Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Universe Story As A Resource for Peacebuilders

An enrichment paper written for the Parkdale Conference, May 2011

The three basic laws of the universe at all levels of reality are differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. These laws identify the reality, the values, and the directions in which the universe is proceeding.
                                                 —Thomas Berry

As we begin a fresh phase in the great task of permanently ending war on the planet, it may be helpful to examine whether the scientific story of the unfolding universe itself gives us any encouragement.

Setting aside theological speculation and remaining only with what science can verify, the post-Descartian way of thinking about our human relationship to the universe posits that we are microscopic dust-motes in an inconceivably vast and heartlessly indifferent cosmos. Even if peace might be possible, the surrounding context provides no visible support for the endeavor. Its cold emptiness mocks the absurdity of our fragile hopes and dreams.

The cosmological work of Thomas Berry provides us with a very different way of looking at our relationship to the whole. Berry’s mentor Teilhard de Chardin conceived a universe which favors complexity and consciousness, our own presence being the primary evidence. For Berry, the laws that make this presence possible are the same laws that have governed the entire unfolding story of the whole at every level from the micro to the macro.
Differentiation is another way of stating Teilhard’s complexification. Differentiation took place in the furnaces of stars as new elements were created. We see differentiation most immediately in the direction toward greater diversity in the biological life forms on the planet— subject always to the creative, and also ruthlessly destructive, demands of the evolutionary process.

The tragic (and potentially ruthlessly destructive) side of differentiation arises in our human inability to handle cultural and religious diversity, a misunderstanding that comes from our tendency to limit our identification to specific places, tribes, nations, or beliefs. This tendency is dissolving as more and more of us take in where we really are—on a small planet that we have gridded with artificial geographical and mental borders.

By subjectivity, Berry does not mean that all things are self-aware like the human brain, but that all things are animated by a self-organizing principle that allows them to maintain their particular identity in full authenticity. A carbon atom declares its specific identity and creative potential as a carbon atom. An acorn becomes an oak reliably, not a tomato plant. A spiral galaxy obeys the laws of its own particular unfolding.

Communion, Berry’s third universal law, describes like the other two laws a condition to which the universe has been subject from the beginning. Via the curvature of space- time, all parts of the universe are intimately in communion with all other parts. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms commune to form water. On the level of biology we see this same law operant in complex ecosystems where organisms like coral reefs are functionally interdependent with the fish that surround them. Each helps to keep the other healthy.

In short, the universe is not a dead backdrop to forlorn and isolated human activity, but a differentiated community of subjects of which we are an integral part. This is a way of trying to say the nearly unsayable: that the three laws form one indivisible whole. 

All is one.

What are the implications for peacebuilding of these profound principles animating the dynamics of the universe?

First, the three laws form the outline a viable ethical system. What celebrates greater differentiation, encourages deeper reverence for subjectivity, and activates more profound communion among humans is good; what inhibits or cuts short these three indicates an absence of good. To state it even more categorically, what extends these three processes leads to more abundant life, and what diminishes them leads to death.

Second, the three laws provide a model for the direction in which humans are meant to grow, and therefore a model specifically for those of us who may decide, with each other’s indispensable help, to try to model the model:

Knowing that differentiation of viewpoint strengthens the creativity of the whole, peacebuilders delight in diversity of every kind, and reach to celebrate it across economic, racial, cultural, gender-based, political, national and religious barriers.
Peacebuilders contain and value depths of subjectivity, maintaining an openness to communing with the differentiated subjectivity of others. Peacebuilders are self- initiating (the Buddha: "Be a light unto yourself."), self- aware of the shadow within them, and self-forgiving of their human limitations. This enables them to be dispassionate in the face of powerful systems based upon limited, fragmented identifications, "us and them," or fight or flight thinking.

Peacebuilders actively initiate the formation of deeper communal ties across artificial barriers, not only between humans, but also among humans and the rest of the living system, exploring more effective ways of working consultatively within the whole.
This commitment to be present, authentic, inclusive and responsible invites humans to exercise their entire being in a gymnasium of discovery—discovery of a love grounded in the reality, the values and the direction of the universe itself.

If the universe is with us, who can be against us?

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