Response to the Essays

By Thomas Berry

These essays deepen and expand what The Great Work seeks to communicate. That the writers come from different disciplines with a variety of life experience gives each its special significance. The following thoughts I write in appreciation of their willingness to present their own insights, and also to enter into further discussion of the issues before us.

Larry Rasmussen

Larry Rasmussen, from his experience in the Philippines, has shown how a devastating earthquake can be a creative opportunity. A more integral human presence to the larger Earth community can be created—if only the persons aVected respond with the vision needed. The earthquake that occurred in the Baguio region of the Philippines in the summer of 1990 gives an illustration of this creative consequences of such a calamity. The Earthquake demolished a religious, cultural and educational center in Baguio, yet it provided the opportunity needed to reshape the entire program of the Center.

A complete rebuilding was needed. The necessity of starting anew enabled comprehensive changes to occur with no need of adaptation to an existing situation since the prior forms of human presence were suddenly brought down in ruins. The ruins themselves provided both the material and the opportunity for extensive rethinking of the appropriate manner of humans being present in the particular region. The Bioshelter that arose was based on a new integration of the human project within the Earth project. This new integration, in intimate association with the local bioregion, gives expression to the basic theme of The Great Work in the reality of its functioning. This new orientation of human affairs shows how the ideals of an intimate human-Earth presence to each other can become effective in a particular bioregion. The story of the Baguio Center, as told here by Larry Rasmussen, is remarkable both for the reality of the project and for his appreciation of what was accomplished.

This entire sequence of events is a remarkable metaphor of what is happening to the entire civilizational structure of our western tradition. As Chellis Glendenning entitled her book My name is Chellis and I am in Recovery from Western Civilization, we are all in a somewhat similar situation. The Baguio metaphor is even more appropriate than we dare admit. We are in the ruins of a great civilizational period, but one that is ending in a unique historical tragedy. But already we are establishing the new phase of Western Civilization.

The decisive thing in this particular situation in Baguio is that the persons involved had already experienced a change of understanding in their proper work from the time when they originally arrived in the region some fifty years earlier. In these earlier years there was little understanding of the intimate presence that humans need to establish with the natural region in which we live. A new way of life, more intimate with their surroundings, is now being established for themselves and for the people with whom and for whom they are working. Those in charge of the project were prepared when the disaster occurred. A new way of thinking, a new way of educating, a new way of expressing religious belief are now finding expression. New liturgies more integral with the liturgies of the natural world could be designed, new sources of ever-renewing energy be adopted, and these could occur now with a certain ease in the transition. Amid the extensive discontinuities with the past caused by the earthquake there could also be continuities in the deeper orientations of their earlier modes of expression.

A parallel situation exists throughout western civilization. These past forty years, especially since the time of Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring(1962), a sequence of remarkable events has occurred, including: The Stockholm Conference of the United Nations in 1972, publication of Limits to Growth also in 1972, Then the World Charter for Nature in 1982, The Rio Conference in 1992 and the Charter for Earth, in 2002. All these have taken or soon will take place. Together with all the books, studies, university-level courses in our new life situation, these all give promise of a new generation with new energies ready to carry the transformation of human-Earth relations into their new, more integral phase.

Stephanie Kaza

Stephanie Kaza has seen clearly that much of the future depends on reestablishing an intimate relation with the "wild" dimension of the Earth that we have tried to subdue through our scientific insight and our technological controls. The "wildness" that she selects for comment expresses an awareness that the beginning of human wisdom is to be found in response to those natural forces that well up from the primordial depths of existence.

Humans in their earlier days knew that they could survive and prosper only by the grace of powers far beyond themselves. Thus the role of the shamanic personalities within the earliest communities, persons who had a special rapport with the powers experienced in the peaceful dawn as well as in the devastating storms and floods that descend over the Earth with such little warning. Although the wild is often experienced in its destructive aspects, it must be understood primarily as the deepest form of creative presence throughout the universe.

The sense of the universe as expressive of a vast, all pervasive, yet highly differentiated power presence finds expression not only in the shamanic figures throughout indigenous societies, it is found also in the creative personalities throughout the world of poets, prophets, rulers, teachers and healers down through the ages. Even creative scientists share profoundly in this shamanic insight.

Instead of entering into communion with such powers of the universe, our modern industrial civilization seeks to triumph over these wild forces that have dominated the affairs of the planet from earliest times. Indeed it does sometimes seem that we have conquered the wild though our inventions, our journeys into space, our entry in the deepest realms of genetic functioning. We have intruded into the composition of the atmosphere. We have damned the great rivers of the world. We have diminished the inherent fertility of the soils of the Earth thinking that we were bringing about an improvement. We have gathered the resources of the sea with little regard for the damage we were doing to the vast numbers of living creatures who dwell there. We have disturbed the massive ice formations to the north and the south that formerly were far beyond our influence.

Suddenly we find that the wonder of all these human accomplishments has been more ephemeral than we thought. This is particularly true of our genetic engineering projects. Even when we have learned the entire sequence of the human genome we will never be sure what the consequences of human interference will be. Yet our assault on the natural systems continues unabated. With disregard for all the distortions that we have already introduced into the genetic stream we continue our programs to take over direction of the genetic process.

As we exhaust the available sources of petroleum the original powers that put these resources there will reassert their dominance. The wildness of the floods and droughts, the sequence of climate changes, will forever lie beyond our understanding or control. When we built the industrial world of the 20th century out of the petroleum that we were extracting from the Earth we thought that we were making a decisive advance into human controls over our own future.

As we come into the impasse resulting from the energy deficit that is before us we will increasingly need a deep cultural therapy. Our great task for the future is to integrate our human mode of being with the wild abundance of the world about us. To avail ourselves of this abundance will require a new way of living with the larger community of the planet Earth.

Robert Neville

Robert Neville brings the universe into focus, rather than the planet Earth, as the context of our existence. Indeed since there is no more comprehensive context in the phenomenal world that it could be related to, the universe is self-referent in its being and self-normative in its activities. Every particular mode of being in the universe, including the planet Earth, is universe-determined in its being, universe-guided in its activities, and universe-fulfilled in its destiny.

All Earth issues are ultimately universe issues, just as all human issues are ultimately Earth issues. It is quite appropriate that Dr. Neville should bring up the question of equilibrium-disequilibrium in the universe in his study of the issues under consideration. That the Earth is not a locked-in, fully designed, neatly arranged and smoothly running project is its peril and its fascination. That is the challenge and the danger that we must deal with on a comprehensive scale.

Dr. Neville sees quite clearly that the disequilibrium and its consequent tension is what provides the dynamism in the universe, the planet earth and the human venture. By identifying his own philosophical commitment to the disequilibrium rather than the equilibrium aspects of the universe he brings the discussion back to the essay on the Wild and the Sacred. The wild, and the effort of humans to subdue the wild to human control, explains the present better in all its basic issues. The unique quality of the human is its release from the determinations of the other forms of genetic coding. As humans we are genetically coded toward a further cultural coding that we invent ourselves in a manner beyond that of any other species.

In each of the innumerable cultural integrations that occur throughout the full range of geographical and chronological distribution of human communities, newly evolved destructive as well as creative possibilities have come into being. What has not been understood until recent times is the extent to which the human increases the precarious life situation by inserting human influences, based on limited human knowledge, into the physical functioning of the Earth. Other modes of being have enormous power in shaping the planet throughout its geological as well as its biological formation. The remarkable thing is the immense creativity that found expression in this context, a creativity that required an unending sequence of genetic transformations leading to the brilliant display of life that has come into being in these last 65 million years. In reality the conditions that enabled it all to happen were set into place by forms far older, far simpler and far more diverse than we are generally aware of.

The creativity that eventuated in our own existence depended on some final creativity emerging from the ever-increasing complexity of life systems of the planet. By identifying the ultimate disequilibrium of the universe we move beyond the attitude that we can ever attain any ultimate understanding since the response of the universe to all our human activities is beyond human comprehension or control. Yet a remembrance that the life forces of the past that have guided the course of Earth through the centuries are still functioning in the full expression of their abiding genius and unfailing energy provides that assurance of our own success as we enter the new phase of our awesome journey into the future.

Ursula Goodenough

Ursula Goodenough has brought into our discussion some of the more basic concepts in any study of life and its meaning, questions such as progress, hierarchy, purpose and contingency. To clarify the use of the term "Progress" I would note that this term is generally used in three principal ways. First there is the spiritual progress through history presented in the Bible, principally in the apocalyptic context of the Book of Daniel and Saint John's Book of Revelations. Then there is the derivative use of the term for the political, commercial, scientific and industrial developments that occurred in the western world since the 18th century. More recently the term has been used in relation to the evolutionary concept of life on the planet Earth.

That the idea of progress originated in the western scriptural context is clear. In the scriptural context, however, the idea of progress refers to the spiritual progress of a sacred community through history, a progress sustained by divine power. In the later phase of the conflict between good and evil, the spiritual community would experience, through divine grace, a thousand years, a "millennium" of peace, justice and abundance, prior to the end of time. This expectation of a period when the "human condition" would be overcome has dominated the western sense of history ever since.

Since this resolution of the inner tension of existence did not occur by some heavenly grace a sequence of intellectual, political, commercial and social forces, convinced that they could provide the guidance needed, took control of the major western public establishments determined to bring about, by human effort, the age of peace and abundance that was promised but not attained by more spiritual forces.

This coalition of forces began their plundering of the Earth's resources in the mid-18th century. Confidence in history as inherent "progress" of this commercial-industrial development is what I refer to in my critique of our contemporary world. However acceptable or unacceptable the original spiritual meaning, the subversion of this meaning to a secular commercial one can be considered one of the major forces leading to the devastation of the natural world taking place in our times. Even now we are under the enticement of this Disney-type Wonderworld of material abundance and commercial wealth attained by further plundering of the natural resources of the Earth. This plundering process, defended in such an extravagant manner by Julian Simon, is precisely what the book is written against.

Here we are not concerned with either the original meaning of the term nor with the use of the term "progress" to designate and even to inspire the material advance of our consumer society. The issue that needs to be discussed here is how the human community should understand and relate to the evolutionary sequence. Humanists, with their anthropocentrism, most often see the story of the Earth as producing life forms of ever greater value, with the human as the supreme achievement in the hierarchical narrative of life emergence on this planet. The human then becomes the purpose and the direction of the entire evolutionary process.

For most contemporary biologists as expressed by Ursula Goodenough the sequence producing the universe is explained as "emergence of difference" but without direction or purpose, certainly not as a progressive or hierarchical sequence. As expressed in her essay, "Gravity is the basis for the formation of the galaxies, stars, and planets, and chemistry is the basis for life and all its manifestations. Life is dependent on a chemistry that has memory, and memory introduces the Darwinian system we call mutation and natural selection."

In response to this last statement concerning gravity we might note that the bonding force throughout the universe presupposes a primordial diversity resulting from the original energizing force in the universe. We could agree that the "progress" in the universe is not a sequence of transformations leading directly to the human. The "progress" of the universe in its comprehensive extent is best considered, it seems to me, as progress toward a coherent diversity of articulated entities bonded in a community of living and non-living forms each of which is integral with the universe entire. In this sense the universe is fulfilled in each entity in some unique way. Each entity is a direction and a purpose of the universe, although the entire universe in all its diversity is the adequate direction, purpose and fulfillment of the universe.

While we may not find the view of Dr. Goodenough that the living world, with no vital principle in each of its living forms, is fully explicable by chemistry as the immediate source of movement, sensation, and memory, we might consider it helpful to rethink our emphasis on the human. We have throughout our western history tended to consider ourselves at the summit of the hierarchy of living beings with the other living and non-living components of the planet being considered as "lower" and totally subservient to ourselves. We might give greater thought on how much we depend on the other modes of being in accomplishing the wonderful things that emerge from human thought and creativity.

When we consider the astounding accomplishments of the microbes in shaping the universe in all its wonders we must marvel in somewhat the same manner as we marvel at the accomplishments of humans. We find unique competencies and unique values in every phase of existence. Microbes can do things in the chemical constitution of the planet that none of the mammals can do, things that enable the Earth to be what it is. All the later forms of life depend on the microbes to provide the ten-thousand functions necessary that keep the oxygen in the air that keep the soils fertile, that carry out the digestive process throughout the animal world. Without the microbes the more complex forms of life would be unthinkable.

We might pay tribute to the biologists who have brought the wonder of these basic living forms to our attention. Yet if every living being depends on the microbes, the microbes depend on the other forms of life to provide the beauty of the butterfly, the strength of the elephant, the flight of the eagle, the thought of the human. Our reduction downward must be completed by a reduction upward. It is hardly proper to think of these later, "more evolved forms", as performing their activities or expressing their beauty simply out of their own resources. Every human achievement is based on the resources of the entire planet from its primary components through the complete sequence of activities that have occurred through the centuries. Seen from this comprehensive perspective the microbes, as the original and basic support for the entire living world, are, in some sense, the supreme and most valuable of all life forms. Yet a planet limited to microbes, compared to the existing planet with its diversity of life expression, would be terribly impoverished.

Any understanding of the term "evolution" implies some inner tendency toward diversification. That this implies a more "advanced" mode of being from something less advanced seems clear by the definition of evolution given by Dr. Goodenough as the emergence of "something more from something less." Without some newly expressed difference there would be no change, therefore no evolution. In some sense there surely is progress from prelife to life, from single cell organisms to multicellular organisms, from being fixed in place to being able to move, from sightlessness to sight, from not having to having powers of sexual reproduction, from sensation to intellectual understanding.

From our historical account of the evolutionary process we must conclude that in the larger arc of its development the evolutionary process has consistently moved from lesser to greater complexity of form and from lesser to greater consciousness. This is sufficient to justify designating the evolutionary process as both progressive and as having a direction. To say that in particular instances "something can emerge from something else and be less complex" does not invalidate the statement that the universe "in the larger arc of its development" moves from lesser to greater complexity and from lesser to greater consciousness. The evidence for these statements is that the greater complexity and the greater consciousness are consistently later in time. By the phrase indicating "the larger arc of its development" the particular advances and recessions in the order of complexity are taken into consideration. Microphase evolution is not an adequate norm for macrophase evolution.

These references to greater complexity and greater consciousness apparently have more acceptance by the biologist, E. O. Wilson, who says in his book Biodiversity: "Many reversals have occurred along the way, but the overall average across the history of life has moved from the simple and few to the more complex and numerous… Progress, then is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and intentions in the behavior of animals. It makes little sense to judge it irrelevant." "An undeniable trend of progressive evolution has been the growth of biodiversity by increasing command of earth’s environment" (p. 187). So too Theodore Dobzhansky in his Biology of Ultimate Concern (1967) tells us, "The evidence of progress and directionality in biological evolution is clear enough if the living world is considered as a whole" (p. 119).

In this context we might better understand the particular statements made in reference to "the lyric period" in the life history of the planet. To Dr. Goodenough this designation seems inappropriate since "Only a small fraction of evolutionary "creativity" has been bestowed upon the multi-cellular creatures of the Cenozoic. The emergence of new ideas, and the reemergence of old ideas, have occurred and continues to occur, on countless occasions with unicellular creatures."

But even so there is some reason for speaking of the Cenozoic as "the lyric period" since in this period leading up to the emergence of the human species a superb amount of creativity occurred. We are told by E. O. Wilson that this blossoming of flora and fauna that we live with today "is a peak of enrichment." He speaks of the last 100 million years as the "pinnacle" when the number of species "has at least doubled in marine organisms and more than tripled in land plants during the past 100 million years" (p. 195).

These thoughts also bring up the question of "Hierarchy." While some writers seem adverse to the idea of hierarchy, it seems to me important that we universalize the idea. The deepest meaning of the universe is ruined if we diminish either the vertical or the lateral diversity of its components. There is a mutual enrichment in both instances. The earlier material components are the life-givers to the higher while the mental, imaginative and emotional possibilities of the lower are fulfilled in the higher. Still, in its every expression the "more evolved" must recognize its nothingness apart from the sustaining presence of beings less complex and less conscious. These are the two all-pervasive norms of evolution. Without advance in complexity and consciousness, the very term evolution is itself emptied of its true magnificence.

Concerning hierarchy, everything, it seems, needs to have modes of being in some manner greater than themselves as well as modes of being of lesser grandeur than themselves. Mere numerical multiplication is not a worthy end of the emergent process. A complete egalitarianism would not constitute a very interesting planet. A universe requires differences in form as well as difference in numbers. Otherwise the universe is impoverished rather than enriched.

Each living form is fulfilled in the other forms. Every component of the universe, from the primordial cell to the most recent of the primates, finds its own grandeur in the comprehensive wonder of the integral Earth community. Nothing is itself without everything else. Each species and each individual shares in the same life community. There is a certain validity in the statement that "the later realms of being are dependent on the earlier for survival and for the context of its activities, while the earlier are dependent on the later for their more elaborate manifestations." Yet such a statement does not bring out the full contribution of the earlier modes of being. For they contribute much more extensively to the grandeur of the later species than simply being a physical support. That is why every perfection of every being should be attributed primarily to the entire planet, not simply to the individual, or the particular species. It takes a universe to make any particular being in the universe.

Every being is at the top of the hierarchy of existence in some manner. This can be seen quite clearly once we bring in the term of reference. Each species is supreme in its own way. As regards "maintaining the chemistry of the planet" the microbes are supreme; as regards "flying" the birds are at the top. As regards "swimming", the fish. As regards "enriching the soil", the worms. As regards "reflexive thinking", the humans. Beyond all particular realities the integral Earth community is supreme.

As regards "purpose" I would note first that the Universe, within the phenomenal world, is self-referent as regards its existence and its purpose. Evolutionary existence is its own purpose. That existence should find expression in such immense diversity bonded into such intimate union is the truly wonderful aspect of the universe.

Here we might consider one other statement in the book mentioned by Dr. Goodenough as not entirely clear, the place where I speak of the governing principles of evolution as expressed in the three movements toward "differentiation, inner spontaneity, and comprehensive bonding." In response I would say that the most obvious fact concerning the universe is that it is composed of articulated entities, and is not a homogenous smudge. The universe in its earliest period appeared as primary particles that organized themselves into the earliest atomic structures of hydrogen and helium. Then came the formation into galaxies, each different, and so on into the astronomical sequence that eventually produced our solar system, the planets, and the various geological structures and biological species. More recently came the moment that the planet appears as it is now.

This vast array of differentiated entities was from the beginning bonded together in an inseparable relationship with one other in increasing complexity over the long millennia. Such are the three governing principles: differentiation, inner articulation (spontaneity, subjectivity, autopoesies, self-organization) and comprehensive bonding that have dominated the development of the universe from the beginning. The evolutionary process is itself concerned with the sequence of differentiations that enable a biological community to isolate its reproductive capacities within a limited community. Such a new community survives only by acceptance within the larger life complex wherein it finds the nourishment that it needs and a compatibility with the other members of an enduring habitat.

Continue reading