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Religion, History, Deep Ecology, Poetic Story-Telling  in de Chardin, Berry, and Sparenberg's Vision: A Review Essay Religion, History, Deep Ecology, Poetic Story-Telling in de Chardin, Berry, and Sparenberg's Vision: A Review Essay
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-12-10 09:53:41
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Life In The Age of Extinctions by David Sparenberg (Ovi magazine e-book, 2012; 237 pages). A collection of thoughts and ideas inspired from the Earth Spirit.

life_cover_400_01Recently I was gifted with a manuscript by my friend and fellow Ovi contributor David Sparenberg which has subsequently been published in Ovi magazine to be found in its bookstore. The link to it is as follows: http://www.ovimagazine.com/cat/56 A gift is always something freely given and freely accepted. It is proper and fitting that the Ovi readership can download David’s thoughts and ideas free of charge as an Ovi e-book, for indeed what she/he will read is nothing less than an estimable gift. We have all enjoyed reading David’s thoughts and ideas via his numerous contribution to Ovi. I dare say that those who now take the time to read and ponder more extensively David’s book will not only not be disappointed but will be richly rewarded with new inspired insights on the fate of the earth and humankind and will find their faith and hope in their survival renewed and refreshed.

David Sparenberg defines himself in the back of the book’s cover this way: an eco-poet, creation spirituality playwright, storyteller, teacher of eco-shamantic creative ritual, world citizen and life-long advocate and activist for peace, social justice, biotic democracy, voluntary simplicity and ecosophic global village culture of mutuality and respect, contributing to a safe and saner planetary future. That ought to arouse anybody’s intellectual curiosity.

Indeed, as the title suggests, this is a book deeply concerned with the ecological disaster that we have created in a couple of short centuries and is menacingly advancing as we speak, that is to say, the intertwined tragic fate of the earth and humankind. The book consists in a series of aphorisms and poems and narrations spanning 237 pages and subdivided into sections, within the context of what presently goes by the name of deep ecology. That mentioning of the Earth Spirit in the subtitle found in Ovi should alert the reader that this is not a mere scientific enlightened examination of the current human predicament. It is much more. It is rather a spiritual quest for answers to the mysteries of the universe and humankind; as such the book belongs within the context of religion and spirituality in the best sense of those two abused words. Given David’s own genealogical ancestry rooted in Native American culture, this is not too surprising. It is the native American, after all, who has always reminded us, so called enlightened rational people, of the lack of  piety and the cruelty that our Western Civilization, obsessed with the idea of inevitable progress and manifest destiny, and social Darwinism,  has shown toward a continent which was pristine only three hundred years ago.

When I first began reading the book I was immediately brought back to two modern poetic story tellers and philosophers that are within a Christian religious heritage and who have similar concerns: Theilard de Chardin and Thomas Berry. Among their various publications, the former wrote a book titled Saving the Earth, and the latter wrote one titled Dream of the Earth. Those titles clearly suggest a connection between them. They have both passed away. If Berry can be thought of as the reincarnation of De Chardin, Sparenberg can be thought of as the reincarnation of Berry carrying the torch of eco-spirituality. All three belong to the same spiritual tradition of poetic story-telling, deep ecology, and cultural history which is deeply aware and cognizant of the simple fact that as the earth goes, so does humankind. In this brief essay-review I’d like to juxtapose the thought and the vision of these three authors as expressed in their writings, for they all in some way or other complement each other. 

As storytellers all three authors are fully capable of guiding their readers through a powerful and gripping plot which can be narrated in innumerable ways. In fact story-tellers share an almost intuitive sense of rhetorical expression, a boundless insight into the pervasive character of story, and a trickster's glimpse into the transformative nature of life.

The stories they tell are stories of relationship between traditional stories of creation and the contemporary scientific story of origins. In some ways the origin story is like a changeling which finds its way into the birthing place of cultures. As the story of who and what we are—our cosmology in a word—it both builds our present and orients us to our future. Spontaneities are generated in the telling.

Unfortunately in the modern response, beginning with the Enlightenment which believed that it had achieved the pinnacle of enlightenment and needed not to enlighten itself, there appears a lessened capacity for spiritual understanding which has traditionally been rooted in religion. Modern man seems to be in the habit of removing the painful elements of the human condition by control over the natural world, i.e., push-button technology which allegedly will solve all our major problems. Berry clearly points this out in his Religions of India.

Historical thought and spiritual story-telling, on the other hand, involves a deep pathos for it not only opens us to an awareness of the pain in our limitations but also confronts us with the error of our facile solutions. This is quite evident in David’s book. It goes without saying, and I have written at length on this subject, that  historical thought is characterized by a complex of attitudes towards time that are found in the Bible:  the coherence and meaningfulness of reality, and the exhortatory quality of visionary experience. Indeed, as Jung found out, these aspects of human creativity are not exclusive to the western biblical traditions. For example, the Chinese Confucian tradition developed distinctive historical modes in its reflections on its primal, formative period. Moreover, American Indians also established diverse and remarkable oral traditions largely derived from exhortatory preachment based on vision experiences. It is in fact possible to find in every culture's oral and written texts organized scrutiny of the meaning of time. History contains a crucial component that derives from the biblical sense of sacred purpose in temporal events.

Historical reflection not only upon past events but upon their enduring effect on the present seems to be an archaic Hebrew development. Periods such as "Exodus," or "Judges" are immediately recognizable as specific referents to meaningful events in Hebrew history. These period concepts gave rise to unique historical ideas regarding the interaction of past, present, and future. For example the concept of the "coming Messiah," and the apocalypse surrounding his coming sharpened the Hebraic sense of future and lifted it from the continuum of time typical in the Mediterranean region. The very etymological meaning of the word “faith” in Hebrew is rendered as “trust in the future.” Time, then, was not only organized in period names but was also accorded significance in itself as the means whereby the cosmic purpose manifested itself. In some way God enters into human history without however violating man’s freedom. Sacred space is joined with sacred time in Genesis to develop in the Hebraic mind a paradigm of an inner, divine direction within the human experience of space and time.

The biblical features of coherence and meaning in history, together with the exhortatory quality of visionary experience, all find expression in the three authors we are examining. They speak of the tribal-shamanistic, the traditional civilizational, the scientific-industrial, and the ecological. As Berry writes: “It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story–the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it–is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story. The Old Story sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with a life purpose, energized action. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were.” Sparenberg is a valiant attempt to tell the story anew, to tell a New Story.

It’s when the story disintegrates that the human community experiences dysfunction most acutely in its relation to the larger universe. In such moments the language of apocalypse communicates the feeling of loss and the sense of impending doom, while employing the exhortation needed to recover relatedness to the larger world. Again Berry is clear on this: “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 the mutually enhancing human presence to the earth community… 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 understands the larger patterns of nature, its harsh and deadly aspects as well as its life-giving aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish that other life forms might flourish.” These are powerful words.

Consider also these similar words of David Sparenberg, culled almost at random from p. 90 of his book:

 “In a future already near at hand we humans will not be encrypted urbanites or techno-addicts. We will not remain self-referential (if we care to remain at all). But will either become a mature species in process of eco-anamnesis and sanity or primitive survivors in the aftermath of all consuming chaos and black hole of global death.

This is not prophecy, although there is in the depths a truth of words. This is “choices.” Of mountains and rivers or forests and coastlines of lands and waters. Of gulls blown inland on high winds and of the feeling sense of coming rain and coming changes.

And it is not that this is merely black and white, but rather that the gray is twilight and it is to be decided yet which is which—the emerging of rejuvenating dawn or “progress” descending into lasting night.” Plenty of food for thought  just on this one page of the 237 that comprise the whole book.

Through historical features derived from a biblical context coupled with his insights into human cultures and the biological community of the earth, story telling  calls for that sensitivity which is a new inventing of ourselves. In all three authors the context of this reinvention at the species level is presented as a sacred and meaningful act. Recovery of our unique relation to the larger story of who we are means reaching into our genetic relatedness to the earth. There are four evolutions and the human being is the bearer of that larger historical time: the evolution of the universe, of the earth, of life on earth, and of human cultures. All three authors believe that by activating personal discovery of these cosmic processes, one recovers a true sense of self-understanding.

The inquisitive reader may at this point ask who were the influences on these authors, where did  get their inspiration, consciously or unconsciously; how did they inspire each other. I would identify two: Giambattista Vico and Teilhard De Chardin. There is no doubt that Berry was influenced by Vico from the very beginning of his intellectual journey into deep ecology. The subject of Berry’s doctoral dissertation at Catholic University was indeed  the New Science of the Nature of the Nations of Giambattista Vico. That was undoubtedly a pivotal point in his historical thought. It established patterns of seminal insight in Berry and by unconscious influence, if nothing else, in Sparenberg. Indeed Jung also had it on target when he described the “collective unconscious.”

The basic structure of Vico's "new science' is an investigation of the human institutions that gave birth to the various gentile nations. Vico was specifically interested in the human character of those institutions which by extension involved him in the issue of the role of providence in history. Vico postulated that the working of providence in biblical history was different from its working in the gentile nations. For this reason, Vico did not investigate the Hebraic events in which providence played a direct and immediate role; he focused rather on the gentile history in which providence worked through natural custom. Vico speculated that a natural or "poetic" wisdom marked certain individuals who founded the institutions giving rise to nations. The principles that enabled humans to rise from barbarism to civility also caused nations to continue their development through successive ages.

Combining the search for principles with his insights into "poetic wisdom" Vico discovered that humans imagined themselves into their historical uniqueness through the institutions that they created. Vico sensed that human societies moved with a natural regularity through a course of development that originated in religion. He postulates three historical eras: the era of the gods, the era of the heroes, and the era of men. Eventually societies folded back upon themselves and this "recourse" brought societies back through the same historical ground until they stagnated in a "barbarism of reflection."

Vico sets out to establish principles which provide insight into the entire sweep of human history. His ages are the core of these historical principles which indicate the sequence of irreversible developments into which the "wise poets" of societies imagine themselves and their social institutions. Moreover, when a society moves into the next age there occurs a concomitant change throughout the institutions of that society. Therefore, language in the age of the gods is a divine language; so also government in the heroic age is government by aristocratic men. Thus, thought itself in the age of humans is marked by a unique human mental disposition entirely different form earlier ages. This is the age of fully developed rationality, the age of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These aspects of Vico's history are central to Thomas Berry's articulation of those cultural ages he calls tribal-shamanistic, traditional-civilizational, scientific technological, and ecological. From Vico, Berry has even culled his concern for paradigmatic change from age to age so that even the primal symbols found in every age–the cosmic tree, for example–are seen as having undergone fundamental change. This insight into paradigmatic alteration germinates understanding of the creative role of imagination and intuition in human history. One of Vico's most provocative ideas that provides Thomas Berry with an incisive critique of contemporary cultures is the "barbarism of reflection."

The "barbarism of reflection" implies over-refinement: the institutions of an age become overly civilized, as it were, and unable to sustain the poetic wisdom and imagination that established them. Vico arrived at this insight thorough the historical need to account for history after the Christian Church had been established and direct providential action entered into gentile European history. He posited a historical recourse in which the nations recreated the ages in the Christian context. Providence allowed the true religion, according to Vico, to generate the authentic new ages according to the natural custom evident in earlier history. If people were unable to make the needed transitions to a new age, providence would allow them to fall into a second barbarism different from the barbarism of sense before civility itself began. So, our three authors are in some way influenced, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously,  by this powerful Vichian insight on history, namely that the challenge of history is to be able to image ourselves into the new roles demanded by the story we have of ourselves. Vico's "poetic wisdom" can be seen as the paradigm waiting for implementation, a paradigm that De Chardin, Berry and Sparenberg have certainly intuited.

Other philosophers could be mentioned too as partly influential: Hegel's insights into the movement of Spirit in history, or Hegel's sense of a "cunning in history," in which Spirit accomplishes its ends through the irrational human passions, resonates back to Vico; Marx's class struggle finds voice in our visionaries’ focus on segments of human societies who are caught in traditional stories and, unable to find the energies to create their own future, resist paradigmatic forces of change, for example, such as with modernity or an enlightenment devoid of religious tradition; Whilhelm Dilthey and Benedetto Croce’s emphasis on the aesthetic intuition; Vogelin’s introduction of the Bible as a central historical document in western historiography leading to the "reinvention of the human at the species level" and a call  reaching beyond the historical-mythic myopia of our times in order to implement our cosmological understanding of who we are as well as respond to the urgencies of our ecological malaise, Christopher Dawson, the historian who established the centrality of the study of religion in cultural history; Henry Corbin, who by Sparenberg’s own admission influenced him greatly with his archetypal psychology echoing Jung and Vico, and his championing of the transformative power of the imagination coupled to his concept of mundus imaginalis. Several others could be mentioned, but, to my mind, the greatest influence on contemporary deep ecology and cultural historicism is undoubtedly that of de Chardin.  As a paleontologist Teilhard found himself drawn towards the vision of a unified evolutionary process in which the human stood as an arrow pointing the way of universe development. This was for Teilhard the most fitting historical context with which to understand human events.

It is amazing that so many diverse currents of thought should coalesce in De Chardin, Berry and Sparenberg's insights and vision. Consider this statement by Berry intended to bring audiences to consider the following challenges as most fitting for our times: "to reinvent the human at the species level, reflectively, within the community of life systems, in a time-developmental context, by means of story and shared dream experience." If I understand them correctly what our three authors seem to be saying is that we share traits that organize us, that allow us to see ourselves as different and unique from other life forms but now the time has arrived when we must extend our reflective powers beyond ourselves to the community of life systems in order to adequately understand the integral connection we have to this larger community, that is to say, we must be clearer regarding our story in all its aspects–personal, ethnic, national, global, and cosmic. This reinvention foreseen by all three visionaries is a celebratory act. It draws from the human all of the numinous excitement associated with dream life. Older primal communities have never lost the sharing of a dream. This is especially true for Native American cultures. It is perhaps imperative that we recover that experience or, in the age of extinctions, risk the extinction of human life.


Hoping that Professor Emanuel Paparella will forgive me but this is the best place to add two recordings. David Sparenberg honoured me with two recorded readings for my Sunday radio program that is broadcast every week in Helsinki, Finland.

You can here him HERE and HERE!

Thank you 

Thanos Kalamidas



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Emanuel Paparella2012-12-10 13:00:46
Thank you Thanos for the addition which can only increase the Ovi readership's motivation to read and ponder David's book. Metaphorically, we may be the megaphone amplyfying David Sparenberg's voice but a megaphone without a voice is quite useless. Let us hope that such voices are heard by millions of ears; which is to say, let those who have ears let them hear.

David Sparenberg2012-12-20 08:32:16
Pround thanks my friend for this review and the philosophical amplification you bring into focus. And of course I too shall hope and work diligently toward turning heads, hearts and bringing many, many ears to listen and respond within their own context. Christmas blessings.

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