Why the New Archaic?
“The New Archaic, this expression of yours that I guess I love to hate,” said my colleague, Mladin Turk, professor at Elmhurst College in Illinois, “what does this oxymoronic expression mean?” This very good question came in the context of a talk I gave last spring at the Advanced Seminar of the Zygon Center for the study of science and religion in Chicago. I was talking about Pacific Gray Whales, trying, in fact, to imagine their souls; and trying to convince these scientists and theologians that imagining the souls of whales is a very worthy occupation. My colleagues were, to my great pleasure, receptive.
As for the New Archaic, I use these two words of seemingly mutual contradiction to signify a complex reality, that now we are in not just a “postmodern” era but a post-cultural era, and so the “new” that was once human culture is old and worn, and the archaic that is elemental nature is newly necessary and newly beautiful. Further, I think the challenge for this time of great change is to make a new human culture that incorporates consciously and wholeheartedly the archaic and elemental into the sanctuaries of our lives.
If I were to try to generalize about the last three thousand years or so of human history, I would say there’s been a trajectory of humans relating ever increasingly to human culture. Before that it’s a good guess that most humans lived primarily in relation to nature and that culture was the way they dealt with nature. Earth, air, fire, water. Is this fertile soil? Will the weather hold for us to gather in our crops? Will the sun scorch our crops in the field, or fail to warm them to life in the first place? Will the rains come, enough to water the crops, not so much as to drown the crops or even us? How can we make sure nature cooperates, and how can we make sure people cooperate sufficiently? These are the core questions of culture.
But that was all a long time ago. I know many people who scoff at my earthy stuff; they’re dialed in, urban, cultured and they neither know nor want to know nature. They are relieved that food comes from the grocery store and that the doctor has pharmaceuticals and that the air conditioner can be relied upon. In my heart of hearts, though I have some overlap with them, I am not one of them. I need to see the stars at night. I need to see water flow in creeks and rivers. I need silence. I despise the sound of machines. I love the company of animals and the dawn chorus of birds. But it’s not to express these personal preferences that I coined the phrase New Archaic. Rather it is to say that we have to relate to nature again, because nature is the contingent foundation upon which culture rests, nature is the source of “resources” that we use to make culture, and, though we wish to be something other, nature is us.
This is all to say that humanism is dead, though many humanists yet live. I once loved the quote from Saint Irenaeus, "The glory of God is man fully alive," but now I nearly gag at the thought of it. This is not to say that I have no love for humanity. But it is to say that we are not the whole of the universe, and we are not the center of the universe, and we are not so clever as to be self-sufficient; we are not the highly prized in our own eyes “Other” to everything else in the universe. No, we are one expression of the universe. Human life can’t be defined or understood in the context of humanity; it really is that simple. Rather, we belong to something much bigger than humanity, and we are made of things much older than humanity, and we have effects much greater than those we have on humanity. And, though the urban humanists amongst us, and those who aspire to be human urbanites, might yawn and ask, “who cares?”, we will soon have to care.
Honestly, I think the other animals are worth caring about for their own sakes. I don’t think God loves us more than them. I don’t believe we are the most special thing that ever happened or ever could happen. I tingle to think that I was born 13.7 billion years ago, long before I had consciousness and that such parts of me as belong to the dance will go on and on. But, even if you’re not like me and you don’t crave nature and you don’t care about the elements coming into being and you like your food best in a cardboard takeout, you are still going to have to care because we all have to get beyond human culture; we have to embrace what is “beneath” and “within” humanity. Human culture is made out of things that are now threatened by human culture, like our own bodies and minds, like earth, wind, fire, water, ecosystems.
The earth doesn’t need us. We could be extinct in some imaginable, maybe now likely, future. But our extinction by way of nature would be a lot like nature's past; species come and species go, planets come and planets go. But we are here now, and the elemental is necessary to us, necessary. Culture is only the icing on the cake of human life; the natural world is the cake, we are that world and, if we think otherwise, we die, even as nature goes on. It is us, but it doesn’t need us. That’s the New Archaic.
For me nature’s bounty and nature’s beauty is the most glorious thing about being human, nature within me, nature around me, nature beneath me, nature above me. That’s the human spirit of the New Archaic, and I am so grateful that it broke through the cement of culture in me, that green things have grown through the cracks in my heart. Oh necessary cracks that have awakened in me such a bountiful beautiful sense of living in a living world. I would like to see the whole of human culture transformed by our embrace of connection to everything. The universe is 13.7 billion years old and it is our grandma and our grandpa. Who knew?
And yet we might know this truth with sufficient depth to do something entirely new and creative, something so in the spirit of this one great being whom we express.