Human beings are in a race against time. If the race is run "with a sense of deep time," there's a chance we might head off extinction for a few thousand more years, says Dominican Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis.
Right now, Western culture is locked in "shallow or historic time," MacGillis said recently at N.C. State's fifth annual Park Scholarship Symposium titled, "a sustainable future: challenging communities to change."
In shallow time, we see nation states, property rights and being right as sacrosanct. We live in an extractive economy in which Earth's natural resources are merely "goods" we can consume as we wish, MacGillis said. We see ourselves as "subjects" at the center of a universe; all other things are "objects." Everything we think, say and do is predicated on placing our needs first.
For example, if the value of any good is measured only in terms of how its existence benefits humans, then an old-growth forest is valued only for the lumber it yields, MacGillis said. The forest exists only as an economic asset to humans.
"The old-growth forests have no inherent value," she said.
MacGillis is founder of Genesis Farm, which uses a community-supported agriculture model to feed 250 families that provide economic support to the farm. It was during the Vietnam War, when she was teaching, that MacGillis was challenged by one of her students about the immorality of the war. The student's message didn't sink in at first, but when it did, MacGillis said she went through a life-changing experience. Seeking peace and working to make the world a better place became her life's work.
Later, she read the writings of Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and cosmologist. She started to explore life's greatest questions in the context of Berry's book, The Universe Story.
"My later years have been spent unlearning what I have learned," MacGillis said.
In deep time, the universe is seen as a living, expanding entity. The sun, which is responsible for breathing life into our planet, does so at enormous sacrifice, MacGillis said. Sunlight (photons) is constantly nourishing Earth in a perfect, life-giving balance. "Earth lives as sun gives itself away," she said.
As it expands, Earth is also in "an interacting unity with itself," MacGillis said. "But, we're not living as if this were true."
MacGillis said Albert Einstein achieved "the gift of deep time." Following the enormous destruction of World War II, Einstein became a pacifist and backed the founding of the United Nations, MacGillis said.
When the universe is appreciated for its splendor and wonder, and all of creation is viewed as being part of an interdependent cycle of life, then humans will see the folly of nation states and the futility of war, MacGillis said.
"We are not yet maturing of some of our most primitive instincts," she said.
In Western culture, "the fundamental right to property is never questioned," MacGillis said. Ownership knows no limits. Anything the owner chooses to do with the property is de facto "legal and fair," MacGillis said.
Although humans are "in a race toward extinction," MacGillis says the suicidal death march can be slowed if humans change directions. Humans must begin to seek satisfaction "at a level of the soul," she said.
Most of the world's major religions recognize a beginning and a messianic age to come, but they usually fail to see the presence of the divine in the moment. Rather than exploitation and domination, MacGillis says humans must begin to exist in a respectful relationship with the universe.
The universe, says MacGillis, is spiritual. The deeper scientists go in their search for answers to creation's mysteries, the more they come to recognize that science alone can't explain the mysteries.
"We are at a moment of profound possibilities," MacGillis said. "There are limits to physical growth. There are no limits to inner growth."