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Global Mash-up: The Next Enlightenment Part II

12/09/2013 11:09 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2014

As author Richard Tarnas says, "Worldviews create worlds." The Big Wheels of Western Civilization's story are turning. It's the portal to our surviving and thriving. Today's Western worldview originated centuries ago with the first Age of Enlightenment. It marked the birth of the modern mind, as we know it.

In so many ways, the Enlightenment was a giant leap of liberation. Emerging out of bloody centuries of religious wars, it was triggered by the Copernican revolution that challenged the belief that Earth was divinely ordained as the fixed center of the universe. When Galileo later looked through his newly invented telescope, he confirmed that Earth and the planets revolve around the sun. The Inquisition condemned him as a heretic. Some opponents were so invested in the old paradigm that they declined to look through the telescope.

But the world had already looked. A new way of seeing rocked civilization.

The Enlightenment unleashed freedom of discovery and individual freedom. It liberated society from religious and church orthodoxy, tradition and superstition. It exalted reason, the human intellect and empirical knowledge. It gave birth to the Scientific Revolution, and to ever more powerful technologies and knowledge.

It spawned political revolutions that marked the beginning of the end of the legitimacy of monarchy, the divine right of kings, and the marriage of church and state. It broke the wealth monopoly of feudal aristocracies, and initiated more open markets and capitalism.

It birthed participatory democracy and the American and French Revolutions. It promoted tolerance and human rights, sexual and racial equality, and unprecedented individual liberty. It uncorked a world-changing fountain of creative freedom, art and invention.

Needless to say, these aspirations remain a work-in-progress, and the Enlightenment's shadow side has stranded us at land's end today. We've believed we're separate from nature, "master and possessor" of nature. We've held ourselves as the supreme and only conscious intelligence in a machine-like, random universe.

We've sought to know nature by reducing life to the mechanical parts of a machine. We've exalted reason, while excluding other ways of knowing -- imagination, intuition, emotions and the body.

We've objectified and commodified life itself, and propagated a worldview that reduces everything to property for our use, control, profit and power. We've replaced the certainty of faith with the infallibility of science, and harnessed science to the corruptions of power, treasure and empire.

We've claimed for ourselves inner dimensions of mind, spirit, soul, empathy and meaning, yet we deny these to the larger community of life that gave us life.

The Enlightenment emerged from a European civilization that was built on colonialism and imperialism, racism, genocide and slavery. These were built on the objectification and dehumanization of the Other, in all its forms: nature, people of color, indigenous peoples, women, the poor -- whoever the inconvenient "other" is.

Although we have access to unparalleled knowledge, we're destroying our only home. With more connectivity than ever dreamed possible, we're impoverished of relationship. We have more stuff than any society in history, yet we're deeply unhappy and spiritually estranged on a ravaged planet.

With unprecedented material wealth, it's concentrated in the hands of the few who've captured political systems and ideologies. A handful of billionaires who profit from fossil fuels hold the world economy hostage and dominate government policy. Fifty of the world's biggest global corporations produce 73 percent of CO2 emissions.

Some science now projects that today's hottest days will be the coldest by mid-century. We find ourselves at the brink, choking on the Big Gulp. A period of Enlightenment.
In the end, no one can explain why paradigms change -- they just do. It's a zeitgeist, something in the air, ideas whose time has come. Stories change and the world changes.

Science tells a dramatically different story today. The oneness and interconnection of everything are irreducible, dynamic, plastic. The Gaia Hypothesis, chaos and complexity theory, and quantum mechanics reveal a world far stranger and more mysterious than likely we can ever imagine.

Mystery abounds. The observer affects the observed. Our vaunted human consciousness is largely unconscious. Reality is interpretive. Knowledge is ambiguous, best approached from diverse viewpoints and ways of knowing.

We're living in the global mash-up, the end of prehistory. We have more pathways illuminated to us than ever before, from which we're making new maps of reality and our humanness.

As David Orr wrote, "The greatest discovery of the past century... (or more accurately the rediscovery) was of an ancient premonition -- that we are part of a vast web of life, one large evolving system that has many of the characteristics of a living organism. We live, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once described, in the lap of great intelligence.

We are kith and kin to all that was, all there is, and all that will ever be. For all of our puffed up self-importance, we are only upstart primates occupying one small booth on the outskirts of a vast, turbulent, ongoing bazaar of living, evolving sentience located on a minuscule planet attached to a third-rate star somewhere in a backwater galaxy in a sea of billions of other galaxies speeding toward some unknown destination."

Or as my father-in-law liked to say, if we had humility, we'd have everything.

This cusp, this next Enlightenment, brings us full circle back to the ancient indigenous wisdom we all once held -- kinship, interdependence, reverence. It's all alive -- it's all connected -- it's all intelligent -- it's all relatives.

It invites us to keep widening the circle of beloved community, the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that "Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation." Now the circle of beloved community is expanding to embrace nature and the non-human realm in their wondrous diversity.

Perhaps it was necessary for us to push our individuation to the limit -- to separate ourselves from each other and from the community of life -- before many roads could finally lead us home.

As Richard Tarnas wrote in The Passion of the Western Mind, "The evolution of the Western mind has been driven by a heroic impulse to forge an autonomous rational human self, by separating it from the primordial unity with nature. To do this, the masculine mind has repressed the feminine... [and] all which the masculine has identified as the other. The crisis of modern man is essentially a masculine crisis.

This is the great challenge of our time, the evolutionary imperative for the masculine to choose to enter into a fundamentally new relationship of mutuality with the feminine in all its forms. An epochal shifting is taking place in the contemporary psyche: a sacred marriage between the long-dominant but now alienated masculine, and the long-suppressed but now ascending feminine."

Tarnas suggests the symptoms of the modern era resemble an initiatory crisis: "The dark night of the soul -- a deconstruction of the old identity -- the crisis of meaning -- the encounter with mortality on a planetary scale. In some sense, the universe may have been constellating, painstakingly and painfully, a partner to reconnect with the soul of the universe in a new way - to forge a new relationship to it that builds upon everything that has been learned in these thousands of years."

Today the true Enlightenment comes with turning the telescope inward. We're surrounded by elders, by the genius of creation. That ancient wisdom resides in us, and all around us. The innate resonance that life has for life may be our deepest way of knowing -- the light that tells us we're home.

Janine Benyus sees it this way. "The criterion of success is that you keep yourself alive and you keep your offspring alive. But it's not your offspring -- it's your offspring's offspring's offspring ten thousand years from now.

Because you can't be there to take care of that offspring, the only thing you can do is to take care of the place that takes care of your offspring. That's why the one non-negotiable policy that we need to write into law is that life creates conditions conducive to life."

In this next Enlightenment, we're creating conditions conducive to life, growing the imaginal cells of a wisdom culture. It's time to make a new calendar and get to work, dreaming into being the world we want, the world the world wants.