The More Ultimate Context I Promised: Part II– Will Wholeness or Brokenness Prevail on Earth?


The battle between good and evil should be understood as a vital, albeit recent, component of the story of life on earth. That was an essential point in the previous piece in this series.

There are several dichotomies that are interconnected with each other. The dichotomy of life vs. death corresponds to the dichotomy of wholeness vs. brokenness, which in turn corresponds with the dichotomy of good vs. evil.

Life connects with wholeness because wholeness is what life strives to create, because wholeness is what works. From the level of the cell all the way up to the level of the planet’s biosphere, it creates intricately whole structures because these are what work to perpetuate and nurture life.

The limits to the wholeness of life – the sources of brokenness in life’s system on earth — have been of three kinds. (For a explanation of the ideas of wholeness and brokenness, see “What I Mean by ‘Brokenness'”)

1) There is the disruption that can arises from all those aspects of the cosmos over which life has no control– like the crashing of an asteroid into the earth, or the joining of previously disconnected continents as tectonic plates move.

2) Another second source of “brokenness” derives from the apparent fact that biological evolution has apparently proceeded entirely opportunistically — without plan or foresight or inherent purpose. Just whatever survives. As a result, the system of life is not all about wholeness: it contains the various kinds of conflicts and miseries we can see– predation, parasitism, disease.

Even so, the patterns created have ultimately been subsumed in an overarching wholeness: the preying of the wolf upon the lamb conflicts with the interest of that lamb, but as the two species evolve together, the preying of the wolf upon the lamb becomes part of the survival not only of the wolves, but of the sheep as well.

3) But it is only the third source of disharmony in the system that is of interest here, because this is the one that constitutes the central challenge of the human project.

This is the brokenness that stems from the emergence of a creature out of its biologically evolved niche into what appears to be the freedom to invent its own way of life, i.e. into civilization. It is regarding the consequences of this kind of disorder that I’m speaking in terms of the force of brokenness.

The inevitable impetus of brokenness that is introduced into the world of the creature who steps across that threshold into civilization represents a kind of tragedy: the very things that make that creature special — its intelligence and creativity — condemn it to struggle with the patterns of brokenness that ramify and reverberate through that creature’s world for millennia.

What I am calling “evil” is the force that works to transmit that brokenness through time, and from one form to another (e.g. war to exploitative social structure to intrapsychic conflict, and back again), subverting the wholeness of everything it touches.

This value-laden term is appropriate because this brokenness-spreading force subverts all those structures that the both biological evolution and the evolution of civilization have created to serve life. It undermines those structures –of health, ecological integrity, justice, truthfulness, beauty, harmony, and all the rest– that enhance the lives and increase the fulfillment of sentient creatures. In place of life and its fulfillment, this forces substitutes death, frustration, and misery.

What could be a more “ultimate context” than the story of how life — unfolding in its unplanned way — has created, through our species, a drama in which the stakes are whether the good will triumph over evil– meaning whether life or death will prevail, whether life’s sentient creatures will be fulfilled or made miserable?

What could be a more “ultimate context” than to see how our lives are part of a great drama in which the stakes are whether all that we love and hold sacred — all that we are molded by evolution to love and hold sacred — will survive and
thrive or be broken apart and left in ruins?

After three and a half billion years, the system of life on earth is in a significant crisis– the word crisis meaning, literally, a cross-roads, in which it remains uncertain which will be the path taken. Will wholeness or brokenness prevail in earth’s living system?

We’ve seen the power of brokenness over the millennia, ever since the rise of civilization: e.g. in the way that civilization emerged in forms of tyrannies in which the few enslaved the many, in the chronic patterns of war, and in the deep suffering of much of humankind throughout our history.

This battle between two sets of forces is an ancient drama, but the it is not a static one. The stakes have increased almost exponentially along with the ever-escalating collective power of the human species.

In living memory, the exponential increase in human power has reached the point where the force of brokenness threatens the very integrity of earth’s living system.

For more than a generation, in the cold war, for example, humankind (and the biosphere) faced the very real threat of devastation by nuclear holocaust. Despite some fairly close calls, humankind managed to draw upon its forces of wholeness with enough success to avert the global catastrophe the cold war had threatened.

Now a new planetary threat has emerged in the form of the human-caused disruption of the earth’s climate system, with all sorts of potential forms of brokenness (extinctions, starvation, wars, etc.) clearly menacing humankind and other forms of life. And we can hardly be reassured by the signs thus far of the human ability and willingness to respond appropriately in defense of the Wholeness of the biosphere.

The battle in America today is part of that larger picture. It is part of that deep issue at the heart of the human saga. It is part of the question hanging over life on earth, having ventured into an era featuring the presence of a civilized creature. The battle in our nation, against the evil force that has coalesced and gained great power, has ramifications for both those current global issues.

Will the world evolve toward an order to contain the struggle for power, or remain one of might makes right? In an age of weapons of mass destruction, this question has even greater urgency than during the preceding millennia. We can envision such a world of peace and justice. Indeed, such are our weapons that, if civilization is to survive for centuries more, it may be that a substantial victory of the forces of wholeness over over the forces of brokenness in this realm will be not only desirable but necessary.

But of course, the spirit that has taken over the American right did more — with its war in Iraq — than any American power in a century to tear apart the nascent fabric of international order that previous American administrations had played in leading role in weaving together.

Will humankind will absorb into its spiritual consciousness the imperative of living in harmony with, and reverence for, the living systems on which we and all life on earth depend? We can envision a kind of “spiritual awakening” that would transform how we relate to this planet. Indeed, for civilization to be other than a nightmare 500 or 1000 years hence, it may well be essential for such a love of the earth to develop and to dictate human conduct in the biosphere.

But of course the spirit that has taken over the Republican Party has enforced on the Party’s leader the dogma that the danger must be denied, and responsible action to protect the integrity of the earth’s climate system must be blocked.

Given the role of our nation in the international system, whether the forces of wholeness or brokenness prevail in our power area has inescapable implications for the larger picture for humankind and the planet.

Life vs. Death. Wholeness vs. brokenness. Good vs. Evil. An ultimate context.

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  1. Re the remark “Despite some fairly close calls, humankind managed to draw upon its forces of wholeness with enough success to avert the global catastrophe the cold war had threatened.” —

    To me a very compelling single anecdote illustrating the point is the the story of duty office Stanislav Petrov on 26 September 1983, and his nerve-wracking decision to override protocol on a 50-50 hunch that very strong signals data were wrong and not inform his superiors in the Soviet military of what appeared to be a close to certain U.S. nuclear weapons launch against the Soviet Union.

    Where the “draw on forces of wholeness” element comes into play is that the BBC article I refer to below says:

    “[Petrov] says he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. ‘My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders,’ he told us.

    So, he believes, if somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.”

  2. Richard H. RAndall

    You say many fine and profound things here Andy. However, I don’t agree with all of the ‘”fortuitivness.” and “accidental synchronicity” of your piece.
    The Universe is just not informed by an occasional success: there is intelligence at work here. Not omnipotence, and perhaps from the overall human perspective not even total beneficience on our behalf-after all I doubt seriously, we are the only entity i.e. humankind, that this Spirit cares for. As the great J. Bronowski, we are being weighted in the balance!
    One example: the U.S. Army had a remarkable soldier for 38 years, named Fox Connor. A young man from a lower middle class family in Mississippi.
    Connor, struggled and fought to get through West Point, and to educate himself (esp. in French) while at that university. In all of his assignments, he seemed to work hard to excell, and also and on the side, to further educate himself far beyond what was to be found in his contemporaries.
    His outstanding resourcefulness got him picked often for extra assignments and tough jobs. He became the G-3-Chief of Staff for General Pershing in WWI, where he discovered, and had promoted a young aggressive George C. Marshall, whom he mentored for 20 years. He did the same for George C. Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower. Connor’s insight had Eisenhower and Patton working to develop the tank, when most of the army wanted nothing to do with it. (The same old-guard, no doubt that court-martialed Billy Mitchell for his emphasis on airplanes.)
    This was intuition and intelligence at work: not to care to develop these men as subordinates, would have made enormous difference in the second world war. Connor, who was present at the signing of the Versailles Treaty, predicted that a total war would ensue within twenty years. Perhaps this is what spurred him to spend thousands of extra hours with these young proteges: nonetheless, it was intelligence and caring that helped him to do so. As to the origin of this….well that is a good question.

    I will close in this vein by quoting the American Philosopher/Logician/Scientist, Charles Sanders ‘Santiago’ Peirce.“….as to God, open your eyes-and your heart, which is also a perceptive organ-and you see him. But you may ask, Don’t you admit there are delusions? Yes: I may think a thing is black and on close examination it may turn out to be bottle green. But I cannot think a thing is black if there is no such thing to be seen as black. Neither can I think that that a certain action is self-sacrificing, if no such thing as self-sacrifice exists, although it may be very rare. It is the nominalists, (i.e. relativists like today’s extreme right wing, and the religious right wing)and the nominalists alone, who indulge in such scepticism, which the scientific method utterly condemns.” The concept of God The Philosphical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler 377-8

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