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Beyond Materialism

I don’t know who Christian de Quincey is—though by now I’ve Googled him and discovered that he is a professor of Philosophy and Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University and the author of a recent book, Radical Nature: The Soul of Consciousness. I haven’t read his work, beyond an article someone sent me from the magazine, Tikkun.

But I found his writing in Tikkun both compelling and persuasive, though it is—probably for most people—just too way out there. Which is too bad.

In de Quincey’s article he sees as both tragic and flawed our unshakable faith in “the consciousness cut”—that our ruling zeitgeist is the pervasive belief in our separation from matter: that we, alone, are special, sentient, conscious and uniquely ensouled, as opposed to the rest of nature, which is unconscious and unfeeling.

Our current worldview, he writes, based on the materialist philosophy of modern science, presents us with a stark and alienating vision of a world that is intrinsically devoid of meaning, of purpose, of value—a world without a mind of its own, a world without soul. And this worldview has had dramatic and catastrophic consequences for our environment, for countless species of animals and plants, and for the ecosystems that sustain us all.

He goes on to cite the consequences of this fracturing: ecological crises, technologies of destruction and a profound alienation from nature.

He takes scientific materialism to task for promulgating this world view, “that nature has no consciousness, no feelings, no intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose. And so we relate to nature without sufficient respect for its inherent sacredness.”

But the cosmologies of religions perpetuate that same mind/body duality. The role of the clergy, he says, is not to connect humans to a mute and distant God, but to be the shaman, guiding and teaching us to listen to the sacred language of nature—“helping us open our minds and bodies to the messages rippling through the world of plants and animals, rocks and wind, oceans and forests, mountains and deserts. . . .”

He posits that we must tell ourselves an alternative story to the one that has fractured our lives into a mind/matter split: the story of a “worldview that tells us consciousness matters and that matter is conscious.”

Under other circumstances I might have read de Quincey’s piece and thought it simultaneously both too cerebral and too “out there.”

But as I come to the end of my stay on Cape Ann, living, as I have been, a different life and a much less distracted one than I ever have in my whole life, I am aware of many little things. And these little things convince me that it is worth the effort to learn to listen deeply and to feel fully the small serendipities that have the power to infuse life with something that might even be called “meaning.”

For example, since beginning my hiatus from ordained ministry over two years ago, I haven’t attended church, except to lead worship; in other words, unless I was being paid to go to church, I didn’t. But for the past dozen weeks or so I have gone every Sunday to a church here in Rockport.

Yes, the priest is gifted and the music is great. The people are warm and friendly, though I usually skip the coffee hour. I’m not here to make chit-chat. I’m here to listen. So when, this past Sunday, the first one in Advent—the four-week season leading to Christmas—the reading from the book of Romans says: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” I wonder, in a deeper way than I ever have (since I’ve known these words my whole life) what ‘waking’ to consciousness really means for me.

And when I’m in yoga class out here and our teacher, radiant in pregnancy, exhorts us to feel the energy of the tree or the mountain or the Hindu god or the animal, for which all the yoga postures are named, I realize that the consciousness of the body is a more fully-inclusive consciousness than that of mind alone.

And when I walk on the huge, hard, granite that limns the shoreline of Cape Ann, I feel a flowing and a beauty that sounds silly if I try to put it into words. But believe me when I say this: I will miss that energy when I leave it.

Nevertheless, I’ve learned from it, a learning I can carry with me, much as I can a deepened awareness of the purpose of sacred writing, of sacred movement, of a shimmering sentience shared, in lovely fits and starts, with all of matter and of all that matters.

—Jo Page

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