Grace

Grace is a term I am borrowing from the systemic thinker Gregory Bateson. Bateson pointed out that human beings and human society are embedded in the general systemic structure of the natural world, which, he argued, is self-organizing and self-transcending, qualities he saw as essentially those of Mind. However, the Western perspective arrogates the notion of mind to the human and separates it from the natural world, which is sees as mechanical and mindless, leading what Bateson called as “pathologies of epistemology” – there is something fundamentally wrong with our ways of thinking and knowing. He wrote as early as 1969, well before the current environmental movement developed:

Epistemological error is all right, it’s fine, up to the point at which you create around yourself a universe in which the error becomes immanent in the monstrous changes in the universe that you have created and now try to live in. (Bateson, 1972:485)

In his essay Conscious Purpose versus Nature, Bateson argued that the conscious, purposive human mind is necessarily damaging to the ecological whole. An unspoiled natural ecology is made up of many creatures each of which has the capacity for exponential growth in population. The ecosystem’s balance is maintained so that the diverse members live in intricate collaboration and competition and the complex whole of the ecology is dynamically stable. Briefly, this balance is maintained through complex circuits of information which maintain its integrity, and can be understood as a form of Mind, mind not residing in any one entity, but immanent in and holding the wisdom of the whole.

The living beings of the world, from viruses to mammals, and the great ecosystems of land, sea and atmosphere, all make up a single interconnected mental system. Thus, radical interconnectedness is inescapable. But, Bateson argues that the human mind driven by conscious purpose separates itself from this wider Mind. Consciousness is necessarily limited, and attends to its immediate purposes, not the interlocking circuits of the wider system.  In contrast, wisdom can be seen as knowledge of the larger interactive system – that system which, if disturbed, is likely to generate exponential curves of change.

Consciousness as a “short-cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want”, when coupled with powerful technology, cuts through the balancing circuits of Mind and undermines the ecosystem’s stability. Bateson also suggests that over-reliance on conscious purpose will lead to an attitude of hate toward the whole: not only will we see ourselves in competition with others, but, since our vision will be necessarily limited, we will be continually surprised and angered when our hard-headed choices return to plague us.

As his thinking progressed, Bateson became increasingly suspicious of linear and analytic ways of thinking that feed conscious purpose. He saw them as inhibiting the unconscious and recursive processes upon which all creative art and science depend. He uses the term “grace” to point to the quality he was seeking, characteristically taking a word that has numinous but ambiguous meaning and employing it for his own purposes. He claims that aesthetic process is both “part of man’s quest for grace” and a way of recognising and re-accessing the sacred. He pointed to the truth held metaphorically in art and sacrament, which cannot be consciously told: “… great art and religion and all the rest of it is about this secret, but knowing the secret in a conscious way would not give the knower control.” The experience of grace is beyond conscious intention and control.

Bateson wanted to find a way to the recovery of grace, a way of accessing the lost sense of interconnectedness and intimate interdependency where personal identity merges into some vast ecology of cosmic interaction. He argued that artistic process, as both creative activity and active appreciation, is a tool for recovering the grace of embeddedness in the natural world. Art, because it is not subject to purposive, language-bound rationality, is capable of re-linking us with our context. He was fond of adapting the famous words of Pascal: for grace to be achieved, “the reasons of the heart must be integrated with the reasons of the reason.” Or as Bateson himself put it: “I do not know the remedy but there is this: that consciousness can be a little enlarged through the arts, poetry, music and the like. And through natural history. All those sides of life which our industrial civilization tries to mock or put aside. Never vote for a man who is neither a poet nor an artist nor a birdwatcher.”

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. San Francisco: Chandler, especially “Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art” and “Conscious Purpose versus Nature”

Charlton, N. (2008). Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, beauty and the sacred Earth. Albany NY: SUNY Press.

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Comments

  1. Hello Peter: I read your blog “Grace” on the work of Gregory Bateson. I think your summary of one of his most important ideas ( if not the most important today) was directly on point. I was his student at Stanford in 1960 and again in 1968 in my psychiatric residency. Based on my filmed research of childhood patterns of the ,Portuguese on Maui and the Azores, I was able to show deutero-learned
    transmission of cultural premises of male and female identity behavior. As a result I was invited to present this work at the Wenner=Gren Foundation conference in Austria in 1968. The conference was entitled
    the “Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation” based on an essay written by Bateson of the same name. The proceeds of the conference were published by his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson
    in a book “Our Own Metaphor”. You can purchase it from the foundation.
    Bateson’s writings could sometimes be obscure ( or at least to me), but to have the privilege of having a conversation with him, or taking a class, or hearing a lecture was and still is the intellectual highlight
    of my life. I am writing a book entitled “Medical Myopia: the Hidden Epidemic of Untreated Lyme Disease”. In which the first chapter will be an application of the idea of serious epistemological errors
    in systems thinking to the field of ecology with the resultant rise of world wide tick bourne disease. The publisher is Hammersmith ofLondon. I sent them a proposal and they accepted it. I’d never published before.Perhaps you might contact them. Your book sounds fascinating and you write very well. Good luck!
    Bernard Raxlen MD
    bernardraxlenmd@aol.com
    Lyme Resource Medical
    566 Fashion Ave, NYC 10018

    • Thank you, Bernard. How interesting to hear from someone who sat at the feet of the great man, so to speak. I have a 1972 copy of Steps that I read and re-read until I understood it a bit, then I started teaching from it and found myself in deeper and deeper. I read Our Own Metaphor and recently met Nora Bateson and joined in discussions of her film. I appreciate your being in touch
      Peter

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