by Brayton Shanley
We are going to a place in history that we have never been before. Old systems are dying but not without a fight. Authoritarian, political systems based on capitalism and economic empires are savaging the earth and the human family. The moral outrage of extreme income disparities is common knowledge. Three men own more wealth than the bottom 150 million in the US. The 500 year legacy of Native American oppression and genocide extend to this day. Native people live on reservations that make up the poorest counties in the US. Thayendanegen, Chief of the Mohawks, tells us the truth: “In the government you call ‘civilized’ the happiness of the people is constantly sacrificed to the ‘splendor of empire.’”
2019 marked the 400th year in remembrance of the first slave ship to enter the US in 1619. A current fact is that if you are an African-American, born in poverty you stand a 5% chance of ever escaping this economic slavery. It is almost impossible to grasp that kind of oppression. The Trump era simply magnifies these horrific injustices.
Yet, there are historic rumblings from people seriously opposing oppressive power structures. Protestors are in the streets with their outrage at political corruption in Haiti, Hong Kong, Chile and Iraq. Their message: “We are not leaving until government leaders resign or respond to our demands for radical change.” Many are committed to staying in the streets until leaders step down, risking the real threat of injury and death. Several hundred Iraqi protestors have been killed in the last weeks. Something profound is happening in these protests. Fear of death slows when people refuse to accept injustice. Protestors that are unarmed speak to a higher evolution of human consciousness, facing the violence of the state disregarding severe consequences.
Since the 1990’s another storm has been gathering lethal winds– climate change. The 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change rings out the final riot act if we are to survive: By 2030, we must reduce our greenhouse gases by 40%, then by 2050, the remaining 60%. If we do not make these deadlines, a series of unstoppable warming trends in the atmosphere will begin to make life on earth unlivable for human, animals, insects and vegetation.
Human to human strife is under siege. Now the earth under our feet is at risk of total collapse. With the end in sight, what are we to do? I think of the sign over the monastic enclosure at The Trappist Abbey at Gethsemene in Kentucky: “God alone.” Is it time? Are we finally ready to turn from our egocentric: “I do not need anyone’s help” worldview, which has gotten us into this state? Can we begin to turn toward God?
Re-imagining Jesus in the 2nd Axial Age
Every generation of Christians has to ask the risky question that Dietrich Bonhoffer did: “Who is Jesus for us today?” Can we allow the mystery of Jesus Christ to come to us in a new way through these times of grave instability? Can God work through this chaos of creation, protecting and saving us from our own self-destruction?
God in Jesus did not love us into this creation as a static, unchanging entity. Under the disorder of self-destructive violence to ourselves and the planet, it is precisely this God who calls us to evolve into a higher level of being. In response, we must ask: Do we have the spiritual will to learn to live a peaceful, integrative relationship as one human family? Can we love and respect the natural world in a creation we experience as sacred? Can we evolve beyond the domination of “me first’ anthropocentrism.
A first major shift in consciousness took place from 800 AD to 200 AD. A movement of new awareness gathered around Zoroaster in Persia, Buddha in India, Lao Tzu in the Far East. Major Hebrew prophets were preaching God’s love of the poor, especially Jeremiah and Isaiah. The Greek philosophers’ truths were also challenging our level of being. Humans were going beyond their purely tribal mores of “I believe what the tribe believes.” This was a period of world-altering introspection: “Who am I, and what is the truth of my existence?”
Enlightenment was seen through individual consciousness, a major evolutionary breakthrough. For the newly-formed Christian, these forces of altered consciousness found fulfillment in Jesus Christ, two hundred years later. The prophecies of Muhammad then became the Koran and Islam, five centuries after Jesus.
It is now 2000 years since this period. Human political and economic systems are in decline. Right behind the tragic condition of human cultures is the threat of the 6th Extinction, the end of life on earth due to humans’ enslavement to modern technology and the fossil fuels that fire them, first coal and then oil and gas in the 19th and twentieth centuries. Our situation is as grave as we could have ever imagined. If we are to survive, we must be re-imagined as a species.
For me and other Christians, Jesus Christ must be discovered anew. Historically, Jesus command of nonviolent love has largely been ignored or unfulfilled. The Jesus who walked the earth in lovingkindness and prophetic truth must be found not exclusively in the story told 2,000 years ago, but now, throughout the cosmos where the Christ has always been. Christ now becomes a universal force that has drenched the cosmos, indeed, all of history, in the truth of nonviolent love, compassion and mercy.
The Christ of the cosmos needs to be the new “Big Bang” of consciousness change. The universal spirit of Christ needs to become more universal and must be experienced as the Divine attribute with all that is, loving all in the sacredness of all. It will be an integrative, interfaith spirituality that will guide the new axial age.
All Religions Are One
Thomas Berry insisted that the earth and all of its life will not survive the oncoming threat of collapse without the world’s religions (six major, twenty-two minor). Yet, he warns, “They are insufficient as they are.” Religions of the world must evolve into a second axial vision of interfaith unity.
A Native American story mirrors this unity. Lakota Chief Crazy Horse was at a pipe ceremony with the legendary fellow Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. Crazy Horse recounted that since the Indian defeat of the US cavalry in 1876, he had tried to live in peace, but was constantly provoked by the white man. “I see,” he envisioned “a time of Seven Generations when all the colors of humankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life and the whole earth will become one circle again.”
Hindu mystics were among the first to teach that “all life is one; the oneness of all creation, that all reality is one.” This integrates the cosmic, the earthly and the human. If we must seek a new level of awareness in these urgent and uncertain times, three realms of unity or integration are needed. First: the unity of all faith traditions, accomplished with a respectful, listening dialogue with other traditions outside our own, recognizing a common bond all seekers share in the pursuit of the sacred.
As we stay in relation with the “other”, we learn our own truth at a deeper level as we are challenged by what they believe and how they live. I have been changed by Asian spiritual practices of diet, Yoga and meditation, practices I was not exposed to growing up Catholic. It feels quite natural for me to revere the traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism and sense my soul still contains them as I continue my Catholic practice and Christ-inspired style of living. Can we accept that our own faith is not complete, and that no one tradition has all truth?
I learned to engage in social justice actions in a more contemplative, quieter and compassionate way by the example of Buddhists. Conversely, the Dalai Lama said: “If we Buddhists want to learn about social justice, we must learn from Christians.” We will unite, not over doctrine, but through the urgencies and dangers of our present world. We will bond over the gratitude we feel in the presence of the others’ faith that authentically completes our own.
Second: The unity of the way of nonviolent love. Because the way of love is the foundation of all creation, the Creator is love. We must become one people who are determined to co-exist on this earth and to live under the banner of unarmed, unconditional love. Mahatma Gandhi once proclaimed: “We progress toward nonviolent love or rush to our doom.” This Divine Love is eternally available and can never be extinguished as profoundly stated by the God of love to the prophet Jeremiah: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jer 31:3). The power and miracle of this Divine Love is the only force that can reconcile humans with each other and heal the divisions and traumas of violence and domination we have inflicted on each other since our beginnings.
Third: We must work towards the unity of humans with the earth. In our human evolution into God and higher states of consciousness we exhibit an increased awareness of our own state of being and our surroundings. Evolve means “new”. Franciscan, Elia Delio, writes: “As humans evolve, they will grasp that nature is a complex series of fluid, dynamic, interlocking and communicative relationships.” This reality is an echo of oneness. We humans are part of nature; indeed, we are nature.
Due, in part, to the rise of the Industrial Revolution and to machines in the 19th Century, humans became increasingly alienated and separated from nature, replacing it with a passion to control her. We lost the sacred connection with our mother, the earth, which we now use as a resource for our own greed-driven advantages and not as the Source of the Divine.
Delio elaborates: “The human person lost transcendence with the more than human world and created new gods of technology, personal autonomy to science, exerting a power and violence over nature.” The new, transformed human must surrender back to nature, to the Divine Womb of all creation’s love and sustenance.
We must pray for this evolving, new and increased awareness. Sr. Kathryn Duffy, also a Franciscan, instructs: “There must arise ‘gusts of being’, sudden fits of awareness of the unity of all life. The earth is speaking. This is her language, deep connectivity, interdependence, sacred depths.” Do we hear her language? Do we hear her calling?
Humans need to awaken to survive. We need to recover reverence in this more enlightened age to come. A beneficent Divine Mother is always ready to ally herself with us humans who have strayed and to assure us of the inner tranquility in the transformed world of human/earth eco-harmony.
The Community — Our True Home
To awaken will require a major movement away from “I” and a conversion into “we“–we the human race; we, all that lives as the spark of the Divine. “We” is the most powerful source of unity consciousness. This second axial age of which humans are a part of right now, evolved from the individual consciousness of the first axial age over 2,000 years ago. At this moment, we are unfolding from the limitation of “I” and advancing to the “we” of spiritual community. Buddhist Thich Naht Hanh offers a radically new possibility: “The next Buddha may not take the form of an individual. In the 21st Century, the sangha (community) may be the body of the Buddha.”
Being transformed, freeing ourselves from the isolation of me and mine, into a collective way of living and believing is biblical. “Me and God” is not the paradigm of the Hebrew or Christian scripture. Instead, those who penned sacred texts speak for us, the people, and the community. The times we are entering are so potentially dark that it is hard to see where we are going. We will not meet the current challenges alone.
Within the ethical matrix of nonviolent spiritual community, can we mount an inner revolution, a conversion of ultimate hope that can figure it out with God and God’s people, how to change and survive?