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Inscendence and Re-Awakening to the Ecological Self with Thomas Berry (Abridged)

Kaytlyn Creutzberg

How difficult it was to bring myself to task and write just a glimpse of my connection to the work of Thomas Berry! It kept expanding and expanding! This “bit of verse” he wrote says it best for me.

  • An Appalachian Wedding
  • Look up at the sky –
  • The heavens so blue, the sun so radiant,
  • The clouds so playful, the soaring raptors,
  • The meadows in bloom, the woodland creatures,
  • The rivers singing their way to the sea,
  • Wolf song on the land, whale song in the sea,
  • Celebration everywhere, wild, riotous,
  • Immense as a monsoon lifting an ocean of joy
  • And spilling it down over the Appalachian Landscape,
  • Drenching us all with a deluge of delight
  • As we open our arms and rush toward each other,
  • You and I and all of us,
  • Moved by that vast compassionate Presence
  • That brings all things together in intimate Celebration,
  • Celebration that is the universe itself.2

When was the last time most of us saw, heard, smelled, felt sensations on our skin, imagined, were in awe of beauty, or could sense the power of nature? In his “Bill of Rights for the Planet Earth,” Thomas states: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”3 From the greatest expanse to the most minute, all are capable of having rights. This is the New Story that tells how humanity is part of nature based on what science has unveiled. This, the new cosmological story, is especially important because there are many who are no longer rooted in a religion. What Thomas Berry offers is solace. His message can be heard by all, including those who do not heed Christian texts, and personally I have found great comfort in his words.

Thomas Berry gave me a huge gift—validation of my inner journey—and the word “inscendence.” I had such a problem with the word transcendence for so many years. And when I encountered inscendence, I grabbed hold of it and have never let go! As creatures of this Earth, we cannot transcend life and the day-to-day. “The Earth is our origin, our nourishment, our educator, our healer, our fulfillment. At its core, even our spirituality is Earth derived.”4. . .

In the words of Thomas Berry, “We are quintessentially integral with the universe. In ourselves the universe is revealed to itself as we are revealed in the universe.”5 And when we learn to inscend, we can have a felt experience of “our small part in the larger cosmic orchestra,” and do what we were meant to do.6

In seeking to find what the web was saying about inscendence, I found only a few writings, mostly by Bill Plotkin. Then on June 1, 2017, author Robert Macfarlane posted on Twitter:

  • Word of the day: “inscendence”—the impulse not to rise above the world (transcendence) but to climb into it, seek its core. (Thomas Berry)

The Practice of Inscendence

What does Berry really mean by ‘inscendence’? In The Dream of the Earth he implores us with his suggestion:

  • We must invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive, resources. Our cultural resources have lost their integrity. They cannot be trusted. What is needed is not transcendence but “inscendence,” not the brain but the gene.7

What is needed is that we descend into our most primal selves, which I understand as getting out of our heads and back into our bodies and coming to know and accept how our lower brain tends to respond instead of our observer brain. With this awareness, we can become creatures of creativity rather than creatures of reactivity. . . .

Sensibility and the Contemplative Gaze

Science has given us a new ability for gazing at the world. Put together with the gaze of intuitive knowing or trusting your inner resources, a new way of seeing is emerging. As Thomas Berry would say, “The outer world activates the inner world and causes, [or] brings forth that contemplative gaze and then the awesome capacity to imagine and to respond with feeling and [from] the depth of what our human souls carry.”8 Using the tools of science, we can now see Earth from space, and we can also comprehend relationship at the quantum level. Add to this our capacity for contemplation, and we now understand that human beings are the universe looking back on itself.

Our ancestors could not know this in the same way, but they still believed and knew how to access Earth’s intelligence. “We are the eyes, the minds, and the hearts that the cosmos is evolving so that it can come to know itself ever more perfectly through us.”9 Or in the words of Sister MacGillis, “We need to realize that we are the universe in the form of the human.”10 . . .

Berry’s concept of inscendence has led me to the task of building what I am calling a new sensibility, a term I borrow from Susan Sontag, who critiqued her culture in the 1960s. The new sensibility becomes felt experience when taking in real art, poetry, and music that challenge and stretch the senses, and which hurt, she argued; while “literary intellectuals” frowned upon it all, clinging to the comfort of their literature as the “central cultural act.”11 Since artists are usually ahead of their time in their very nature, they have the capacity to witness and express the new, “educating conscience and sensibility,”12 which is always uncomfortable to those who cling to old ways.

New possibility is opening before me as I, like others doing their great work (intentionally lower case) of the Self, unveil “the guiding vision for a lifetime, the mythopoetic template for personally belonging to the world,”13 in the way that evolution is nudging me to step forward into the world. My soul implores me to express my authentic self, because the universe brought us into being for a specific function. I am coming to understand this in the unique capacities given to me for “thought and speech, aesthetic appreciation, emotional sensitivity and moral judgment.”14 Through inscendence, I encounter my soul’s image, discern my path, embody my “coding” and take full responsibility as my “true adult” self.15 I am part of evolution and choose to contribute to the sustainability of our culture, our species and our planet. I fully express my authentic self and join with other “evolutionary midwives” to do the Great Work. . . .

Thomas Berry’s Dream
. . . .

Thomas Berry’s dream is paving the way to an ecological Earth-restoring global community, and there is plenty of evidence that we are transitioning now into what he named the Ecozoic era. As we enter a new decade, we can already feel the acceleration as more of us do our homework to heal by practicing inscendence, transforming our grief, and setting intentions to act.

1 Editor’s note: A prior version of this article was published in January 2020 on the website https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338986886_Inscendence_and_Re-awakening_to_the_Ecological_Self_with_Thomas_Berry.

2 Thomas Berry, “An Appalachian Wedding,” in Selected Writings on the Earth Community, selected by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, Modern Spiritual Masters Series (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014), 197, Appendix B.

3 Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 2006), 149, Appendix B.

4 Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 69.

5 Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), 32.

6 Ibid., 20.

7 Berry, Dream of the Earth, 207-08. See generally, Bill Plotkin. “Inscendence– the Key to the Great Work of our Time: A Soul- centric View of Thomas Berry’s Work,” in Ervin Laszlo and Allan Combs, eds., Thomas Berry Dreamer of the Earth: The Spiritual Ecology of the Father of Environmentalism, (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2011), 42-71.

8 MacGillis, St. Alfege Church.

9 Thomas Berry quoted in Richard Schiffman, “Bigger than Science, Bigger than Religion, Yes! (Spring 2015), https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/together-earth/2015/02/18/bigger-than-science-bigger-than-religion/.

10 Ibid.

11 Susan Sontag, “One Culture and the New Sensibility” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador, 1966), 298.

12 Ibid., 295.

13 Plotkin, “Inscendence,” 70.

14 Berry, The Great Work, 57.

15 Plotkin, “Inscendence,” 71.