Over the years, I have read many books on ecology from all of the experts: Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, Moni McIntyre, Wangari Maathai, Sr. Miriam MacGillis, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Sr. Ilia Delio, and many more. They have fostered my great love for creation and pointed out the dysfunctional elements of our human relationship with the Earth.
These readings have taught me that any consideration of ecology (the study of the Earth) must include the larger functioning of cosmology (the study of the universe). At first, this realization scared me. My focus in college was English and religious education. I lasted two days in physics, changing to biology. I passed the course, but my teacher noted, “You don’t express yourself scientifically.” Because of my weak background in the sciences, I shied away from cosmology. Still I found myself moved by the words of Job 12:7–10:
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you,
of the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of God has done this?
In God’s hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of all.
In 2017, my religious community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield, Massachusetts, made a chapter commitment “[t]o live in deeper union with all creation and reverently care for Earth, that all may be one.” Trying to find a deeper way to connect with nature, I read a dissertation by Toni Marie Nash, CSJ, entitled Cosmological Commitment in a Time of Planetary Crisis: Values for a Vibrant Earth. I found it difficult to understand some of the scientific examples Nash uses. However, I learned about the three cosmological principles, how they work together, and ways to implement them into my daily living. Simply stated, these principles are:
- Identity. This tells what a subject is interiorly. It automatically interacts with the environment and has the capacity to change when in communion with another entity.
- Communion. This occurs when two identities interact with each other.
- Differentiation. This is when two identities in communion become something different. For example, when the identities of hydrogen and oxygen are in communion, they differentiate into water.
According to Nash, these three cosmological principles are the basis for evolution that operated for millions of years and continues today. No wonder potatoes have differentiated into 187 varieties! As Nash states: “If identity is where the process of evolution begins, then differentiation is how it happens. As energy seeks to go faster, it makes use of slight fluctuations and new configurations of matter to accomplish its goal, encouraging continuous innovation. When entities and species differ, evolution moves forward.”
This evolutionary process happens automatically with nature. It becomes dysfunctional when humans interfere with its natural dynamics. One example among many is the development of gas pipelines that negatively affect water quality and surrounding vegetation.
Humans seem to believe that it is OK to thwart the Earth’s natural processes in the pursuit of financial profit. We act as though we were superior to our ecosystem, not a part of it, and forget the Suquamish leader Chief Seattle’s message: that what happens to the Earth happens to everyone. Now scientists are warning that the planet is in peril and we must change our ways. Our generation has become more aware of the destruction that results from using the Earth purely for our own gain. We are awakening to new modes of being that could liberate us from our destructive tendencies.
Nash asks if cosmological principles could posit an alternative way forward for human behavior. “To align ourselves with the cosmogenetic principles is to align with the internal dynamics of the source of the universe,” she writes. “It is to become earthly manifestations of this divine organization. The boomerang effect can work in our favor if it helps us to participate in the dynamic unfolding of the universe. When God is imaged as the source and first model of the cosmogenetic principles, aligning our behavior with these forces seems the only logical choice.”
Cosmological principles happen automatically in nature, but not with humans. Because we possess free will, some of our actions can be destructive. The practice of living cosmological principles is revolutionary and requires great, conscious effort. But to do so is better than extinction.
What would the world and service to people look like if these principles were put into practice? If the entities of the House and Senate joined in communion to make decisions for the good of the whole, instead of their own career advancement? If environmentalists were present in decision making to represent Earth? If corporations shared profits with their workers who kept the business running, rather than reward the CEO with a million-dollar bonus? If the United Nations devised more effective strategies to distribute food to hungry nations? If everyone accepted and respected people of color and those of different sexual orientation? If prisons embraced rehabilitative treatment instead of punishment? The list could go on and on.
There is hope. The application of cosmological principles is gradually surfacing in the field of human action. For example, in 2005, a whale off the coast of California was weighted down by hundreds of trap wires that caused her to struggle to keep afloat. A fisherman called an environmental group for help. To rescue her, several divers with knives cut her free. The whale swam joyfully around in circles. She nudged each diver as a way of thanks before swimming out to sea. One can imagine that this experience affected the divers profoundly.
In my personal life, I saw these principles in action during the Vatican’s extended investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). I felt so angry at this accusatory investigation that I was ready to hit the streets in protest. Over a period of six years, the women of the LCWR handled the situation with integrity, prayer, and humility, while staying true to the organization’s mission. They used strategies to foster peace, and the impact of their contemplative dialogue is an ongoing example for me.
Nash ends her dissertation with these encouraging words: “We are being called to a radical interdependence with the beings and processes of the cosmos. If radical interdependence becomes the foundation of all our actions, we will be tapping into the creative energy of the universe to address the challenges of our combined crises, finding new partners with whom to collaborate, and living into a vibrant future for the whole Earth community.” I’ve become so aware of these principles in my daily life that I recognize them when they happen and feel challenged when they don’t. This is what nature teaches. Once we begin to absorb its lessons, we can never be the same.
Lorraine Villemaire is a Sister of St. Joseph of Springfield with a B.A. in English and an M.A. in religious education. She has over 40 years of teaching, administration, and curriculum-development experience. She is the author of three books on the labyrinth: The Labyrinth Experience: An Educator’s Resource, The Labyrinth Program: An Educator’s Resource, and Labyrinth Experiences.