Some thoughts about “The Great Humbling” and “The Anthropocene”

READINGS: From the editors of Dark Mountain Issue 9 (April 2016)

Humbleness is the most unfashionable of virtues. We are continually exhorted by late-capitalist civilization to ‘be proud’, to ‘stand tall’, to ‘believe in ourselves’. It is held as axiomatic that the self is the centre of our being; that the human is the zenith of evolution; that the increase of human agency and dominion, and the search for meaning and purpose in our own individual selves, are the central tasks of existence.
          Little wonder, then, that the idea that we might not have the starring role in the show of life fills most contemporary minds with fear, horror or disgust. To suggest that our power and control over the world and its other inhabitants might be subject to reversal, or that our dreams of industrial ascendancy over the living biosphere might prove to be nothing more than a narcissistic fantasy, is to invite the kind of allegations of doomerism, Luddism and misanthropy to which those involved in the Dark Mountain Project have become accustomed over the past seven years.
          Outside the small spotlight of Western industrial society, these ideas do not necessarily hold. Nor, indeed, was it always this way in the West: the Greeks thought that an excess of hubris would attract the wrath of the gods, and that the inevitable fall would follow; mediaeval Christianity placed great weight on the cultivation of humility and the avoidance of pride – for most of European history, the idea that a good citizen would make the promotion of their own achievements and interests their highest goal would have been unthinkable.
          Humbleness comes from the Latin humus, meaning ‘earth’; so to be humble means to lay oneself low, but also to be grounded, to return to the solid and material. The surrender, voluntarily or otherwise, of our empires of self can also be seen as a re-connection with reality, a re-communion with the Earth.
          Like the word ‘humble’, ‘human’ also comes from the root ‘humus’ – to be human is to be an earthling, literally. It may yet be that, despite our inflated sense of our place in time and space, despite our trail of arrogant destruction, there is still a thread of humbleness that runs at the core of what it means to belong to this strange species – which is, as Anne Tagonist reminds us, ‘the only species we have the option of being’.

Pattian Rogers' poem Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures

—o0o—

ADDRESS
Some thoughts about “The Great Humbling” and “The Anthropocene”

Following the Dark Mountain event with Dougald Hine held in this church on 13th April, in this address I want to bring together two of Dougald’s thoughts with two of my own that I’ve explored with you in a recent Sunday address. In addition I’ll be drawing upon a few other strands and allusions I’ve been making over the past few years. My hope is that, in a modest way, this conjunction of things will help release in you a small burst of the two sacramental energies of religion that used to be bound up in stories concerning the gods, namely: (1) energies for limitation in the face of hubris and (2) for transformation in the face of complacency (James C. Edwards in his “The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism”, Penn State University Press, 1997 p. ix). So let me begin by reminding you of my two thoughts.

My first thought concerned our pressing need, not so much for the “restoration” of our culture to some putative golden age or even some simple status quo ante, but for a “re-tory-ation” of it, one which is capable of taking our culture into what we feel would be a better future than the one that currently seems most likely to come to pass. This is an idea which carries along with it the recognition that “Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

My second thought was one drawn from the poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), and speaks of our pressing need radically to change our culture’s basic perspective. As Jeffers wrote in 1948 in his poem “Carmel Point”, it is the need to “uncenter our minds from ourselves” and to “unhumanize our views a little, and become confident / As the rock and ocean that we were made from.” It is with this in mind that I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce you to the the poem “Address: The Archaeans, One Cell Creatures” by Pattiann Rogers — which strikes me as a perfect example of what this change of perspective, this necessary “unhumanization”, can help us do. Roger’s genius as a poet in this example is to help us see what we might learn by considering the world, at least imaginatively and for a moment, from the perspective of the almost unimaginably ancient Archaeans.

Let’s now turn to what seemed to me to be the two key ideas Dougald shared with us in his talk.

The first was related to our culture’s generally scientific, Enlightenment world view which, even as it has taught us the great value of looking rationally at a world held, as it were, at arms length — as if we were somehow not ourselves part of it — has also succeeded in disconnecting us from the world in some deeply problematic and ultimately destructive ways. This has had particularly damaging consequences when it comes to how we have dealt with, or rather have failed to deal with, climate change. The failure is found in the fact that we have no current good and helpful public practices in our culture to bring back into meaningful relationship rational scientific facts and analyses about climate change on the one hand with, on the other hand, the shocking, existential realization that these facts and analyses speak of things that can no longer be held at arms length and which are clearly beginning to effect us all directly. No one can hide from global warming and all that it brings.

The point Dougald particularly stressed was the need to find creative ways to help us feel the world again knowing we are ourselves wholly bound up in and with the warp and weft of the world’s constant unfolding. We need ways intimately to feel both its and our pain and grief as well as its and our joys, celebrations and possibilities for going on; it is to collapse in some fashion the distance that currently exists between detached reason and what we might call existentially engaged emotion.

Dougald’s second idea was related to the kind of language that can come out of beginning to feel in the way I have just outlined.

Alas, alack, without a serious dose of a Jeffers inspired unhumanization in play it turns out that one way we have begun to feel the world’s and our own pain and grief turns out to give rise to a word full of the ancient sin of hubris. At its worst it is as if we, looking at all the mess and destruction we have caused, decide in a defiant, wholly human-centred way to say something like, “Well, at the very least, we can celebrate the fact that we are a species which has succeeded in leaving a globally wide mark in the geological record. No other single species has achieved that kind of greatness so let’s call this age through which we are living ‘the Anthropocene’.”   

To do this is certainly one way of feeling and acknowledging something of the pain and grief our actions have and are causing but, were we standing in a court of law after having been found guilty of our many crimes against the planet, any decent judge, seeing in our darkly triumphant attitude no proper contrition or repentance, would have no choice but to impose the maximum available sentence upon us.

To look upon the world as it is and is becoming, and to tell the story of how it got that way under the headline of “the Anthropocene” is, let’s be honest about it, a truly dreadful kind of re-story-ation. In these confused times there will be, of course, both good and bad re-story-ations on offer. Dougald, consciously rejecting this kind of human-centred, ego driven re-story-ation, instead prefers — as do I — the word used as title of the 2016 edition of the Dark Mountain Anthology called “The Humbling” — this is surely a much better way to express the existential truth of our situation and which could more healthily and sensitively employ our reason derived sciences (and, of course, the scientifically still useful word “Anthropocene”)

[NB: My negative comments about the term “The Anthropocene” above were not unanimously agreed with, something revealed in a good and decent way in the conversation which followed my address both in church and over coffee. Consequently I’ve added a few extra thoughts about this at the very end of this post as a postscript. Please feel free to add your own thoughts on the matter if you wish by clicking on the Post a Comment button below — whether positive or negative I’ll put them up. I only have comment moderation on to stop spammers posting adverts for their products. Alas there are more of them out there than one would either expect or hope . . .] 

Let’s remind ourselves of how the editors understand the etymology and consequent meaning of this important word.

Humbleness comes from the Latin humus, meaning ‘earth’; so to be humble means to lay oneself low, but also to be grounded, to return to the solid and material. The surrender, voluntarily or otherwise, of our empires of self can also be seen as a re-connection with reality, a re-communion with the Earth.

Like the word ‘humble’, ‘human’ also comes from the root ‘humus’ – to be human is to be an earthling, literally. It may yet be that, despite our inflated sense of our place in time and space, despite our trail of arrogant destruction, there is still a thread of humbleness that runs at the core of what it means to belong to this strange species – which is, as Anne Tagonist reminds us, ‘the only species we have the option of being’.
 
Our own Western industrial society’s general public culture, with its loss of belief in God/gods, has today almost completely lost any meaningful way to engage with those religious practices which once were able to challenge our tendency to hubris and which helped us develop the virtue of humility. As the editors of the Dark Mountain anthology remind us “the Greeks thought that an excess of hubris would attract the wrath of the gods, and that the inevitable fall would follow” and “mediaeval Christianity placed great weight on the cultivation of humility and the avoidance of pride” and because of this for most of European history, the idea that a good citizen would make the promotion of their own achievements and interests their highest goal would have been unthinkable.”

Well, we are now able to think the unthinkable on a daily basis.

Now, from where I stand as your minister I’m in complete agreement with Heidegger’s famous and controversial words from his controversial 1966 interview with Der Spiegel that “only a God will save us”. Here’s the full quote:

Philosophy will not be able to effect an immediate transformation of the present condition of the world. This is not only true of philosophy, but of all merely human thought and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The sole possibility that is left for us is to prepare a sort of readiness, through thinking and poeticizing, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god in the time of foundering [Untergang] for in the face of the god who is absent, we founder. (Interview of 23 September 1966, published posthumously in Der Spiegel on 31 May 1976. Translated by Maria P. Alter and John D. Caputo in “The Heidegger Controversy : A Critical Reader (1991)” edited by Richard Wolin, p. 107).

Like Heidegger I also want to be absolutely clear that I don’t think a simple, naive return to the God or gods of old is going to help us. We clearly need to open ourselves to the appearance of a re-story-ed God which can, in some fashion say something like that nature herself may be thought of as being a divine messenger of sorts, one who is always-already speaking to us of the ineffable mysterious something upon which everything depends upon for its existence — whether rocks, stones, squeaky doors, rusty nails, hammers, iPhones, plants, planets, gravity, Archaeans, humans birds or bees.

Whether you want to call that “Something” God or not is really neither here nor there because there is no doubt that whether we like it or not there is “Something” upon which our own existence and the existence of everything else always-already depends. [See the quote from Henry Nelson Weiman at this link which is why I am using the word “Something” with a capital letter]. If you prefer a more obviously humanist expression of this thought  let me remind you of some words spoken by Václav Havel (1936–2011) in 1990. He strongly felt that “. . . the arrogant anthropocentrism of modern man, who is convinced he can know everything and bring everything under his control, is somewhere in the present crisis” and he believed the only way for the world to change for the better was by starting with “a change in human consciousness” saying that:

> Man must in someway come to his senses. He must discover again a deeper sense of responsibility toward something higher than himself. I think that only through directing oneself toward the moral and spiritual orientation based on the respect for some ‘extramundane’ authority — for the order of nature or the universe, for a moral order and its impersonal origin, for the absolute — can we arrive at a state in which life on this earth is no longer threatened by some form of ‘megasuicide’ and becomes bearable, has, in other words, a genuinely human dimension. This direction, and this direction alone, can lead to the creation of social structures in which a person can once more be a person, a specific human personality (“Disturbing the Peace”, Faber, 1990, pp. 11-12).

Now I have real hopes that by constantly meditating upon this insight there can come the necessary change of perspective which clearly tells us we are part of a much greater whole and utterly  dependent upon some mysterious, transcendent “Something” for our very existence and this, in turn, should help to release in us the first of two sacred energies which I mentioned at the start of this address, namely, the energy for limitation in the face of hubris.

Now, if and when we can truly accept this re-story-ation then I also have real hope that the reconnection between the rational natural sciences and our nature as existential beings for whom existence counts which the shock of our global situation is bringing about can become a more and more creative, healthy and helpful shock, one which is able to release in us the second sacred energy, namely, for transformation in the face of complacency.

I truly believe there is genuine hope for our species but only if we can learn to dwell poetically on the earth and to accept the need to enter, not the Anthropocene Age but the Age of the Great Humbling. Following an acceptance of this I feel sure there is a real chance that there will appear among and within us the kind of “God” who can help save us.  

POSTSCRIPT
A few more further thoughts on the the term “the Anthropocene”

A couple of people expressed their positive feeling towards the term and felt that it was something which did bring home to them the pressing need for humility. They also, quite rightly, noted that there have been many positive, good and helpful scientific and cultural pieces published under the term. I acknowledged this but added that for me the problem I have with the word is, because it is mostly used in technical, scientific (or quasi-technical, scientific) fashion, whether by design or accident, it quietly conspires to keep the matter at a safe (enough) distance from our existential, emotional and religious selves. However, with the term The Humbling that detachment/distance is simply not possible. I noted that when I hear the term The Anthropocene I find myself able to remain in a detached, cool academic frame of mind but when I hear the term The Humbling it makes me feel utterly ashamed and fully conscious of my need to get down on my knees to pray and confess my (our) sins committed against Mother Earth and, yes, even “God” (something which I actually did as I said these words in the service). 

As another member of the congregation noted in the conversation at this point, in this liberal church tradition might we not badly need a modern shared secular prayer of confession that picks up on some of the tropes found in the prayer of confession many of us still remember from our days in the Church of England?

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

Comments

Harvey said…
Hi Andrew. My first awareness of using the term "The Anthropocene" to describe our era was from Thomas Berry, who definitely used it to make us (In a humbling way) aware that humans were responsible for the primary changes to our world in this time, including climate change, species extinction etc. Harvey N
Greetings Harvey. Good to hear from you and I hope you are well.

It's not that I doubt the use of the word by people like Thomas Berry (whose work I admire) rather it is the scientific flavour (because there is good science behind its coinage) of the word that concerns me. I have seen in conversation how it is often used by people to express a real concern, yes, but in a way which tends (psychologically and, therefore, understandably) to keep the concern at arms length, and so the problem I outline in my address continues. I strongly feel we need a word with a more direct, visceral, emotional impact to keep the shocking realization of the depth of our problem close to hand AND to help us being to transform ourselves by repenting and changing our ways. In short, I suppose I'm basically saying that I think we need a religiously derived word as well as a scientifically derived one.

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