Defend the Sacred.
“Our problems are so complex that only a truly simple solution will do.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
The radical theologian-ecologist Matthew Fox tells of having a dream long ago in which a voice tells him that the only problem humans have is that they have lost a sense of the sacred. This is surprising. I would have thought we had a lot of big problems, not just one.
When I contemplated the message of his dream, it demanded a reorganization of my typical thought process. Could this be true? Only one problem?
Talking of the sacred is a quick turn-off in this secular age, especially in our currently highly polarized country. Most people associate the word sacred exclusively with organized religion, but the great multi-disciplinarian scientist Gregory Bateson had some interesting thoughts on the topic in his last book, and he was not known to push organized religion.
He died before he finished the book, but his daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, did a brilliant job of completing it for him.
Bateson was far ahead of his time in understanding the ecological crisis. Another of his children, Nora Bateson, made a great film on her father’s life and work, An Ecology of Mind. It should be in every library and considered essential viewing. In this quotation, we see Bateson’s insights into how our thinking must shift, and soon:
“If we continue to operate in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, we shall probably also come to see the world in terms of God versus man; elite versus people; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation and man versus environment.
It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at the world can endure.”
The very title of his last book was provocative to many: Angels Fear: Toward an Epistemology of the Sacred. In the book he arrives at an elegantly succinct definition of the sacred: That with which thou shalt not mess. Things you should not mess with are sacred by definition.
If we accept this Bateson definition, there is an immediate link to the Matthew Fox dream. In losing our sense of the sacred — and who could dispute that this has happened — we have messed with so many of nature’s processes that we are effectively sawing off the very branch on which we are perched.
The examples abound of messing with things we ought not. GMO food is clearly an instance of a technology we would have better avoided. How about polluting our air, soil, and water? How about greedily stealing from one another and calling it just doing business? How about constructing and perpetuating an economy with so many losers and so few winners?
Indeed, one could question whether there are any real winners, when winning depends on fouling our own nest. How about pumping great quantities of poisons into the earth’s belly? On and on the tragic litany runs. It seems that Bateson’s definition of the sacred goes largely unheeded.
We pay no attention whatsoever as to whether we should engage in an activity — if there is money to be made, someone for certain will do it. Wisdom is in short supply.
Beauty will save us?
In 1978, I had a dream much like Fox’s, in which a voice came to me with no visuals and said: “In the end, it is beauty that will save them all.” Not a new economic structure, but beauty? Not a new clean energy technology? How would that work, being saved by beauty?
“When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” ~ R. Buckminster Fuller
The above quotation from Buckminster Fuller, surely one of the most interesting minds in the last century, gives us a way to tie this all together. The problem — if we accept the dream of Matthew Fox — is that we have lost our reverence for life, for nature, our sense of the sacred.
Bringing in Bateson, this means then that we are engaging in activities that are harmful, that we are, in his words, messing where we ought not. The solution of course is to restore in our culture a sense of the sacred, to stop interfering with processes in nature we never should have even contemplated. If we truly succeed, the result will be beauty.
As Bucky Fuller says in his quotation above, when nature solves a problem, its solution is always beautiful. I pray for this day to come soon.
Consider the protest at Standing Rock. It seems to me that what we see is a group of people (led in inspiring fashion by the Native American contingent) demanding the acknowledgment of the sacred vs the 1% willfully trying to wring every last cent of value out of the earth, completely ignoring the obvious dangers to the water supply of over 20 million people.
Indeed, Defend the Sacred has become a popular theme of the water protectors’ movement. The water protectors are telling the 1% by putting their bodies on the line that business as usual will no longer be accepted, that they can no longer mess with what they should not.
Some writers call the era we are entering the post-truth era, but I prefer to call it the resacralization of nature era. Our backs are against the wall, and more and more people seem to realize this. The warriors of this resacralization movement are strangely in many instances scientists.
Advanced science and technology are often key tools of the oppressors, when all their advances ought to be turned to the advantage of all.
Consider scientist and activist Vandana Shiva, and her work in India and around the world to protect seeds and soil and native farming practices. She has mobilized many Indian women to prevent Monsanto and other similar biotech companies from messing where they should not. If these companies will not acknowledge life itself as sacred, then we must prevent them from having their way.
There is so little time left.
Other warriors of this movement include the young. Some acupuncture students from the university where I teach recently went to Standing Rock to help out in the medical yurts. They related that there was a beautiful atmosphere of prayer pervading the entire camp.
Interestingly, they said that the acupuncture treatments they gave were so much more effective than what they experience here in Portland, Oregon. They felt the focused, prayerful attitude was the difference. Often just a few needles were needed to shift seriously painful conditions.
The coming together of up-until-now-purely-political protesters with this resacralization movement promises to change the dynamic in this country. Some of this could be seen in the Occupy movement in its infancy, but now at Standing Rock it could not be clearer.
And true to Buckminster Fuller’s idea that beauty is always found in the way of nature, we can see a great beauty in the water protectors and how they comport themselves, even in the face of terrible brutality.
Word has recently come in that the Army Corps of Engineers has revoked the DAPL permit to go under the Missouri River as planned. It is heartening news. However, with the amount of money at play, and with Donald Trump about to occupy the White House, it should be clear to all that the battle will go on, not just in North Dakota but on many fronts around the world.
Stopping one pipeline is a big deal, of course, but starting a worldwide movement is what we really need. It would be beautiful for this to happen, and for it to be the true legacy of Standing Rock.
Bob Quinn teaches traditional Japanese acupuncture and bodywork in the School of Classical Chinese Medicine at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland, OR. He can be reached via email.