By Karen Harwell
We need a common and compelling vision of the nature of the Universe and the role of the human within it. Such a new cosmology must be grounded in the best empirical, scientific understanding, and must be nourished just as deeply by the vibrant cores of our planet’s wisdom traditions. Only such a vision has a chance of awakening the deep psychic energies necessary to shape a new era of health, wellbeing, true prosperity. —Brian Swimme
Upon reading the above words years ago, I felt a strong resonance. And as I investigated both my relationship and my culture’s relationship with the Earth and Universe, I realized that what we’ve been taught about our membership and place within it all is sadly inadequate. We clearly need a new cosmology.
But how do we awaken that deep psychic energy needed to birth and shape a new cosmology? For me personally, the insights came initially through reading Thomas Berry’s Dream of the Earth and The Universe Story (written with Brian Swimme). Both these works held insights far different from the cultural teaching of my formal education, my religious upbringing, virtually everything culture taught me regarding the nature of reality. These insights were intuitively obvious to me in my childhood, and are gradually finding their way back into my adult life. From my work in the backyard garden to my work in opening to the diverse expression of my human relations, I do my best to see the big picture in all activities and relationships large and small.
Berry and Swimme reveal three key aspects of the Universe that new science and ancient wisdom hold in common and form the basis of our emerging cosmology: subjectivity, differentiation, and communion.
The Universe consists of subjects, each with the capacity for being a source of its own sensibility and perception, as well as initiating freely and naturally without external cause. To be a subject, then, is to be an autonomous expression of Universe activity.
According to Thomas Berry, not only is every being unique, but each has its own inner articulation and carries in its subjective depths “the numinous mystery whence the Universe emerges into being”.
The far reaching views coming from the Hubble telescope are delivering an astonishing revelation of what Berry speaks of—the first time humans have had any empirical evidence of the story of the Universe and our own unique place within it. A few mystics and indigenous cultures, through the scope of their own visionary insights, intuited this connection. Now we are able to see mind-blowing photographic evidence of the continued emergence of the Universe, which can elicit our own mystical experience.
It is easy to think of subjectivity in terms of humans, perhaps less for plants and animals, and even harder for anything inanimate. Yet we say “a star shines,” so it’s not too much of a stretch to think of a star as a subject which is acting. Its dynamic organization of hydrogen and helium, its ability to produce a vast entity of elements producing light, are all its own business.
To imagine what is actually taking place in a rock requires an appreciation for the activity required for rock existence. The rock is not simply passive. It burbles with activity at the quantum level so that the rock can be what it is. That which sustains and energizes the rock is its subjectivity, and that which sustains and energizes the mountain is its subjectivity; just as that which sustains and energizes a human is its subjectivity. Everything, absolutely everything, is a subject, a unique expression of the whole cosmic community! The origin of every subject traces back to the beginning of time and space.
How different from the common cultural coding which views only humans as subject and everything else as object, with its value based on resource potential for human use. In the new view, everything is unique, with its own intelligence and strategy, intriguing and mysterious.
I spent my childhood journeying back and forth from the majesty of the Rocky Mountains to our home in Denver, allowing me as a child to revel in magical creeks and streams, play hide and seek with chipmunks, search for mica, feel sheer delight on a galloping horse to locate a lost calf, feel cooled and humbled by afternoon rains and thunderstorms, go quiet and inward watching the Sun sinking behind purple mountains, and come together in warmth and community around blazing campfires. There was coherence in this magical community. Somehow it was easy to feel in balance, in right proportion as a human presence in relationship with everything else. In the mountain community, I knew I belonged.
Then on Sunday evenings, as we wound our way down the mountain to Denver, I always felt a certain dis-ease and sadness longing for things to work in Denver as coherently as in the mountains.
Today, I have the language to describe what I was feeling and experiencing then. The chipmunk, the stream, the mica, and the mountain were all subjects to me. They were real and had value in and of themselves. They comprised my world and were my relations. I felt a deep love for each of them. They were not objects to be used by me. I was not looking at the mountain as mineral deposits to be mined; the chipmunk was not just a creature in the background of my landscape; and the stream not just a source of water for me to drink. In this intimate encounter with each, I was experiencing an awesome revelation of the Earth community.
In Sunday school, we never talked about all the things that made my life so full and wonderful. Instead we talked about an abstract God who lived someplace else, and about his son who lived far away and long ago and didn’t resemble anyone I could relate to. We talked about a set of rules that God had revealed to a people who also lived long ago and far away and the rules didn’t mention anything about chipmunks, streams, or mountains. Later on, I began to wonder why, if we loved God, wouldn’t it be better to express our love by loving his creation? I thought if I were God, I wouldn’t want people professing how much they love me; rather, I would want them to love everything I had brought into being.
From the elementary particles to all the myriad forms of the animate world, to the complexities of galaxy and planetary systems, we live in a Universe of unending variety.
We are now fully aware that the Universe is coded to become more diverse as it ages; that the continuum of the evolutionary process is directed toward constant diversification. Yet our modern world is oriented around monocultures of all sorts. This is the inherent direction of the industrial age. It requires standardization, an invariant process of the multiplication of sameness lacking meaningful enrichment.
The first twenty years of my life, I sought familiarity, choosing to be with people who were like me. It all changed when I transferred from a small, liberal arts women’s college to a large university, where the only residential option was a boarding house. The people who lived there, as well as the graduate students who came for meals, were the most diverse group I had ever been with. Initially, I was uncomfortable, but with each meal conversation, it became clear that these people, whom I never would have selected to be with, were extremely interesting. By the end of the year, it was obvious how much I had missed by avoiding diversity.
In multiple areas of life, we are recognizing that differentiation promotes strength. The first time I experienced an old growth forest and took in the fullness of its diversity made anything less seem sparse and degraded. In agriculture, our forests and our gardens, we are increasingly aware of how vulnerable and weak monoculture is. Where there is a variety of plants and variance in canopy levels, there is healthy growth, as well as the strength to resist pests and changes in weather. So it is a cruel irony that we are so prone to want to eliminate differences, when in fact, diversity is the key to our well-being and to the chance to continue on in the community of life.
To be is to be related. The Sun and Earth are bound in a relationship we call gravitational interaction. The chlorophyll molecules carry the essence of the Sun in their structure. The human celebrates this relationship with the Sun in all the ten thousand primal cultures on Earth.
Much of our existence finds fulfillment in relatedness. We can experience this in all of the attention we humans, other animals, insects, and creatures of all kinds put into the mating rituals the natural world has evolved. The energy we and other animals bestow on this work of relatedness reveals something of the ultimate meaning of communal experience.
In Thomas Berry’s words: “The ethical imperative of communion reminds us that the entire Universe is bonded together in such a way that the presence of each individual is felt throughout the entire range of the Universe. This capacity for bonding of the components of the Universe with each other enables the vast variety of beings to come into existence in that gorgeous profusion that we observe about us.”
One of the most amazing insights of my life came through the lens of biology. We were studying honeybees and the intricacies of their community, which enables them to be the amazing pollinators they are, which in turn enables almonds to come into their fullness, the flowers to sweeten the Earth, and so on. As I went beyond thought and entered into my own lived experience of the bee’s expansive communion with their extended life, I had a mystical awakening to the reality that my own life is interwoven and utterly interdependent with everything else I can touch, feel, and observe. I felt infused with respect and reverence for the intelligence and wisdom that permeates everything, and that insight has totally reframed my perspective on who I am and how I’m related.
Applying the principles of Subjectivity, Differentiation, and Communion as a compass to navigate through each day, and as a barometer to measure my own presence, I find more and more joy in being alive within my miraculously diverse Earth community and our mysterious and numinous cosmos.
Karen Harwell is director of a yearlong program Exploring a Sense of Place initiated through The Foundation for Global Community, and co-author of the guidebook, Exploring a Sense of Place: How to create your own local program for reconnecting with Nature.
Her early years were imprinted living in the beauty and majesty of the Colorado Rockies. She describes her awakening coming through scientific studies, receiving her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Colorado. She has done graduate study at the California Institute of Integral Studies in Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness; completed an Earth Literacy Program at Genesis Farm in New Jersey; and is certified in permaculture through Occidental Arts and Ecology in Northern California.