.

In this “Tao” or wisdom perspective, knowledge is not seen as power to control but as power to love. On the way to wisdom, perception takes precedence over conceptualization and attentive contemplation is more important than analysis. This kind of holistic, intuitive apprehension has been downplayed, or even lost, in a scientific rationality based on reductionism.

Stripped-down, Cartesian reductionism, in its generations of dominance, gave us powerful technologies and brilliant formulas into which we tried to squeeze the awesome reality that surrounds us. But it made us—at best—one-eyed and one-dimensional. Now a new kairos is upon us, with much wider imperatives.

This time of crisis threatens us, but it also invites us. Let us ponder and pray that a transformation of consciousness will indeed come in our time—and that it will prove to be a true receptivity to the boundless God Who holds everything in the embrace of love.

Bill Ryan sj