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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