Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Finding the heart of the cosmos

I have just finished reading a book that is a couple of decades old, but which I found compelling reading. Entitled “The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos”, it is by Brian Swimme, a scientist and cosmologist. I find this an interesting academic combination, as generally cosmologists are found in religious departments, not studying astrophysics. Swimme argues that science based solely on empirical evidence is science that has lost its mystery and its soul. He maintains that scientific empirical data may prove things, but on its own gives no real inspiration to the psyche. He contends that it has a greater tendency to cut people off from the natural world and universe, rather than connect them into it in any meaningful way. This ends up being a problem, because if we are disconnected from the mystery of our universe and the natural ecosystems that support us, we are far less inclined to protect them, or live in a sustainable and harmonious way as part of them.

He sums it up as: "(W)e would say that science aims at an understanding of the Earth's rotational and revolutionary movements around the Sun, while cosmology aims at embedding a human being in the numinous dynamics of our solar system" (pg. 31).

Christianity has been given quite a bad rap for being the cause of much of the exploitation of nature. The account in Genesis states that the human creature is given ‘dominion’ over the earth and is told to ‘subdue’ it, with all other living things being subservient to humankind. This has been held up as the cause of much of our environmental degradation, where presumably Christian CEOs and politicians have made the decision to extract what they can out of the planet to enrich themselves and damn the environmental consequences.

While this may be true of some Christians, on the whole it seems like a false trail. For a start, it ignores the destruction to the environment that totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union and China, both atheistic, secular governments have caused. It also assumes that Christian theology demands that those Christians who find themselves at the head of large mining, forestry or farming corporations are carrying out their activities motivated by Genesis rather than by acquisitiveness. I find this completely implausible. My observation has always been such companies are motivated mainly by profit, something Genesis fails to mention. They do not care if they trash the environment in pursuit of the mineral or oil or gas or resource that enriches them. Some will follow the environmental standards imposed on them when working in the first world, but many do not when working in the developing world.

Instead, it seems to me that Swimme is right. The modern tendency to reduce science to facts and figures, with emphasis on empirical provable visible data, has taken out the mystery and the spirituality and the interconnectedness we might once have felt about our cosmos and our place in it. Now instead of reverencing trees, we see them as a money spinner and cut them down. We have become dependent on the black gold of fossil fuels and will rip, shred, pollute and annihilate the natural surroundings to get at it. In the first world, what was once seen as luxuries have become unalienable rights, such as driving a big car, using air conditioning and travelling by plane. We see nature as separate from ourselves, a commodity to be used for profit, a profit that never calculates the worth of the degradation it has caused.

Far more than any religion, I mostly blame the Enlightenment, which in its reductionist view of nature and its obsession with scientific fact and empirical data, reduced the mystery of our place in the cosmos and our being part of a living ecosystem down to quantifiable data and figures. It valued reason and individualism over spirituality, community and tradition. It ignored the fact that we are beings that value, nay, require, the forces of imagination, mystery, and emotion. Instead of being part of nature, human beings decided to classify quantify, categorise and put everything into boxes and categories, proving the natural dominance of the human intellect over everything else.

Before you all rush to tell me, I know this is something of a caricature and lots of good also came from the Enlightenment. But the belief that nature was somehow different and separate from us, and was there to be colonised, mined, used and exploited, has persisted in many powerful people who continue to do just that. Does anyone really believe that Clive or Gina or the Koch brothers wake up and say, “Oh goody. Today, once more, I get to enact the words of Genesis and subdue the earth in a true calling to my faith. Bring on the trucks and extractors”. I fancy instead they are thinking something like, “How can I make more money and kill a climate change activist today?”

We have removed the enchantment from our universe and view it as running like a machine. We make the mathematical explanations of why it is so more important than the phenomena we are actually studying. No longer do we gather as community to marvel at the wonders of the cosmos, and to consider the profound questions of what our place might be in it.

Swimme laments the apparent inability of religion to evolve its cosmology beyond the centuries old views found in scripture to include the scientific knowledge we now have. I am not sure I agree with this entirely. More liberal branches of Christianity would certainly accept modern scientific understandings of an expanding universe and of evolution. But it is certainly true that many of the new atheists see ‘science’ being completely at odds with ‘religion’, and that all religious people must be fundamentalists. This last understanding has led me to have some very interesting conversations on Twitter. I regularly surprise people by my lack of fundamentalism and lack of adherence to a literalist reading of the bible.

As a species we are currently trashing our planet. This must be at least due in part to many of the human race being completely disconnected from the web of life that surrounds, supports and connects to them. Instead of being part of the natural system, somehow we have got to a place where we see ourselves as separate from it, and maybe even above it. The loss of a sense of awe and wonder, and the reduction of the environment to the status of a commodity has led us to our current critical situation, and to a place where we may well be singing our own requiem.

And far from being godless, modern society has found new gods in relentless consumerism and a sense of entitlement. What sort of society have we created when many children can recognise and sing ad jingles but are unable to identify bird calls? When they recognise the logos of fast food outlets but not the names of trees? Where they recognise brand names on clothing but are unaware of where much of their food comes from? Swimme challenges this current world view and invites us to once again feel ourselves as part of a magnificent creation. We are, as he reminds us, beings made of the atoms of stardust, and sit at the centre of the omnicentric universe alive with the promise of creation. We are created and creating, and bubbling over with the originating activity of the universe.

Surely it is time to recapture the mystery, and follows Swimme’s call for an age of integration. Swimme believes that despite the planetary crisis that we find ourselves in, humanity’s rediscovery of our spiritual and physical genesis in the cosmos will mean that earth and humanity once more can work together as harmonious parts of a greater system.

If we can recognise ourselves as a creature that not only is part of the planetary natural system, but also the creature who can do something about its problems, then surely it is time to shake off our narrow focus and look at the big picture. It is time to get excited and inspired by the improbability of being at the heart and centre of the universe. We need to retune our consciousnesses towards the stars and study their story in order to live our own story. We need to feel the mystery and the pulse of the cosmos and the environment that sustains us. And we need to transform ourselves from our narrow focus on data and explanations, and the belief we are above the natural world, to beings that again hear the song of the spheres and live as an integral part of the web of life.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Transforming the present through the past: spirituality and the place of place

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
They flourish like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place knows it no more.
(Psalm 103:15-16, NRSV)

One of my passions is the pursuit of family history. Not just who beget who, but the stories of their lives, where they lived, where they went, and who they were. I have this idea that this knowledge is somehow embedded in us and informs who we are, and waits to be discovered in us all. This blog is about an experience I had many years ago, and am only now really able to write about it.
How many of us as children have asked that profound question—“Where do I come from?” While this question does not presumably refer to one’s ancestors when it is asked, nevertheless it is a good question. Where do we come from? Who are the people of our genetic past that make us who we are today?

Should the ancestors of many hundreds of years ago be important to us? For the greater part, they disappeared, their lives forgotten by the generations that come after them. Are we really like the flowers of the field, living briefly on this earth then vanishing without trace? This is certainly not a comforting thought for those of us alive today, who would like to think we have contributed something positive to our families, our communities, and to the world that we inhabit. Surely those of many generations ago also believed they had something more permanent to contribute to their descendants and to their communities.

I wasn’t thinking of ancestors when we set out to spend a weekend in the Lake District when we lived in County Durham, in the UK, many years ago. Having spent some time devouring tourist pamphlets, it was clear the Lakes was somewhere that tourists should go. I had also read a pamphlet on where waterfalls were to be found, being something of a waterfall aficionado.

Along the way we came to a little village called Stanhope, and there to the left was a sign to High Force. ‘Force’ is local dialect for waterfall, and I had read of High Force, the largest waterfall in Britain, so we turned off to visit it.

Soon we found ourselves climbing a very steep slope and our little hired Fiat was chugging along in second gear. High Force was going to be one spectacular cataract falling from this height, I was thinking.

Without warning, we reached the top. The Pennine Mountains, in all their craggy, austere beauty, were suddenly stretched out before us. It was an unexpected and wonderful vista.

The next thing that happened was also unexpected, particularly for me. I felt overcome by emotion. It seemed that my legs had shot into the ground and I was putting roots out, deep root down into the soil. I burst into tears. My spouse enquired as to what was wrong. I told him I felt like I had come home, home to a country I was intrinsically and inexplicably rooted to, even though I didn’t understand it at all. He didn’t understand it either, so we drove on to High Force, a spectacular mahogany-coloured waterfall that crashed down in twin flows into the River Tees. The feeling persisted of my being in my native country, but I had no explanation for this feeling. Like an epiphany, it had illuminated me, left me deeply disturbed, and departed. One legacy that I received at the time was a sudden understanding of what land meant to indigenous peoples. For the first time, I really got that.

A year later, when I was safely back in Sydney, an explanation finally came. I had frequently returned to the Pennines in my dreams, ranging around places like Romaldkirk, High and Low Force, Stanhope and Cow Green Pasture. I would wake homesick, tears on my face. Those feelings of belong to the land, of being connected to something greater than myself, had persisted.

I had been researching my family history, and ended up having to pay an English researcher to track down documents concerning the Raines. All I initially had to give her was a marriage certificate of my great great grandfather James Raine, who married Mary Ann Robinson in Easington, a coastal area in County Durham. I had also found an IGA record of a James Raine born to a Dinah Raine that looked promising. Her research confirmed this was his mother, and that he was illegitimate.
James Raine, my great great grandfather

Unknown to me, she had been caught by the story of my family and had persisted in her search for connections in her spare time, looking at many documents until a breakthrough came. The Raines – my direct line of Raines – were born and bred in the Pennine mountains, around those very places where I felt myself become part of the land. I had indeed ‘come home’ when my epiphany occurred. And I had ‘discovered’ a whole cast of characters who made up my ancestral family, living in that ‘home’ land.

How was it that my ancestors somehow communicated this to me, their descendant? Why was it that the land there not only welcomed me, but embraced me, gathering me to itself and welcoming me home?

What was the genetic heritage that I was indebted to, an inheritance that my ancestors had bequeathed to me? I wondered: in the split second moment of conception, is genetic information from our parents handed on from the generations of thousands of years to make us the people we are today? Was I unconsciously carrying a flotilla of inherited traits, intuitions and collective wisdom from the past, a gift that allowed me to feel and understand the love of land held by my ancestors?

I had found a country, and I had found a family, ‘a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1), and a sense of belonging to and a consciousness of deep roots that stretched back into the many generations that went before me. Do most of us carry this ancestral memory unconsciously, I wonder? Does it only appear in full force when we find ourselves in places of special family significance, even if we don’t know the place is of significance?

Such places have been studied by scholars in the discipline of spirituality of place and there is no doubt that such places exert a powerful force and evoke feelings of connection and belonging. This phenomenon, which has no rational basis, has been reported by many people who have visited places special in some way to their ancestors. Perhaps it represents the many layers of human experience that, far from being transient or lost in time, have been preserved somehow through our genes and collective family memory. Perhaps it is a ‘thin place’, a place that the Celts believed a veil was momentarily lifted, and the divine revealed to the mundane, and the ancestors connected once more with living.

Far from being transient as the flowers, my ancestors have given me a gift that is enduring, not only in my genetic makeup, but in my connection to place, to earth, to a community. I see places differently now, I feel connection to the environment around me differently. I value tradition more, and seek out community more, for it is privileged individualism that has in many ways got us into the environmental and social mess we are now facing. I recognise, I feel, I am part of a living planetary system with complex and sometimes mysterious spatial and temporal elements and networks. It seems more important than ever to bequeath the land that sustains and nurtures us on to our descendants in good condition, and to work to ensure that we – and the many other species that now live or perish at our hands – do not become as transient as the flowers, leaving a place that knows us no more.

One of the ancestral farms, high in the Pennine Mountains.