An Eco-tethered Liberation Part II

Continuing our discussion of how the entire universe can express liberation, we are looking at what Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry suggest are 3 principles or intensions that govern the universe. These principles are differentiation, communion, and subjectivity.

Differentiation, can also be thought of as increasing diversity or complexity. Some of you might recognize it in biological terms: mutation. However expressed, this principle refers to the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe. When the universe burst out in every direction some 13 billion years ago – in what is commonly referred to as the Big Bang – there was an expansive and differentiating force at work. This force embodied the pervasive insistence to create anew, which means no two things are completely alike. To exist, is to exist differently from all else! Diversity in all its forms becomes important. Think how important this intention of the universe is: were it not for differentiation, the universe would be one blob of sameness.

The principle of communion immediately came into play after the Big Bang when the universe began, as forces pulled the primordial particles together. Communion can also be referred to as interrelatedness, interdependence, or kinship. Biologically, think of it as natural selection. This intention infusing the universe gives all subjects the ability to relate to other subjects or realities. Communion is relational. All in the universe is related or bonded. This bonding enabled the first atomic beings of hydrogen and helium to form. This bonding through gravity helped galaxies to form over billions of years (today there are over one hundred billion galaxies).  This bonding has continued and, eventually, as Berry likes to put it, because of communion, the music of Beethoven also came into being. This bonding, then, plays an important physical and, when you think of it, poetic role for the universe. Berry puts it well: “without the gravitational attraction experienced throughout the physical world, there would be no emotional attraction of humans to one another.”*

From NASA, the galaxy called NGC 3749. It lies over 135 million light-years away.

Subjectivity is a bit more difficult to grasp at first, because we like to think of the universe as a collection of objects. On the contrary, the universe is filled with structures that exhibit self-organizing dynamics. Think of these dynamics as interior numinous (fancy term for spiritual) factors that are present in all reality. The biological term for this is autopoiesis or even niche creation: this is the self-organization and self-articulation or interiority of all beings. You might also think of it as consciousness. And since all living beings, including humans, emerge out of this single community (from the first non-second of the Big Bang), it is likely that there must have been a consciousness component of the universe even in primitive form from the beginning.

Here, you might be noticing something: subjectivity connotes a power or spontaneity that each thing has to participate directly in its own flourishing. Where have we heard this definition before? Liberation!

From a cosmic level, then, we see how, in an analogous way to human self-participation, liberation can apply to all of creation. Each subject follows its evolutionary impulses leading to greater differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. It is not just the human, but the rivers, trees, and animals who ought to be free to follow their own interiority without the domination from political, economic, or social structures. This is what I was referring to in in my earlier blog (What Type of Ethics, Part IV) where we see within ecosystems a complex and diverse community of producers, consumers, decomposers, and detritivores, celebrating a certain form of subjectivity.

It is important to understand that I am not implying here any romantic notion of reality in life where there is no suffering. I’d like to touch upon that briefly in the next blog entry as I move into what an eco-tethered liberation might mean.

~ Simon

* Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 46.

An Eco-tethered Liberation Part I

So far, we’ve established what a messy ethics might generally look like, and why it is liberation and not simply social justice that should be the thrust behind it; we also touched upon why we must seek the liberation of all creation, not just humans. Before dealing with multiple ways of knowing (as I suggested in the last blog), we are first going to have to dig a little deeper into this inclusive understanding of liberation, because, ultimately, I want to explain a new form of liberation, one that is crucial to the functioning of messy ethics: I call this eco-tethered liberation.

A sign at Ignatian farm in Guelph, Ontario. What speed is Godspeed when liberation of all creation is at stake?

Let’s be clear: it is the destruction of all creation – not simply humans, certainly those that are poor and/or oppressed – that is at stake. As liberation philosopher Enrique Dussel puts it, we live at the end of a five hundred year-old hegemonic (a fancy term for living under dominance of others) system that has reached “absolute limits,”* the ecological destruction of the planet and the destruction of humanity itself. As a result, he maintains, we find ourselves constantly searching for solutions to problems we have to think about for the first time.

This is where messy ethics (and, as we will see, eco-tethered liberation) fits in: conventional modes of ethical thinking are not helping us create sustainable and just communities. How we live in our globalized world matters; yet, as we have seen, the right action is not always so obvious.

It is for this reason that the liberation of each subject becomes vital: each subject (person, toad or tree) must become the author of her/his own story if we are to foster a just and sustainable world; and to make this happen, a communal conversation must take place (hence, multiple ways of knowing). But I am getting ahead of myself.

At this point, consider that since the environmental crisis sprouts from the same roots of economic, racial, and political oppression, liberation ought to be universal.  The logic that exploits peoples for the sake of a few rich and powerful, is the same logic that destroys ecosystems; in other words, there is a causal relationship between the exploitation of humans (“Hey, let’s dump our toxic chemicals where the poor live, as they don’t have the clout to fight us”) and the natural world (“Hey, let’s dump our toxic chemicals into the ground, after all it is just matter, an object to be exploited; besides, it has no legal standing”). That’s why I love what ecotheologian Charles Birch writes:

It is a cock-eyed view that regards ecological liberation as a distraction from the task of liberation of the poor. One cannot be done without the other. It is time to recognize that the liberation movement is finally one movement. It includes women’s liberation, men’s liberation, the liberation of science and technology, animal liberation, plant liberation, and the liberation of the air and the oceans, the forests, deserts, mountains and valleys.**

So how are we to understand liberation for all creation?

It’s going to take a few blogs to fully explain this. I only touched upon it in the last one. To be sure, in discussing the impulse for liberation of other-than-human creation, a scientific cosmological perspective is helpful. As I stated in the last blog, the thinking of Thomas Berry is needed, but so is the thinking of mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme.

Here, assuming the form-producing dynamics of evolution to be the same at every place in the universe, Swimme and Berry suggest that three principles or intensions govern the universe.*** The authors identify these as differentiation, communion, and subjectivity. Only when we understand these three governing principles, they maintain, can we begin to understand the cosmology or, as Berry prefers, the story of the universe, which they portray as a cosmogenesis (to denote its constant creation or changing and developing nature).

While neither Berry nor Swimme ever proposed the word liberation, my contention is that these same principles form a basis for an evolutionary impulse to liberation.

On the subsequent blogs entries, I will explain these impulses as described by Berry and Swimme, starting with differentiation.

~Simon Appolloni

*Enrique Dussel, Ethics of Liberation: In an Age of Globalization and Exclusion, trans.
Eduardo Mendieta, Camilo Pérez Bustillo, Yolanda Angulo and Nelson
Madonado-Torres (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 39.
**Peter W.
Bakken, Joan Gibb Engel, and J. Ronald Engel, Ecology, Justice, and Christian Faith: A Critical Guide to the
Literature (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995), 10.
***Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1992).
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