I recently attended week-long conference at the Ghost Ranch in Albquiú, New Mexico. The conference was entitled "Earth Honoring Faith: Journey of the
Universe” and featured a cadre of eminent religious and scientific scholars. Two of the presenters Mary Evelyn Tucker and her husband John Grim are visiting faculty with The Graduate Institute. Tucker is a senior lecturer and religious scholar in Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, as well as the Divinity School and the Department of Religious Studies. Grim is a Yale University professor with expertise in Native American religions, as well as co-founder and co-director with Tucker of Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology.
The conference focused on developing a new worldview that embraces the wisdom from both science and religion to better understand how to re-connect humanity within rather than outside of Nature. The conference theme stemmed from the inspirational book and Emmy award-winning documentary Journey of the Universe [JOTU] co-written by cosmologist Brian Swimme along with Mary Evelyn Tucker. In addition Tucker and her husband were executive producers of JOTU.
The film weaves together the insights gleaned from modern science with the enduring wisdom from the world’s religions to view Cosmic and Earth evolution as a profound process of creativity, connection and interdependence. The film instills a deep sense of belonging and participation that invites us to embrace a more meaningful understanding of our place and role in the story of the universe. JOTU tells a story situating humanity as one of millions of interdependent species borne within the womb of the Cosmos. All matter can be traced to the prodigious energies used to forge every known element either within the fusion furnaces of stars during their “lives” or when they have reached the end of their billion-year lifespan culminating with a billowing fireworks-like display of kaleidoscopic plumes of gas and dust in the wake of a supernova explosion. Therefore, as Carl Sagan iterated decades ago, we are all “star stuff” and, as such, kindred spirits with all of creation.
Religious leaders, environmental and social activists, as well as educators attended the conference whose overall design was to (1) emphasize that we are one human family connected to each other and all there is and; (2) engender a discussion of constructively responding to the ecological, political, social, economic and educational crises we currently face as a global family. One of the notions discussed was the relationship between opposing processes that give rise to form and structure of our planet. What this brought to mind was the dialectic between extinction and the opposing process of emergence or re-birth. There have been five mass extinctions of life on Earth over the course of the past 3.6 billion years, all of which can be attributed to natural processes. However, in the aftermath of each mass extinction, like the Phoenix arising from the ashes, life not only persisted but also flourished in abundance and diversity.
Scientists now concur that we have reached the end of the Cenozoic geological period, during which time the Earth witnessed the adaptive radiation of thousands of mammalian species including our own only a few hundred thousand years ago. A study, recently published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirms what many scientists have believed for some time.- “…The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.” We are now immersed in a new epoch characterized by “biological annihilation” of wildlife that the Earth has not experienced since the last mass extinction millions of years ago. However, unlike mass extinctions of past eons, this new one is due to overpopulation and overconsumption, as well as the intervention in natural processes of a single species-Homo sapiens. Therefore scientists have confirmed Earth has now entered into what is now called the Anthropocene epoch [the prefix “Anthro” refers to human]. The Anthropocene is so named because the planet’s landscape, air and water systems are being transfigured and negatively impacted while its plant and animal inhabitants decimated due to the human predilection to survive at the expense of everything else.
Nonetheless, as the geological record has revealed, the Earth is resilient and has survived past mass extinctions and therefore will survive and thrive with or without us. Thus, there is hope in recognizing the creative, renewing and fecund nature of our planet wherein the emergence of new species will continue to evolve and replace extinct species for ages to come. However, if we want to continue journeying with Mother Earth we need to recognize that this emergence-extinction dialectic is neither pendulum-like nor cyclical. Rather this dialectic depicts the spiraling and evolving of "time and place" creating new contexts. We need to acknowledge that we live in a living and evolving Universe. It is a difference between viewing it as a dead and static state of "being" and recognizing it as a living and dynamic state of "becoming". Henceforth, rather than viewing ourselves as human "beings" it appears more accurate to perceive ourselves as human "becomings" who have reached a critical juncture, or what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as a “tipping point” in our evolution. Whether our species continues the journey depends on whether or not we choose to consciously make changes in how we view ourselves and interact with the landscape, air, water and myriad species that Mother Nature has spun on her loom into one grand tapestry that we perceive as the “web of life”.
The time has come to reinterpret the 18th century Enlightenment values of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness through the lens of inter-connectedness or what Vietnamese and Buddhist poet, Thich Nhat Hanh, refers to as “inter-being” [i.e. to interdependently exist with others]. What the world needs today is to experience "wonder" within the sacred natural world we call home. Wonder or awe literally takes ones breath away. In awe’s wake one’s breath is restored through the process of inspiration, whose etymological roots can be traced to the word "spirit". Therefore, being awe-struck leaves us transformed and able to see things anew that as a consequence, leaves us re-spirited and thus, enlightened to perceive what before had only been overlooked or unseen. What the world needs now is a new story filled with wonder along with the wisdom that emerges when taking time to observe and appreciate the natural beauty and elegance in the form and structure of our environs. Humans need to finally recognize and acknowledge that we are entangled in an interdependent “web of life”. Moreover, it behooves us to begin behaving like a “family” member rather than a stranger to our global inhabitants, as well as resolve to fully participate as trusted guardians rather than plunderers of our planet and Her resources.
The new crises created during the human age of modernity require now, more than ever, a New Story of interdependence and spirituality that spawns new forms of social, spiritual and environmental activism based on: (1) embracing ecological integrity; (2) fostering social, economic and restorative justice and democracy; (3) non-violence and Peace; (4) valuing, respecting and honoring the spiritual connection between humans and the Earth; (5) integrating science and ethics; (6) viewing the universe as a “living”, creative and evolving system; (7) activating human energy for ecological and social change; (8) acknowledging humans as "trustees" rather than stewards of the earth; (9) embracing a broadened ethics among humans and non-humans; and (10) espousing an integral ecology whose values include: (1) reverence for the earth community; (2) respect for humans and all species; (3) restraint in use of natural resources; (4) retribution of technology and aid; and (5) responsibility for the future of life and restoration of ecosystems.
The Earth Charter [http://earthcharter.org/discover/the-earth-charter/] began as a United Nations initiative, but was carried forward and completed by a global civil society initiative in the last decade of the 20th century. The Charter provides an ethical framework requisite to creating a “just, sustainable and peaceful global society for the 21st century” and, as such, can serve as a primer on writing a New Story.
The Preamble of the Earth Charter begins with a profound and sobering notion:
“We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”
Pope Francis proposes in his recent Encyclical that we embrace an integral ecology as a new paradigm of justice; an ecology “which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings”. The inherent wisdom in this papal document is thus aligned with those that espoused by others, most notably His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Therefore, the religious and scientific communities are united in their appeal to usher in a new accord that promotes embracing an integral ecology founded on interconnectedness and interdependence of our global community.
In order to connect the message inherent in JOTU with both the Earth Charter and the Encyclical we, as a global society, need to adopt a new set of global-centric values that speak to the entire Earth community. JOTU's message is that we are all "star stuff" and therefore, interrelated and interdependent. Moreover, we are ALL on the same journey as One with the Universe. It is a shift in mindset from focusing on the needs, desires and wants of the "self" to those of "Self". Getting there will require being open to dialogue and therefore listening to each other and co-evolving new values that support the Earth Charter's guiding principles for nature, human rights, economic justice and a culture of peace.
Towards that end, the mission and vision statements of The Graduate Institute that underlie its degree and certificate programs are not only aligned with the tenets of the Earth Charter, integral ecology and the wisdom lying at the heart of the Encyclical, but also offer its students portals through which they can accept our challenge to assume the role of change agents thereby becoming ambassadors of a New Story. The Graduate Institute stands as a paragon of hope for a new and healthier global future.
“The Graduate Institute’s mission is to create learning communities in which graduate study enriches the spirit, promotes philosophic discovery, provides opportunities for interpersonal and organizational change and encourages the intellect through the exploration of contemporary ideas and ideologies... to promote personal transcendence and professional growth.…It is the spiritual, emotional and intellectual evolution of the species that gives rise to a promise of greatness and hope. …The Institute's programs, with their unique perspectives on intellectual, emotional, cultural and spiritual forces, exist to serve humanity as a continuum from which to find itself… provides the "distant sightedness" that focuses the body politic in its effort towards Cultural Revolution.”
Dr. James Trifone is the Academic Director for The Graduate Institute’s Master of Arts in Learning and Thinking Degree Program in Bethany, CT. learn.edu