Autism: A Cultural Condition

by Ray Grigg

In one of Thomas Berry’s seminal books, Dream of the Earth, the Catholic theologian — he called himself a “geologian” — posited that the key to explaining our dysfunctional relationship with nature may be a condition he called cultural autism, “a pathology [that] is manifest in the arrogance with which we reject our role as an integral member of the earth community in favour of a radical anthropocentric life attitude.”

Berry uses a child’s elegantly simple definition of autism to sharply focus his point: “It is when a person becomes so locked up in themselves that nothing else can get in.” By applying this definition to our collective behaviour, Berry means that all nature is teeming with intelligence and wisdom but we have been too closed and unreceptive to notice. Our cultural pathology — hopefully not a human pathology — keeps us from recognizing nature’s teachings and prevents us from integrating harmoniously into the biotic community that constitutes Earth’s living fabric of life. This blockage in communication, the result of our compulsive and obsessive anthropocentricity, has caused the unfolding environmental crisis in which we now find ourselves.

Like an autistic person, we have isolated ourselves from the extended family of animals and plants of which we are an inseparable member, and therefore from the entire social biosphere which provides virtually all our nourishment, belonging and meaning.

A momentary exercise of the imagination can confirm the validity of this notion. Try to imagine yourself raised totally separate from Earth, with no connection or memory of it. Everything constituting intelligible experience would be radically different. All meaning would be misshapen without the commonplace rhythms of day and night, without the referential proportions of mountains and trees, without such ordinary objects as flowers, stones and ferns. Think of the most mundane of experiences and they are inseparable from events that could occur nowhere else but here on Earth. A fish’s splash. A dog’s bark. A hyacinth’s scent. An eagle’s feather. A strawberry’s sweetness. The morning chorus of birdsong, the drip of dew off wet leaves, the smell of fresh rain on dry grass are exclusively experiences of Earth.

All the things we know and think and feel are synonymous with Earth. Any notion of being separate from it is a delusion, a pathology, a cultural autism that impairs our ability to acknowledge, communicate and interact with life’s community in a respectful and reverential way.

To repeat the autism metaphor, we are so “locked up in ourselves than nothing else can get in.” It’s what Thomas Berry meant when he called himself a “geologian” — the appropriate theological study is not some otherworldly abstraction, but Earth itself. As Berry would argue, Earth is “the primary source of revelation.” The divine is manifest in creation. By this measure, a truly spiritual existence is one in which the miracle of Earth itself is held in awe and reverence.

This feeling of awe and reverence is the place where awareness, spirituality and environmentalism overlap. Protecting nature is a form of worship, a gesture of intimacy, a communicative response, a sign that the autistic barrier is dissolving and that we are opening to the living world that enfolds us in its wholeness.