6/14/11: The Great Work

The three chapters assigned (1, 2, & 6) from Thomas Berry’s book The Great Work offered a creative perspective to our study of Deep Ecology. Berry writes to confront the old and still mainstream paradigm of domination, destruction, and competition and introduce a new ecological and spiritual paradigm for humans and society. The “great work” that we now face can actually be seen as the most recent movement in a greater story of humanity and our unique relationship to the world we live in. In his words, “The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” Berry calls out the important roles of “all four of the fundamental establishments that control the human realm: governments, corporations, universities, and religions—the political, economic, intellectual, and religious establishments. All four are committed consciously or unconsciously to a radical discontinuity between the human and the nonhuman.” The “great work” before us can be seen as a process of personal transformation and change within a larger context of institutional transformation and evolution; this is necessary now because of the present devastating influence of modern industrial civilization on Earth.

As Berry goes on through the chapters, he reveals his personal sense of connection to the special life force in the “Natural,” world of ecology. Some people write this off as merely relative subjective experience, denying it of any considerable relevance to the larger social arenas. But Berry makes the point that humans urgently need to understand the roots of this denial given the ecological challenges we face in the 21st century; he elaborates:

  • “The difficulty is that with the rise of the modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects. We frequently discuss the loss of the interior spirit world of the human mind with the rise of the modern mechanistic sciences. The more significant realization, however, is that we have lost the universe itself. We have achieved extensive control over the mechanistic and even the biological functioning of the natural world, but this control has not always had beneficial consequences. We have not only controlled the planet in much of its basic functioning, we have, to an extensive degree, extinguished the life systems themselves. We have silenced too many of those wonderful voices of the universe that spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence.”

The new paradigm that Berry calls forth is mystical, personal, and a stretch of the imagination for those of us less inclined or less familiar with Nature’s mysterious language (of vibrations, patterns, and forms). As we sat around one another at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center on Wednesday to discuss this reading, I could feel “NATURE” calling our attention to the deep value of “Nature’s” song. I felt this call as a physical-energetic sense of excitement toward the subject and as a clear cognition of Berry’s story. I felt the exciting potential of a new paradigm where humans recognize one another (human and non-human) as intrinsically valuable and inclined to cooperate in harmony rather than compete out of perceived scarcity. Because of Berry’s eloquence and insight it feels appropriate to offer one more long quote from the reading as the final word for this entry:

  • “The proposal has been made that no effective restoration of a viable mode of human presence on the planet will take place until such intimate human rapport with the Earth community and the entire functioning of the universe is reestablished on an extensive scale. Until this is done the alienation of the human will continue despite the heroic efforts being made toward a more benign mode of human activity in relation to the Earth. The present is not a time for desperation but for hopeful activity. This we discover in the firm reassertion of traditional thought and rituals that we can observe with indigenous people of this [North American] continent….In accord with indigenous modes of thinking throughout the world we might give a certain emphasis to the need to understand the universe primarily as celebration. While the universe celebrates itself in every mode of being, the human might be identified as that being in whom the universe celebrates itself and its numinous [divine] origins in a special mode of conscious self-awareness.”
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