Discuss how story has informed the narrative of activism. With references to examples, indicate how story could inform our understanding of sacred activism.
Offerings I made to the River Dart...
may you flow happily forevermore
In this essay I will firstly discuss humaniststories that the modern paradigm currently follows, including dominant environmentalist stories. Secondly I will review stories conceived by sacred activists, including The Universe Story, Ecological Ethics, and Gaia Theory. Thirdly I will consider the post-humanist views of Bayo Akomolafe and Karen Barad, who question whether too much emphasis is put on human language and whether human story can ever be at the centre of saving the world.
I will conclude that dominant modern and environmentalist stories, and even some sacred activists’ stories are perhaps limited through placing humanity at the centre of the story. Through the very act of telling stories, humanity puts its own agency at the centre. Therefore, there can be no perfect story for sacred activists, because this is not the end of the current paradigm, the dominant stories. Instead this may be the middle ground, between stories (Eisenstein 2013), and by grappling for one that satisfactorily informs our understanding of sacred activism, we meet paradoxes and contradictions.
Dominant Stories: Western and Environmentalist
Of the many definitions of ‘story’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, most appropriate for this discussion is: ‘A particular person's representation of the facts of a matter’ (OED website). Therefore a story is by definition subjective. I consider a story to be any attempt by humanity to make sense of the world, and to express it through language: oral or written. I incorporate into this definition: cosmologies, histories, sciences, religions, and ethics, using these words synonymously with ‘story’.
For over four centuries the dominant story has seen the world divided in two: the world of nature, and the world of culture. This dualism, may have started when Renes Descartes wrote ‘I think, therefore I am’, in a single stroke dividing mind from body, culture from nature, and creating many other binaries. This has shaped the knowledge, politics and ethics in the West, with ‘often debilitating consequences’ (Jones 2009: 294).
Alan Watts (1973-2015) recognises two dominant, western images of the world today. One he names the ‘Ceramic image’ (Watts: YouTube): that of God as technician, potter and architect with a plan, who made Adam out of dust. God is the governor who made humans as masters of the Earth. The second image is the ‘Fully Automatic model’ (Watts: YouTube), which western science also follows. This model is still based on the Judeo-Christian-Islamic view of the world of laws: they got rid of the law-maker (God) but kept the law. The universe became a machine, a clock-work mechanism.
One dominant environmentalist story considers that humans are the masters or stewards of Earth, above nature but working for it, essentially as God. Environmentalists may worry that as the disrespect of nature got the Earth into this mess in the first place, if humanity sees itself as intrinsically part of nature, they will not take on the responsibility of taking care of it. O. Jones (2009) disagrees that humanity is master or steward, thinking it is necessary to find ‘better ways of imagining nature and humanity’s relation to it’ (Jones 2009: 306). However, Jones may be moving within the current paradigm of dualism by implying that humanity can think its way out of the problem, and that by changing the constitution (Jones 2009: 296), the new story becomes reality.
Sacred Activist Stories: The Universe Story, Ecological Ethics, and Gaia Theory
These dominant stories are what Charles Eisenstein (2013) would call the Story of Separation. He advocates for the Story of Interbeing, or the ecological age. Humanity may be currently in the space of moving between these two stories, which Eisenstein calls sacred time. The new story says that we are inseparable from the universe, and all beings are intrinsically part of every other being. A human does not exist as a separate entity inside one’s own skin, but as part of the continuing process of the universal big-bang.
Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry (1997) created what they hope will be a new cosmology: The Universe Story. They concede the need for a new history (which is currently based solely on humans) and a new science (which currently ignores the human dimension of the universe, basing research solely on the physical). The time has gone for a ‘human story apart from the life story, or the Earth story, or the universe story’ (Swimme and Berry 1997: 2). They do not condemn science, but incorporate it into a fuller, richer knowledge of the universe. Perhaps ‘this story is the only way of providing, in our times, what the mythic stories of the universe provided for tribal peoples and for the earlier classical civilizations in their times’ (Swimme and Berry 1997: 3).
This new time is named the Ecozoic era. Swimme and Berry describe the ‘extended human role’, arguing that because humanity got the world into this mess, they must be the ones to change it, through changing ‘not only our sense of reality and value but also in the language whereby we give expression to these concerns’ (Swimme and Berry 1997: 4). ‘In the future the entire complex of life systems of the planet will be influenced by the human in a comprehensive manner’ (Swimme and Berry 1997: 4), and every phase of the Ecozoic era will involve the human.
This suggests placing human agency firmly in the centre of saving the world, which may come with many limitations. Swimme and Berry imply that for the Ecozoic period to be fully in progress, we need a human consensus in which the entire planet is considered a commons. They advocate for an ‘Earth-centred language’ (Swimme and Berry 1997: 258), extending our dictionary to incorporate new Earth-centred meaning into words such as society, good and evil, freedom and justice, and progress. However these words, and the words ‘consensus’ and ‘commons’, may be solely human concepts, not found anywhere outside the human race, and not necessarily universal to all human languages and paradigms. Therefore these human-centred ideas could be seen as similar to the current dominant paradigm they try to avoid.
Patrick Curry (2011) begins his Ecological Ethics story with the world at the centre, and humanity as part of the world. New metaphysical philosophy is centred on nature, of which it is impossible to be outside. Ethics help to decide which way is best to live or act, but are not separate from the rest of life. Human societies already have ethics, they are just not currently all ecocentric (centred on ecology), and many are anthropocentric (centred on humans).
The idea to create a new ethic is not new: Richard Routley suggested it in 1973. It could be argued that ecological ethics are ancient: many previous civilisations and modern indigenous peoples worldwide follow this way of thinking. These ethics need to be awakened to humanity as a whole. Curry does not hold the view that an ecocentric ethic is the only answer, but only that ethics without ecocentricity at the heart will not produce any lasting change. This indicates still holding human thought and agency at the centre, through choosing an ethic, even if humans do not consider themselves as central to the ethic.
Stephan Harding’s (2009) Animate Earth considers James Lovelocks’ (1960s) Gaia Theory, which tells the story of the world as a singular organism. Humanity has the freedom of choice, but has also awareness that Gaia is way beyond human control. It seems impossible to become masters or stewards of the Earth, as Swimme and Berry suggest. Contrary to their notion of a planetary ‘consensus’, Harding quotes Arne Naess (1912-2009), father of deep ecology, who says ‘each person must work out their own ecosophy based on their own deep experience, deep questioning and deep commitment’ (Naess in Harding 2009: 269).
Far from a Universe Story, this is an Earth story that acknowledges that the real change must be an inner one, and actions come from a deep feeling of belonging to the community of organisms on the planet. Harding suggests ‘Right action requires us to live into the body of the Earth, so that we feel just as comfortable with the air, water, rocks and living beings that are the life of that wider body as we do in our human-made environments’ (Harding 2009: 274). This shifts the focus from human affairs to the wider perspective, an Earth-centred view ‘in which every breath we take and every decision we make is a pledge of service and allegiance to Gaia’ (Harding 2009: 274).
To me, this follows Harvey’s definition of Sacred Activism wonderfully. Far from Swimme and Berry’s human-wide consensus, instead ‘the summoned effect of billions of right actions by people across the planet… may eventually lead us into a genuinely fruitful relationship with Gaia, our animate Earth’ (Harding 2009: 274). Through deep feeling, intuition, and sensing, the story does not need to be written or spoken, because humanity is free ‘to forge a connection so deep that we no longer need to think of it’ (Harding 2009: 274). However, this still perhaps rings of humanity saving the world through human experience and ‘right action’.
Post-humanist Alternatives to Human Agency, Language and Story.
Moving through Swimme and Berry, to Curry, to Harding, we are potentially moving closer to a true post-humanist perspective, but to some extent they still put humanity at the centre by relying on human agency. Akomolafe (2015) considers that when one acts, it is not the human alone that acts, but the different choices of many agential beings: ‘The wave does not crash ashore, the ocean does’ (Akomolafe 2015). Akomolafe (2017) even questions whether the Earth needs to be saved by humans, or whether in fact it is the Earth that wants to save humanity. Humans are not necessarily the protagonists and heroes in the Earth’s story.
Barad says ‘We gave language too much power’ (Akomolafe 2017: 62). David Abram might agree with this, as he says that only ‘with the advent of phonetic writing did the rest of nature begin to lose its voice’ (Abram 1996: 138). He describes language as a code, a representation of the perceived world, and therefore separate from it. If language is what humanity must use to create story, then the story will always have limitations and be at some level separate from the ‘real’ world. Many activists believe that changing the story will change the world (Eisenstein 2013), but Akomolafe doubts whether all that matters is human language and stories. To Barad, ‘conceptions of materiality, social practice, nature, and discourse must change’ (Barad 2007: 25). Barad’s book Meeting the Universe Half Way aims to contribute to ‘the founding of a new ontology, epistemology, and ethics’ (Barad 2007: 25).
Barad proposes ‘agential realism’ as the framework for understanding the role of the human in rethinking binary concepts, including ‘notions of matter, discourse, causality, agency, power, identity, embodiment, objectivity, space, and time’ (Barad 2007: 26). Physicist Niels Bohr (1936) understood that we are part of the nature we seek to understand, but Barad sees him as humanist: he still places humanity at the centre of the story. Barad’s ‘post-humanist’ theories recognise ‘that nonhumans play an important role in naturalcultural practices’ (Barad 2007: 32), and acknowledge the inherent dichotomy of the notions of ‘human’ and ‘non-human’. Intra-action is the key element here: ‘distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through, their intra-action’ (Barad 2007: 33).
This relates to story because Barad implies that humans do not create truth: at least not on their own. However, humans may ‘participate in bringing forth the world in its specificity, including ourselves’ (Barad 2007: 353), by Meeting the Universe Halfway: ‘All real living is meeting. And each meeting matters’ (Barad 2007: 353). Therefore only through intra-action can humanity use its ability to breathe life into new possibilities of living justly. In a sense Barad aims to create a new story, through the use of science, but not one based on human language or agency. Many indigenous peoples understand that stories are ‘given’ to them by the world: they do not necessarily come from the human mind. Akomolafe suggests: ‘life transcends story’ (Akomolafe 2017: 279), and humanity’s way of telling story ‘divest[s] the material world of its ‘’telling-ness’’’ (Akomolafe 2017: 279).
Barad’s example of brittlestars is an incredible leap forward for this notion. The brittlestar five-limbed starfish is capable of a myriad of seemingly inexplicable feats, including casting off limbs to distract predators, and changing its sexual performances and genders according to the situation, all without a brain or eyes. Barad proposes that ‘Bodies are not situated in the world; they are part of the world’ (Barad 2007: 376), and that nothing can be objective because nothing simply occupies a particular position in space and time. To quote Barad at length:
‘Brittlestars literally enact my agential realist ontoepistemological point about the entangled practices of knowing and being. They challenge our Cartesian habits of mind, breaking down the usual visual metaphors for knowing along with its optics of mediated sight. Knowledge making is not a mediated activity, despite the common refrain to the contrary. Knowing is a direct material engagement, a practice of intra-acting with the world as part of the world in its dynamic material configuring, its ongoing articulation. The entangled practices of knowing and being are material practices. The world is not merely an idea that exists in the human mind’ (Barad 2007: 379).
If ‘"I think, therefore I am" is not the brittlestar's credo’ (Barad 2007: 379), then perhaps it is not for humans either. Barad says ‘As inheritors of the Cartesian legacy, we would rather put our faith in representations instead of matter, believing that we have a kind of direct access to the content of our representations that we lack toward that which is represented’ (Barad 2007: 379). Therefore every representation, or story, is heavily laden with metaphor; assumes that the story-tellers see all from their individual vantage points; and that story-tellers have no physical relationship to that which they ‘story’.
If an ethical story is necessary, then incorporating an embodied view of the world may be advisable, as described by Ewa Plonowska Ziarek: the ‘ethical significance of the body is crystallized in the figure of touch and sensibility, in the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other' (Ziarek in Barad 2007: 391). Being in one’s skin means that no one can escape the responsibility of an ethic, simply because of the entanglement of all: ‘Before all reciprocity in the face of the other, I am responsible’ (Barad 2007: 392). Barad advocates for a post-humanist ethics: ‘an ethics of worlding’ (Barad 2007: 392).
This ‘ethics of worlding’ in which bodies are physically entangled may be very similar to Naess’ ecosophy of deep ecology, except that the former is even more embodied than the latter. The sacred activist theories of The Universe Story, Ecological Ethics, and Gaia Theory, suggest that the human still has prime agency to some extent, be it through moving within current paradigms (as with Swimme and Berry’s need for common consensus), through thought (as with Ecological Ethics), or through action (as in the human experience of deep ecology). Barad goes one step further: the human almost disappears as a singular entity from the story altogether.
Barad indicates that every human story will be told from an individualistic or human-communal vantage-point. Through the very act of telling a story, it becomes human-centred: ‘The world is not merely an idea that exists in the human mind’ (Barad 2007: 379). Building on environmentalist theories, Barad’s post-humanist view of realist agency, which advocates for an embodied experience of the world considering its various agencies, rather than a human-centred storied experience, is perhaps the closest anyone has come to fully understanding the concept of sacred activism.
However, as Barad still moves within human concepts of story through discussion of ethics and science, this is probably not the end. As Akomolafe says: there is only the middle. Therefore, grappling with the notion of story in this essay is perhaps in itself a symptom of Cartesian dualism: story (culture), or no story (nature)? To end this essay with any definite conclusion would be to do injustice to the numerous sacred activists who have contributed to its formation. Each of them, including myself, is full of contradictions and paradoxes, and therefore any would-be story-teller can only be seen as Akomolafe would say: a ‘Sacred Hypocrite’ (Akomolafe: lecture 2018).
 Definitions of humanist and post-humanist will follow.
 Andrew Harvey defines Sacred Activism as a ‘transforming force of compassion-in-action that is born of a fusion of deep spiritual knowledge, courage, love, and passion, with wise radical action in the world’ (Harvey 2013: website). The sacred activists I discuss in this essay are those who attempt to move away from a dominant story with humanity at the centre. These views could be seen as sacred because they involve humility, and a reverence for that which is beyond the human. They indicate spiritual knowledge, courage and love, and passionately advocate for ‘wise radical action’.
 Patrick Curry suggests that philosophers such as Descartes ’who helped create the modern world and were, in turn, created by it’ (Curry 2011: 36) had no intention to cause this divide. Original ideas about ’the importance of human initiative within divine and natural limits’ (Curry 2011: 36) got misunderstood, misused, and mutated into ’an arrogant techno-humanism’ (Curry 2011: 36), which recognises none of these limits. However, Descartes said: ’there exists nothing in the whole of nature that cannot be explained in terms of purely corporeal causes totally devoid of mind and thought’ (Descartes in Curry 2011: 37), placing human thought above God’s creation, and ‘humanism’ is born. This ‘epistemological shift encouraged actual observation of the world’ (Grim and Tucker 2014: 50), and led to revolutionary understandings of Earth and the cosmos. Undermining religious authority led to a freedom of thought, indicating that this shift is not entirely negative.
 The word ecosophy is created by Naess from eco: household and sophy: wisdom (Harding 2009).
 Akomolafe defines ontology as ‘what exists’, and epistemology is ‘how we know what exists’. Barad uses the word ontoepistemology to insist that there should be no separation between the two. Barad uses the word natureculture the same way, as the Cartesian dualism of nature and culture can no longer be considered plausible (Barad 2007).