Moments of Grace
The oldest story we know, the story of the unfolding of the universe, is helping us create a new story of awe, stewardship, and belonging. Paradoxically, this ancient, slow-moving story also tells us that our time could be cut short.
As we enter the 21st century, we are experiencing a moment of grace. Such moments are privileged moments. The great transformations of the universe occur at such times. The future is defined in some enduring pattern of its functioning.
There are cosmological and historical moments of grace as well as religious moments of grace. The present is one of those moments of transformation that can be considered as a cosmological as well as a historical and a religious moment of grace.
Such a moment occurred when the star out of which our solar system was born collapsed in enormous heat, scattering itself as fragments in the vast realms of space. In the center of this star the elements had been forming through a vast period of time until in the final heat of this explosion the hundred-some elements were present. Only then could the sun, our star, give shape to itself by gathering these fragments together with gravitational power and then leaving some nine spherical shapes sailing in elliptical paths around itself as planetary forms. At this moment Earth too could take shape; life could be evoked; intelligence in its human form became possible.
This supernova event of a first or second generation star could be considered a cosmological moment of grace, a moment that determined the future possibilities of the solar system, Earth, and of every form of life that would ever appear on the Earth.
For the more evolved multicellular organic forms of life to appear there had to appear the first living cell: a procaryotic cell capable, by the energy of the sun, the carbon of the atmosphere, and the hydrogen of the sea, of a metabolic process never known previously. This original moment of transition from the nonliving to the living world was fostered by the fierce lightning of these early times. Then, at a critical moment in the evolution of the original cell, another cell capable of using the oxygen of the atmosphere with its immense energies appeared. Photosynthesis was completed by respiration.
At this moment the living world as we know it began to flourish until it shaped the Earth anew. Daisies in the meadows, the song of the mockingbird, the graceful movement of dolphins through the sea, all these became possible at this moment. We ourselves became possible. New modes of music, poetry, and painting, all these came into being in new forms against the background of the music and poetry and painting of the celestial forms circling through the heavens.
In human history there have also been such moments of grace. Such was the occasion in northeast Africa some 2.5 million years ago when the first humans stood erect and a cascade of consequences was begun that eventuated in our present mode of being. Whatever talent exists in the human order, whatever genius, whatever capacity for ecstatic joy, whatever physical strength or skill, all this has come to us through these earlier peoples. It was a determining moment.
There were other moments too in the cultural- historical order when the future was determined in some comprehensive and beneficial manner. Such a moment was experienced when humans first were able to control fire; when spoken language was invented; when the first gardens were cultivated; when weaving and the shaping and firing of pottery were practiced; when writing and the alphabet were invented.
Then there were the moments when the great visionaries were born who gave to the peoples of the world their unique sense of the sacred, when the great revelations occurred. So too there were the times when the great storytellers appeared – Homer and Valmiki and other composers who gave to the world its great epic tales. There was also the time of the great historians – Ssu-ma Ch'ien in China, Thucydides in Greece, Ibn Khaldun in the Arab world.
So now, in this transition period into the 21st century, we are experiencing a moment of grace, but a moment that is different in its significance from any previous moment. For the first time the planet is being disturbed by humans in its geological structure and its biological functioning in a manner like the great cosmic forces that alter the geological and biological structures of the planet or like the glaciations.
We are also altering the great classical civilizations as well as the indigenous tribal cultures that have dominated the spiritual and intellectual development of vast numbers of persons throughout these past 5,000 years. These civilizations and cultures have governed our sense of the sacred and established our basic norms of reality and value and designed the life disciplines of the peoples of Earth. We will never be able to function without these traditions. But these older traditions alone cannot fulfill the needs of the moment. Something new is happening. A new vision and a new energy are coming into being.
After some four centuries of empirical observation and experiment we are having a new experience of the deepest mysteries of the universe. We see the universe both as a developmental sequence of irreversible transformations and as an ever-renewing sequence of seasonal cycles. We find ourselves living both as cosmos and as cosmogenesis. In this context we ourselves have become something of a cosmic force. If formerly we lived in a thoroughly understood, ever-renewing sequence of seasonal change, we now see ourselves both as the consequence of a long series of irreversible transformations and as a determining force in the present transformation that the Earth is experiencing.
As happened at the moment when the amount of free oxygen in the atmosphere threatened to rise beyond its proper proportion and so destroy all living beings, so now awesome forces are let loose over the Earth. This time, however, the cause is from an industrial economy that is disturbing the geological structure and life-systems of the planet in a manner and to an extent that the Earth has never known previously. Many of the most elaborate expressions of life and grandeur and beauty that the planet has known are now threatened in their survival. All this a consequence of human activity.
So severe and so irreversible is this deterioration that we might well believe those who tell us that we have only a brief period in which to reverse the devastation that is settling over the Earth. Only recently has the deep pathos of the Earth situation begun to sink into our consciousness. While we might exult in our scientific and technological achievements in our journey to the moon we must also experience some foreboding lest, through our industrial uses of these same scientific and technological processes, we reduce the wonder and beauty as well as the nourishing capacities of the Earth. We might lose the finest experiences that come to us through all those wondrous forms of life expression as well as the sources of the food and clothing and shelter that we depend on for our survival.
It is tragic to see all those entrancing forms of life expressions imperiled so wantonly, forms that came into being during the past 65 million years, the lyric moment of Earth development. Yet as so often in the past, the catastrophic moments are also creative moments. We come to appreciate the gifts that the Earth has given us.
Such is the context in which we must view this transition period into the 21st century as a moment of grace. A unique opportunity arises. For if the challenge is so absolute, the possibilities are equally comprehensive. We have identified the difficulties but also the opportunities before us. A comprehensive change of consciousness is coming over the human community, especially in the industrial nations of the world. For the first time since the industrial age began we have a profound critique of its devastation, a certain withdrawal in dismay at what is happening, along with an enticing view of the possibilities before us.
Much of this is new. Yet all during the last few decades of the 20th century, studies were made that give us precise information on what we must do. A long list of persons, projects, institutions, research programs, and publications could be drawn up indicating that something vital is happening. A younger generation is growing up with greater awareness of the need for a mutually enhancing mode of human presence to the Earth. We have even been told that concern for the environment must become “the central organizing principle of civilization.”
The story of the universe is now being told as the epic story of our times by scientists. We begin to understand our human identity with all the other modes of existence that constitute with us the single universe community. The one story includes us all. We are, everyone, cousins to one another. Every being is intimately present to and immediately influencing every other being.
We see quite clearly that what happens to the nonhuman happens to the human. What happens to the outer world happens to the inner world. If the outer world is diminished in its grandeur then the emotional, imaginative, intellectual, and spiritual life of the human is diminished or extinguished. Without the soaring birds, the great forests, the sounds and coloration of the insects, the free-flowing streams, the flowering fields, the sight of the clouds by day and the stars at night, we become impoverished in all that makes us human.
There is now developing a profound mystique of the natural world. Beyond the technical comprehension of what is happening and the directions in which we need to change, we now experience the deep mysteries of existence through the wonders of the world about us.
We are now experiencing a moment of significance far beyond what any of us can imagine. What can be said is that the foundations of a new historical period, the Ecozoic Era, have been established in every realm of human affairs. The mythic vision has been set into place. The distorted dream of an industrial technological paradise is being replaced by the more viable dream of a mutually enhancing human presence within an ever-renewing, organic-based Earth community. The dream drives the action. In the larger cultural context the dream becomes the myth that both guides and drives the action.
But even as we make our transition into this new century we must note that moments of grace are transient moments. The transformation must take place within a brief period. Otherwise it is gone forever. In the immense story of the universe, that so many of these dangerous moments have been navigated successfully is some indication that the universe is for us rather than against us. We need only summon these forces to our support in order to succeed. Although the human challenges to these purposes must never be underestimated, it is difficult to believe that the purposes of the universe or of the planet Earth will ultimately be thwarted.
Excerpted with permission from The Great Work: our Way in the Future(Bell Tower, NY). Thomas Berry is a cultural historian, author, and teacher of religion, now living in the Southern Appalachians.
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