Since the beginning of our time we humans have been Story tellers. To be human is to give meaning to our living and dying through a particular Story. Thomas Berry wrote that our Story is “the account of how the world came to be and how we find our place within it.” As such Story orientates human identity, purpose and belonging.
Our Story holds our response to the time honored meaning giving questions we humans pose. Meaning giving questions like:
- Who am I?
- Where did I come from?
- Where do I go when I die?
- Why am I here?
- How/Where do I fit in?
- What is life all about?
- What are my values?
- Is there something more than the material world?
- And if so, what is my experience of and response to the something more?
Since ancient times we humans have posed our meaning giving questions and discovered responses which held truth within a particular historical context. As we continue to pose our meaning giving questions within the light of current knowledge, beliefs and life experience, the responses differ. Sometimes the responses differ quite dramatically. Does this mean our Story is simply fiction? No, our Story holds truth as truth relates to meaning making. Our Story holds our way of belonging meaningfully in any given time and place in history.
Our time and place in western history is characterized by an ever expanding knowledge of the nature of being human within an unfolding universe. Such knowledge has cut through our former Story, i.e., the understandings we took for granted about the way the world came into being and our place of belonging within it. In light of such ever expanding knowledge, contemporary western culture seems to be experiencing a crisis of meaning. Perhaps in response to such a crisis of meaning Thomas Berry wrote in the 1970’s that we were culturally in-between Stories. Berry wrote:
“The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not yet learned the new story. Our traditional story of the Universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purpose and energized action. It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there.”
For a growing number of people the old Story no longer resonates with their current view of how the world came into being. As a result the old Story has broken apart. In turn, the way they gave meaning to their living and dying has also broken apart giving rise to a loss of belonging meaningfully in their world. Hence the crisis of meaning.
Yet it would seem that we are no longer in-between stories. Within western culture a new Story of human identity, purpose and belonging is gaining momentum, gaining clarity. As we have continued to pose our time honored meaning giving questions within the light of the new understandings of how the world came into being, a new Story of human belonging is emerging. A new Story which is offering new ways of viewing ourselves-in-our-world, leading once again towards meaningful connection within our own selves, with others and with the deeper rhythms of Life itself. A new Story, which in the teachings of Loch Kelly:
“is no longer showing us how to transcend or escape the human condition, but helping us discover how to live a fully intimate human life.”
Such is the sacred work of being human: to continue to discover new Stories of meaning and belonging in response to new historical eras; to continue to re-visit and re-vision the way we humans find belonging and to develop a language which gives meaningful expression to such a stance.
Engaging with a new Story
Offered below is a personal reflection on a number of themes emerging within a new Story of human belonging:
1. We humans are part of a much larger unfolding Universe Story
At the heart of a new Story is the unfolding nature of Life Itself. As the Story goes, the universe came into being around 13.8 billion years ago. Over that 13.8 billion years many shifts and turns have occurred. As for the origins of humanity, it would seem that the form of the modern human being is somewhere in the range of 200,000 years old. Quite young really!
Now our time and place in history is quite unique for as Brian Swimme states,
“we are the first generation to live with an empirical view of the origin of the universe. We are the first humans to look into the night sky and see the birth of stars, the birth of galaxies, the birth of the cosmos as a whole.”
2. Earth is now the place we call home
As a young Christian I remember singing hymns at church like, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.” It was almost as if life on Earth was simply a staging post before our real home. Our real home was in the afterlife. Our real home was in heaven; an elsewhere community. In a new Story, Earth is home. And while not denying death, a new Story is life affirming.
3. We are all in this together: unity with diversity
When contemplating photos of Earth from a distance, we may be struck by two realizations. The first is how tiny the planet is in relation to the wider Universe. The second is the visual experience of no borders; no state borders, no national borders. We see that we truly are all in this together. Even though Earth has various bio-regions and we earthlings do have various cultural and religious differences, we are all one. Which is one reason why warring against each other truly makes no sense at all.
4. The meaning of life: simply to be
The more we allow such an understanding to deepen within us, the more we may experience a sense of liberation, joy, awe and inspiration. Life simply is! Life calls forth life for no other reason than it can. Such an understanding does however give rise to the question, “how does human meaning take form within such a context?”
5. Life and death are two sides of the one coin
Within the old Story death was viewed as the human predicament. Death was viewed as an enemy to be conquered. Within a new Story, life and death are two sides of the one coin. Therefore death is no longer viewed as the enemy. Rather death is viewed as a natural part of the unfolding nature of Life Itself. In this way, a new Story reframes our understanding of the nature of death.
Who do we now know ourselves to be?
In response to the preceding themes within a new Story, who do we now know ourselves to be? Three particular storylines are emerging:
1. The human is now de-centered
In the old Story we humans viewed ourselves as central to the overall Story. An article in the Trumpeter Journal of Ecosophy gives expression to such a sentiment when it states,
“how was it that the story we relied on for so long was not adequate to our situation? It was inadequate because it failed to place the human within the context out of which the human derived. The human in the old story is the only creature of importance. All other living and non-living things derived importance from the degree to which they served the human.”
In a new Story, the human species is de-centered. No longer are we the centre piece within the unfolding Story of Life Itself. As a result we now know ourselves to be one species among many. Such an understanding can be a bitter pill to swallow.
2. We humans belong in the Story
As insignificant as we are in the unfolding nature of Life Itself, we do belong. For as Cox writes,
“we humans are not a mistake or an accident.” We belong simply because we are here. We belong because “conditions were sufficient enough to bring us into manifestation.”
Or in the language of Anne Hillman, “we are life itself.” Which means we are one expression of Life Itself.
3. A unique trait as human beings
Bernard Lonergan wrote,
“while human beings as a species are no different from the higher animals in terms of substance, the one striking difference is the human capacity to wonder, to question and to discover responses.”
Such an ability and desire to question allows us to break through and transcend the limitations of a current Story. Lonergan names this process as conversion, or transformation. Within such an understanding, transformation is known to be an intrinsic, ongoing dynamic within human consciousness.
At the heart of transformation is what could be named the un-storied Self. Even though we are a species who lives meaningfully through Story, we are also more than our Story. The more than is experienced as a deep, open state of awareness; the quality of which is simply ‘to be’. As such the more than, or un-storied Self, is experienced as an inner resting place.
The un-storied Self allows us to both recognize particular Stories, and listen for the primordial call towards transformational shifts in our view. Such transformational shifts allow us to transcend particular Stories which have now become redundant.
We experience the un-storied Self through practices such as stillness meditation; watching a sunrise; walking in bushland; listening to music; creating works of art . . .
Taking up our place of belonging now as a species
Within the light of a new Story as offered, how may we as a species now take up our place of belonging. The mood is one of confidence and hope. To underscore the sense of hope, Thomas Berry wrote:
“the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the Earth. If the dynamics of the Universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun and formed the Earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and the seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.”
Within such a mood of confidence, how may we commence to live into our place of belonging within a new Story?
The metaphor of the holon
One cultural metaphor which has gained prominence in recent times is that of the holon. A holon, according to Diamuid O’Murchu,
“is a whole made of its own parts, yet itself is part of a larger whole. And each holon has two opposite tendencies: a self-assertive desire to preserve its individual autonomy and an integrative tendency to function as part of the larger whole.”
For O’Murchu and others like Ken Wilber and Joanna Macy, the holon as a cultural metaphor is now superseding the previous metaphor of the machine which rose to significance in response to the industrial revolution.
How does the metaphor of the holon help us to take our place as a species? The metaphor reveals an understanding of both/and, which is in direct contrast to the dualistic notion of either/or within the old Story. In response to such an understanding of both/and, we may live together in unity with diversity. Such unity with diversity acknowledges that we are both a unique species with a contribution to make and, part of the wider Earth community.
Unity with diversity, a new way of taking up our place of belonging
Within such an understanding of unity with diversity, our species may now become active participants in the unfolding Story of Life Itself through the following two ways:
1. Continuing to bear witness to a new Story
The following understanding of the term to bear witness is drawn primarily from the writings of Denise Ackermann. And even though Ackermann’s context for writing differs from that of a new Story, her understanding of the term to bear witness applies equally within such a differing context.
To bear witness is not a passive stance, for a witness is not simply an observer. To bear witness is to be “drawn in affectively, intellectually and imaginatively.” Such an act of bearing witness to a new Story necessitates “the giving of the undefended Self in the act of listening.” Listening for a new language of belonging to emerge. “Listening which is grounded in hope . . . Listening before uttering a word.” Listening . . . waiting . . . for what Anne Hillman names as “the primordial whisper.”
The primordial whisper of inner wisdom invites us to discern a new language which may offer a meaningful response to our questions of identity, purpose and belonging.
2. Continuing to dream
We are invited to continue to dream; continue to imagine a future to be possible. We are invited to pose open-ended questions and in the words of cartoonist Michael Leunig “undertake the journey without knowing the destination.”
Anne Hillman Awakening the Energies of Love: discovering fire for the second time
Thomas Berry The Dream of the Earth
Thomas Berry Dreamer of the Earth edited by Ervin Laszlo and Allan Combs
Thomas Berry The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future
Loch Kelly, Shift into Freedom: The science and practice of open-hearted awareness
Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen Human Universe
Professor Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen Wonders of Life
Joanna Macy and Molly Brown Coming Back to Life
Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone Active Hope: How to Face the Mess we’re in without Going Crazy
Diarmuid O’Murchu Quantum Theology: Spiritual implications of the New Physics
John Philip Newell The Rebirthing of God
Ken Wilbur et al Integral Life Practice
Ken Wilbur et al A Theory of Everything google evolutionary Christianity or see evolutionarychristianity.com
David Whyte, CD: A Great Invitation: the Path of Risk and Revelation
Willigis Jager Search for the Meaning of Life
Trumpeter Journal of Ecosophy
Denise Ackermann, ‘Reconciliation as Embodied Change: A South African Perspective.”
CSTS Proceedings 59
Brian Swimme The Universe is a Green Dragon
Brian Thomas Swimme & Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe