Jesus Christ, Thomas Berry, and the New Shamanism: What the World Needs Now

Christmas Eve. The night of the year that we celebrate the birth of a baby who would grow up to reveal himself as a seer, a man with a direct connection to the Divine.

I believe that we all have the potential to have such a connection. In fact, I think it’s our birthright as humans, and it’s an ability we share with other animals as well.

All of us animals sleep and dream, and during our dreams we experience the same non-ordinary reality that the prophets and mystics have been telling us about—men like Socrates, Jesus or Mohammed who heard the voices of divine spirits.

For the past two thousand years or so, Western philosophy has been working steadily to wall off the connections between the natural world, including other animals, and human beings.

But in our dreams, those walls come tumbling down, as we visit landscapes and mingle with animals whose messages we strive to remember and interpret when we awake.

Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry

I am very intrigued by the recognition of religious scholar and eco-philosopher Thomas Berry that what human civilization urgently needs, in this time of ecological crisis, is to re-open the psychic channels connecting us to our planetary home.

He calls for a revalidation of the “shamanic personality”; shaman referring to a human being who can enter non-ordinary reality at will, and access valuable wisdom from the spirit world (or the Divine, as Western tradition would call it).

Berry argues that every human being is “genetically coded” to have access to the wisdom of the dreamland, whether in sleep or in the trance of deliberate shamanic journeying. And, he says, this is where we are going to find the solutions to the ecological crises we face today.

Change is not going to come from politics and protests, Berry says. It’s going to come through a psychic shift in which “we awaken to the numinous powers ever present in the phenomenal world around us,” which manifest themselves in human beings in our most creative moments. “Poets and artists continually invoke these spirit powers, which function less through words than through symbolic forms,” he says, continuing:

“In moments of confusion such as the present, we are not left simply to our own rational contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our own beings. We need only become sensitized to these spontaneities, not with a naïve simplicity, but with critical appreciation. This intimacy with our genetic endowment, and through this endowment with the larger cosmic process, is not primarily the role of the philosopher, priest, prophet or professor. It is the role of the shamanic personality, a type that is emerging once again in our society.

Tree spirits.  Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

Tree spirits. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

“More than any other of the human types concerned with the sacred, the shamanic personality journeys into the far regions of the cosmic mystery and brings back the vision and the power needed by the human community….

“The shamanic personality speaks and best understands the language of the various creatures of the earth….This shamanic insight is especially important just now when history is being made not primarily within nations or between nations, but between humans and the earth, with all its living creatures….

“If the supreme disaster in the comprehensive story of the earth is our present closing down of the major life systems of the planet, then the supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the earth community.

“To achieve this mode of pressure, a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world, a sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other lifeforms might flourish.”

Another way to name the “sensitivity” Berry is talking about here is, quite simply LOVE.

The same love practiced and preached by Jesus Christ, but expanded to include the entire earth community, not just the human branch.

tree heart

Tree heart. Photo c. J. Browdy 2014

I am continually amazed by the generosity with which the natural world gives and gives to support the cause of a flourishing earth community. Death comes that life may continue. A clearcut forest patiently begins the work of recreating itself, from the soil bacteria on up. There is no such thing as guilt or blame in the natural world, only endless patience and a resilient creativity, always seeking better paths towards the goal of abundance and teeming myriad forms of life.

Thomas Berry says that we humans, as part and parcel of the earth community, are genetically coded to participate in this great unfolding of exuberant life.

For a long time (at least since the time of Gilgamesh, who harshly slew Humbaba, the guardian of the forests, and cut down an entire cedar forest just because he could) human culture has been working tirelessly to sever our connection to the divinity immanent in the natural world.

“In relation to the earth,” Berry says, “we have been autistic for centuries.”

seeingBut now, “the planet Earth and the life communities of the earth are speaking to us through the deepest elements of our nature, through our genetic coding….Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth’s demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe” (Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 210-215).

There is a lot to ponder here. Berry seems to be proposing that in our genetic make-up is an ability to communicate on a deep level with the earth, including other animals and life forms. Under the spell of Western civilization, we have allowed ourselves to become alienated not only from the natural world, but also from our own innate ability to commune with “the dream of the earth,” through our inherent shamanic/psychic powers. We have been content to delegate the connection to the Divine to others—prophets, seers, priests—rather than to cultivate within ourselves that “sensitivity” to divine inspiration and that access to the powerful creative pulse of the universe which we all experience in dreams.

This alienation has led us inexorably to the hairline edge upon which human civilization now perches. After 10,000 years of a stable climate, warmly conducive to the development of prosperous human communities, we are on the brink of another great break in planetary history, this one brought on by our own insensitivity and inability to listen and understand the many cues the natural world has been giving us.

If a new Messiah is to arise and lead us to safety, it must be one who can reawaken in us the loving ethical responsibility that all humans are born with.

I believe that the potential to become this leader lies dormant in each one of us. My question this Christmas, which is really a question for myself above all: how are you going to manifest, in your own life and in the larger earth community in which we all live, the divine LOVE that Jesus Christ, in his purest form, represents?

IMG_8353

Moving From Human Rights Day to Earth Rights Day

UnknownWas there some kind of intentional bitter irony in this week’s avalanche of bad news about human rights, released just in time for Human Rights Day (December 10)?

Leading the list is the so-called Torture Report, about CIA human rights abuses during interrogations. I’m sorry, but I can’t muster up much shock about this supposed “news.”

Anyone who has been following Latin American news for the past thirty years or so knows that the CIA has not only been routinely torturing its prisoners, but also teaching its particularly vicious brand of torture techniques to the repressive dictatorships the U.S. has found it to be in our “strategic interests” to support.

Doesn’t anyone remember the infamous School of the Americas? That was the testing ground for the interrogation manual used at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other detention sites, some so secret we don’t even know where they were located.

To me, the fact that detainees have been savagely tortured by American CIA and special forces is old news. What’s new is that there is at least a little bit of official shame over it.

In the past week we’ve had “revelations” about fraternity gang rape, rape in the U.S. military, and fatal police brutality against people of color, specifically Black men.

Again, this is nothing new. What’s new is the sense of outrage.

Not since the Occupy Wall Street movement have ordinary Americans taken to the streets the way they have this week to protest the failure of our criminal justice system, exposed in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

The response to the violations of women’s human rights has been less vigorous. I’d like to see the same kind of multiracial, cross-gender coalitions building to counter the systematic abuse of women’s bodies through forced sex—whether on college campuses, in the military, through sex trafficking and sex slavery, or rape as a weapon of war.

Again, this is an old story. Women have been raped since the beginning of time. We’ve discarded old, worn-out cultural narratives before and we can do it again.

On this Human Rights Day, I declare that the Age of Impunity is over.

The flip side of the surveillance state we all live under is that we the people are watching those in power too.

Not only are we watching, but we have the power to share information and mobilize ourselves for resistance as never before.

Flash mobs anyone? Whose streets/our streets?!

The new story I’m waiting for, which still seems like a distant mirage on the horizon, is the one that argues not just for human rights, but for the rights of all life on Earth.

Humans have been so arrogant in our conception of “rights.”

We do not have the right to destroy the forests, prairies and savannahs of our planet. We do not have the right to kill the coral reefs and drive marine life to extinction.

Coral-reef-near-Fiji-007

We do not have the right to poison our rivers, lakes and aquifers with toxic chemicals, or to wreck the balance of our earthly climate with our unrestrained burning of fossil fuels and destruction of carbon-sinking greenery and soil.

To me there is a clear continuum between the torture of captives, the killing of unarmed citizens, the rape of girls, and the razing of forests and on-going extinction of millions of species.

The question I would like to pose on Human Rights Day is this: when are we humans going to step into our role as the ethical stewards of life that we have evolved to become?

Many wise people today say that it must be women who lead the way into this new ethical age. It must be women who write the new story.

I believe that every human being can access masculine and feminine strengths and characteristics, no matter the biology of the body we’ve been born into.

I believe that both women and men need to fight our patriarchal culture’s glorification of the masculine by tapping into our nurturing, life-giving feminine side.

Women and men, the Earth needs you now. We’re not just talking about Human Rights anymore, we’re talking about Species Rights, about Plant Rights, about the right of the living biosphere of our planet to flourish and continue its million-year progression into a thriving future.

We need to move from Human Rights Day to Earth Rights Day, and we don’t need to wait for the United Nations to get its act together to do it.

Let’s make every day Earth Rights Day, starting with—tomorrow.

Tell me a different story, somebody, please!

As a college professor with a focus on media and issues of social and environmental justice, it’s my responsibility, I believe, to be tuned into the news of the day.

I need to know that, as reported by Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times, “For roughly 30 hours over several days, defense lawyers for three former United States Naval Academy football players grilled a female midshipman about her sexual habits. In a public hearing, they asked the woman, who has accused the three athletes of raping her, whether she wore a bra, how wide she opened her mouth during oral sex and whether she had apologized to another midshipman with whom she had intercourse “for being a ho.”

I need to know that the Obama Administrations efforts to regulate and clean up the American coal industry “are certain to be denounced by House Republicans and the industry as part of what they call the president’s “war on coal.”

I have to follow the progress of the latest massive floods in Colorado, noting that they involve the release of unknown quantities of toxic chemicals into the region’s waterways; these floods happened in a populated area of Colorado that also happens to be the site of thousands of gas fracking wells.

Then there are those unprecedented wildfires in California, finally under control after having burned 400 square miles in and around Yosemite National Park, with “a solid 60 square miles burned so intensely that everything is dead.”

California Rim Fire, 8-21-13 Photo by Robert Martinez

California Rim Fire, 8-21-13
Photo by Robert Martinez

I have to pay attention when our nation threatens missile strikes on another Middle Eastern country, or there’s another crazy gunman on the rampage with assault weapons in a peaceful civilian setting, or a bunch of ideologically blinkered Republican politicians threaten to shut down the U.S. government and force us to default on our international debt obligations, putting the world financial system in jeopardy, simply in order to embarrass the country’s popular Democratic African-American President.

To do my job well, I have to know about these issues and episodes, and so I follow the media daily.  And yet day by day I grow more resentful of being dragged along on storylines that I find so—so—well, so boring.

They’re boring because they’re so repetitive.  Another fire, another flood, another mass shooting, another U.S. missile or drone strike, another government shutdown to be averted at the last minute.  Another woman raked over the coals when she tries to bring a rapist to justice.

And in the background, the real story, the Big News of our time, grinds on relentlessly, it too so endlessly repeated that we have all become blind, deaf and dumb to it.

I’m referring, of course, to the story of global climate change, with its attendant melting ice, rising seas, rising temperatures, erratic weather and, ultimately, mass extinction of life as we know it on Earth.

I understand why very few humans alive today want to grapple with that story.

If the news episodes I listed above are boring in their repetitiveness, the Big News of climate change is just too scary to take in.

No wonder so many people of all ages just don’t bother following the news, preferring instead to focus on televised sports or the latest mini-series or movies.

People seem to have a fatalistic approach to reality lately.

Obamacare will go through or it will be defunded, no matter what we think or do.  Fossil fuel plants will continue to burn, not only unregulated but subsidized at that; politicians will continue to act in criminal ways (shutting down the U.S. government is an act of treason in my book!), boys will continue to be boys and get slapped on the wrist when a woman dares to cry rape–no matter what we do.

The entire American populace seems to be locked in some kind of slumped-over apathy, just trying to keep up the mortgage payments, trying to stay healthy in an increasingly toxic environment, trying to raise decent kids despite the toxic media entertainment landscape in which the kids spend most of their time.

I’m slumped over with the rest, a lot of the time.

But there is something in me that resists this posture, too.  There is something in me that yearns for a different narrative.  Tell me a different story, somebody, please!

Not a return to the triumphalist patriarchal Manifest Destiny that led us inexorably to the disastrous brink on which we now perch.

Not the macho environmentalism that tries to beat the fossil fuel villains in the courts and the high seas.

Not the moralistic sermonizing of those who see the world in strictly black-and-white, Good-and-Evil binary oppositions.

I’m hungering for something deeper.  Something bigger.  A story that truly acknowledges where we are today as a species, and can help us to perceive the way forward out of the current slumped-over morass of bad news.

Briane Swimme

Briane Swimme

The closest I’ve been able to come to such a story so far is the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.  In their visionary description of the “Ecozoic Era” that we could create, acting in the best interests of the planet as a whole, I find the map and the compass I’ve been seeking to guide me to a livable future.

In the final chapter of their book The Universe Story, Berry and Swimme lay out a vision that, tragically, we have not heeded in the more than 20 years since the book appeared in 1992.

“In economics it is clear that our human economy is derivative from the Earth economy.  To glory in a rising Gross Domestic Product with an irreversibly declining Gross Earth Product is an economic absurdity.  So long as our patterns of consumption overwhelm the upper reaches of Earth’s sustainable productivity, we will only drive the Earth community further into ruin.  The only viable human economy is one that is integral with the Earth economy” (256).

“We need an inter-species economy, an inter-species well-being, an inter-species education, an inter-species governance, an inter-species religious mode, inter-species ethical norms,” they say (257).

Berry and Swimme end their vast “journey of the universe” by describing the celebratory aspect of the universe, which perhaps only humans, at least of the beings on Earth, can fully appreciate.

The cosmic celebration--courtesy of the Hubble telescope

The cosmic celebration–courtesy of the Hubble telescope

“Everything about us seems to be absorbed into a vast celebratory experience,” they say.  “There is no being that does not participate in this experience and mirror it forth in some way unique to itself and yet in a bonded relationship with the more comprehensive unity of the universe itself.  Within this context of celebration we find ourselves, the human component of this celebratory community.  Our own special role is to enable this entire community to reflect on and to celebrate itself and its deepest mystery in a special mode of self-conscious awareness” (264).

In other words, our role is to be the storytellers of past, present and future.  Of all the amazing beings on the planet, no one else can fill this particular niche.

It is our privilege and our curse as humans to KNOW so much about what we are doing at any given moment on the planet, and to ceaselessly narrate that knowledge.  Now in the 21st century, aided by the global neural network of the World Wide Web, we have never been more tuned into the on-going global story, but this knowledge often becomes oppressive, since so much of what we are asked to absorb is negative, bad news.

It’s time to rebel–to resist the battering of the bad news, to become producers rather than just passive consumers of knowledge.

We need to start telling new stories.  Empowering, positive stories that light the way towards the human beings we could become, the human civilization we could create, in concert and harmony with the rest of the Earth community.

What stories do you hold locked in your heart, tenderly sheltered from the glare and cacophony of contemporary pop culture?

I suggest you look to the home ground of your deep childhood for inspiration.  Remember the stories you told to yourself then, or that you heard the flowers and the insects singing.  Remember the way the motes of dust twirling in the sunlight spoke to you.

Remember what it felt like to have an unmediated, imaginative connection with the world around you.

Then speak the truths that come out of that primary knowledge.

%d bloggers like this: