At key moments in human history circumstances have led to seismic shifts in human consciousness and the rise of new ways of thinking and acting. The emergence of agriculture in the Neolithic period 10,000 years ago saw hunter – gatherer people’s domesticate animals, raise crops and create the first cities. Other shifts in human consciousness have taken place with the rise of ancient civilisations, and in Europe the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment have ushered in the modern world as we understand it today.
As human beings adapt and develop, study and pray, settle and explore, their resilience, ingenuity and imagination contribute to a groundswell of thinking that frequently leads to a “paradigm shift” in human thought and behaviour. For most cultures understanding will change as new truths and new circumstances emerge. Our world view is rooted in a psycho-spiritual as well as a material and intellectual framework. We have belief systems about how the Universe works, how human beings interact and, from the algebraic formulae first pioneered by Arab culture, to the realms of contemporary science, we have gained insight into how the earth system works too. Faith communities may differ in their conclusions but physical circumstances play their part in shaping the thinking of all people’s and the current threats of climate change, resource scarcity and environmental degradation impact on all cultures equally. They demand a response and it may be that Providence is moving humanity towards a new form of consciousness and inviting us to embrace new ways of being on this fragile earth.
At Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, where I am the parish minister, the National Covenant was signed in our Kirk in 1638. It is sometimes described as the greatest moment in Scotland’s history and was marked by violence, deep intolerance, religious fanaticism and persecution. But it is possible to characterise this turbulent period in history as revolutionary, ushering in a shift in thinking and human consciousness that helped to create the modern western world we know today. What was happening in Scotland at this period has eddied down the centuries and continues to shape and challenge human culture, from the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the Arab Spring of 2011/12.
Up until the beginning of the 16th Century, the idea of the Divine Right of Kings with its origins going all the way back to the Mesopotamian kingdoms that were at the heart of the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago went largely unquestioned. God ordained and anointed rulers, and it was those rulers who controlled the political and religious life of nations. In the Reformation period and in the writing of the National Covenant a new perspective was beginning to take root. The idea of individual conscience, the democratic intellect and a vision of the value of each individual were beginning to be articulated. The seeds were being sown for the patterns of democratic governance and human rights and that we now take for granted in the west and promote with such vigour across the globe.
Humanity is on a journey, a pilgrimage, constantly moving into new territory and is being invited to look with fresh eyes. The manner in which we organise our lives, institutions and cultures is in a constant state of transformation as events, insights and circumstances challenge us.
The last few generations have witnessed a time in which the needs, fragility and stresses on the Earth have come much to the fore. For centuries we have assumed that the Earth was an inexhaustible resource and we have only recently begun to see that the well being of the earth and the viability of the human community might actually depend on our capacity to cherish and care for it. Additionally, people across the globe in almost every psycho-spiritual tradition have come to see that our social, spiritual and religious well being depends on the Earth as the principal mode of declaring the glory of the creator, “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands”. Isaiah 55: 12.
The Earth provides us with the nourishment, climate and habitat for our physical, emotional, spiritual and imaginative well being. Many people have recently defined “nature deficit syndrome” as a condition that can manifest itself when people are deprived of exposure to the rhythms and influences of the natural environment. There is no doubt that our moods, patterns and even our calendars (religious or otherwise) are governed by the Earth system. For centuries we have not thought that the Earth needed our attentiveness and care, the world was just there, consistently abundant, reliable and productive. Now such assumptions are being called into question and for religious people the question of the viability of human life itself invites us to re-examine our relationship to the Earth.
We are on a shared pilgrimage towards a new consciousness. How we inhabit, tend and serve the earth system must be the means by which we gain the wisdom for survival, the flourishing of the earth community and our awareness of the Divine, for as Thomas Berry has put it, “in the 20th Century, the glory of humanity has become the desolation of the earth”. We must re – invent humanity if we are to avoid the “desolation of the earth becoming the destiny of humanity”. Already the signs are emerging of a new consciousness through the coming together of our spiritual traditions with our science and learning. The Green Pilgrimage Network brings together the world’s pilgrim people, in their shared search for this new mode of existence.
Richard Frazer, May 2012.