Religion & Spirituality

A Summer of Batesons

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It started with an email from University of Toronto’s McLuhan Centre. A conference had issued an open invitation to attend a movie entitled An Ecology of Mind by Nora Bateson. The filmmaker would be present.


An Ecology of Mind is a beautiful tribute by Nora to her father, Gregory Bateson, a noted anthropologist, philosopher, author, naturalist, systems theorist and film maker himself. Though I knew his name as a husband of Margaret Mead, I knew very little else about him. Gregory was born in 1904 and his youngest daughter was born in 1968, 12 years before his death in 1980. Nora Bateson has spent much of her own life getting to know the work and influence of her father through his own films, writings and lectures, and the people he has influenced. The resulting film, as well as being loving, is both informative and inspiring.

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Many of those he has influenced and depicted in the film were familiar to me – among them, Fritjof Capra, Stewart Brand, Jerry Brown – as well as his other daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. Intensely curious, he delved into many fields and became one of the leading proponents of systems thinking. In an age of experts, he remained a generalist and if anything was overly modest in expressing his originality. He understood and championed the move from seeing the world as a machine to that of a relational network. Many common expressions - the double bind, connecting the dots, the map is not the territory the difference that makes a difference – are ones we owe to Bateson.

The substance of the film is significant in terms of Bateson’s teaching – he wrote a book with that title - and I will deal with it at more length later. He was an early advocate that all living systems have minds whether conscious or not – using “mind” as the signifier of layers of relationships that surround us like concentric circles and make us less like individuals and more like participants in levels of culture and meaning. Cosmology and deep history came naturally to him.


As a memoir, the film is charming – rich with insights from Bateson himself in numerous film clips, both with his young daughter and as a lecturer using examples from Through the Looking Glass in a delightful way. The last scene shows Bateson instructing small Nora on the importance of climbing an extra mile to reach the heights and telling her he told her that first. She replied quite forcefully for a small girl, “But I thought it first”. “All right”, her father said, contentedly. The film is also an excellent summation of his work. Sections of it can be accessed online and it is still available for purchase.


Watching the film made me realize that I knew her older sister, Mary Catherine Bateson as a writer of a favorite book on my shelf for years, and it was a good time to re-read it. It is called Peripheral Visons, Learning along the Way. As the daughter of Bateson and Margaret Mead, it is no surprise that Mary Catherine Bateson also became an anthropologist and this book is based on her experiences of several different countries and their cultures.

She is an excellent storyteller. In an early chapter we meet her in Iran heading with her two and a half year old daughter to witness a ceremonial sacrifice of a sheep, a ritual with roots in several religious traditions. She calmly explains what is going on to her young daughter as the gardener lays out the sheep’s internal organs, with an awareness that children take their emotional lead from a parent, no matter how bizarre a different cultural ritual might seem – and notes that the local children take it in as a totally normal event. Later in the book she explores the different ways that babies behave depending on their cultures by contrasting visits to a classroom by mothers and babies from America and Iran. Still later we hear of experiences on a writing fellowship at the MacDowell Colony in New England as well as her time in the Philippines. As a writer, Mary Catherine Bateson is thoughtful and filled with humanity; any reader is bound to learn from her. I’ve enjoyed her other books too.

Back to Gregory. I am much indebted to Noel Charlton’s book, Understanding Gregory Bateson, Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earth, a splendid biography and study of the Bateson’s life, teaching and works. Charlton notes at the beginning of the book that he will cover Bateson’s what – to recover the grace of realizing our interrelated membership of the community of living organisms on the planet, as well as his how – the personal relationship with the more than rational processes of both the natural world and human art – poetry, painting, dance, music, humor, metaphor, the best of religion and natural history”. At the end of his life Bateson was prepared to call both nature and the arts inspired by them ‘the sacred”. He saw the devastation of the planet and its effect long before his death and noted that the human capacity to be responsive also meant that we must be responsible.

Bateson claimed to belong to four generations of atheists, but he grew up in a home where the Bible was read daily at breakfast. His grandfather and father were both scientists and like his father, he was a life-long admirer of the poets, William Blake and Samuel Butler. The loss of his older brothers, one in World War I and the other by suicide, placed much expectation on the surviving son. He started in zoology but quickly switched to anthropology and traveled to Samoa where he met and later married anthropologist Margaret Mead. Their marriage produced another one, Mary Catherine Bateson, who collaborated with her father at the end of his life.

Early in his career Bateson realized the limitations of specialization – knowing more and more about less and less. He was a key figure in the founding and development of the Macy Conferences that facilitated informal interdisciplinary exchange. Leading scientists from many fields and their collaboration ultimately resulted in the new field of cybernetics, systems that included biological, social, political, financial, mental, communication and engineering ones. For Bateson, this led to a later shift of interest to psychology and clinical psychiatry. His “double bind” theory of schizophrenia was largely rejected at the time, but led later to family systems theory, and contributed to other fields of study such as addiction, play theory, international relations and environmental studies.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind was written in 1972 followed by Mind and Nature in 1979. Both remind us of the need to rethink accustomed patterns of belief that are part of our heritage. He particularly questioned the notion of individualism and the sense of autonomy in western culture. We think our individual perspectives are unique and that we are separate from the things that we observe. We also think that we are rational beings and that progress is linear; both views are reinforced by our capitalistic system and by technology. In contrast, Bateson sees individuals as part of systems whose boundaries are not limited by their body or skin. What counts instead are the relationships between and among things. Our use of language causes us to abstract ourselves from the systems of which we are part and we tend to define ourselves by bits of information – a social insurance number, a job title, a student grade, a salary. We ignore the reality that we are part of a larger system upon which we are also totally dependent – the air we breathe, including the chemicals in the atmosphere, the genetically-modified food we eat, the water or other liquids we imbibe.

Many of our patterns of thinking have roots in stories and myths of the past and these are carried forward in our use of language. We name the things omitting the spaces between them, which also makes us think that we can measure and separate anything. While this way of thinking has been beneficial to the development of science and technology, it is not the whole story. It is especially problematic in our relationship to nature. Words like map and territory are metaphors for larger systems. We take for granted that a growing economy is a good thing and fail to recognize that at the same time the growth is polluting the atmosphere; the difference makes a difference that we fail to observe. We are similarly unaware when a non-native tree planted in a ravine affects the insects, and bees and birds no longer have food to eat. The difference that makes a difference happens in both space and time. We need to assess our metaphors to limit our effect on the surrounding environment.

We take it for granted that we know how to interpret reality, but Bateson stresses how much we are influenced by the cultural narratives that precede us. These, he says, must be constantly rethought and re-evaluated and we need to examine the wider context of relationships, interaction and interdependence. He credits natural systems with intelligence since these often can self-correct. In contrast, we use ideas from the past – that wilderness is dangerous and must be tamed, that oceans are vast and we can throw our waste in them, that indigenous people are uneducated and must learn our ways. We can destroy nature but we can’t create it. In 1972, he wrote.

“The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell.”

Bateson’s response was the need to learn - and he divided learning into several classes. What he terms zero learning means that we show no response to an item of sensory input. At a first level of learning, we notice that the context has changed. “No one can enter the same river more than once”, his daughter Mary Catherine observes in her sister’s film. Bateson himself is even more witty observing, “No man can go to bed with the same girl for the first time twice”. We are aware of new information in a new way and the context changes completely. Charlton has a further example of how we understand context, by noting that when we witness a murder in a play on a stage, we don’t rush to the phone and call the police.

Stage two learning is described as focusing on the learning experience itself – learning to learn. Stage three is more difficult and means a rethinking of our sets of assumptions or world view. We shift our character and even rethink our cosmology where we undertake a profound reorganization of the way we think. Stage four is akin to evolution itself and is beyond human capability to do more than glimpse occasionally. All evolution for Bateson can be described as possessing a mental process, an intelligence within. Our response to this is identified by Bateson as the sacred and he sees it also in the aesthetic process. We are part of nested systems of energy and beauty. The literal and the metaphorical are not “either/or” but “both and”.

C. A. Bowers also has a good summary of Bateson’s key directives for learning:

• Awareness of how we are influenced by earlier patterns of thinking and the need to become conscious of them.

• Knowledge and awareness of cultural patterns and systems other than our own

• The need to see ourselves as part of natural systems, neither separate from them nor superior to them

Bateson’s ideas resonate in certain ways with those of Thomas Berry, Joanna Macy, James Lovelock, Matthew Fox and Vandana Shiva. He was more of a thinker than an activist. Noel Charlton notes that even two decades ago there were many organizations working for change in our attitudes toward environmental issues, but there is still a need to go further. He urges us to take action in spreading the ecological message and envisions groups of eight to ten friends meeting regularly for as long as a year, spending time on research and reflection to increase awareness and response. At the end of this period, the group needs to split up into pairs and start new study groups, while also staying anchored in the original one for personal support – a model akin to the early spread of Christianity. In so doing, we can follow the writings and ideas of Gregory Bateson and his daughters who point the way.


Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing a Life.. New York: Grove Press, 1989

Bateson, Mary Catherine. Peripheral Visions - Learning Along the Way. New York: Harper Collins, 1994..

Bateson, Nora. An Ecology of Mind, A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson.

Bowers, C. A. Perspectives and Ideas of Gregory Bateson, Ecological Intelligence and Educational Rreforms. Eugene: Eco-Justice Press, 2011.

Charlton, Noel. Understanding Gregory Bateson, Mind Beauty and the Sacred Earth. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

A New Story


On a November morning, the sunrise can be spectacular, arousing a sense of awe.  It’s rare to take in the beauty of the natural world and the environment designed and built by humans from the same vantage point.  City dwellers may still enjoy seeing natural beauty during the day, but the bright lights have masked the visible stars of the night sky.  Those living in less populated areas may still have that advantage.

A recent exhibit, Anthropocene, on display at both the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario, highlights what we humans have done to plunder and devastate our natural environment. This show is not the first to focus on this tragedy. More than thirty years ago, a Roman Catholic priest and cultural historian, Thomas Berry, expressed a need for a new story expanding on the one we find in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.  He reminds us that earlier theologians like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas placed equal importance on learning from the Book of Nature.  What scientists now know about cosmology – the origin and nature of the universe - is astounding.

 Berry inspired colleagues to present this story in an award-winning film called Journey of the Universe. Since its release in 2014, the film and accompanying book have caused responses from a variety of Christian communities supporting Berry’s argument of the need for reassessment. This challenge is both complicated and contentious.  When Copernicus discovered that we were not the centre of the universe, his news was not well received. Nor were Darwin’s findings. Science has discovered that our milky way is only one among billions of galaxies.  The writers of the early books of the Bible had a lesser sense of history and it was limited to a very small part of planet earth.

 Journey and the first Genesis story share common elements.  Both start in darkness.  Light emerges, then water, then earth, then plants, then birds and animals and finally human beings.  In the Genesis story, creation is complete and humans become the focus of history.   In Journey, creation evolves in stages through billions of years and continues to do so.

 At the recent consecration of our new bishop in the Diocese of Toronto, we acknowledged that we are settlers.  What we celebrate less is indigenous peoples’ reverence for the earth - they see themselves as subjects alongside animals, vegetation and stars.  In contrast, we live in a world where anything other than ourselves is viewed as an object for our use and exploitation. The last 65 billion years of the Cenozoic geological period were the earth’s most creative and flourishing.  But in the last four hundred years we’ve managed to reverse the process of creative evolution - eliminating forests and species, polluting rivers and oceans, and robbing the earth of its resources.  And even as we put humans at the centre, we are selective about which humans, preferring those nearest and dearest and most like ourselves.

 Putting humans at the centre has a history and takes us back through 19th and 20th century industrialism and the earlier writings of Newton and Descartes, who proclaimed that everything that was not human was merely matter.  But we can also go further back to the two biblical creation stories, noting that the redemption story, where the world is dangerous and tempting, has prevailed over the creation account.  Within this context, we have taken the directive to have dominion over the earth and turned it into domination.

 People of faith now have an opportunity to learn.  Thomas Berry proposed more than 15 years ago that Christian and other religious communities can join with modern science communities to become part of a new Ecozoic era, where we return to intimacy with the earth and our place in the universe. When the earth itself becomes sacred to us, we recover both a sense of our miniscule presence as individuals – and at the same time, our sacred responsibility for it, owing to our gift of human consciousness.  It means rethinking the frameworks of theology and its implications - for liturgies, formation, stewardship, laws, governance, and for the challenges of our time – climate change, technology and the threat of annihilation by nuclear war. Meanwhile we have obsessed about gender and sexuality – not expressing with gratitude the wonder of the cosmos and our proper place in it.

 The first step is awareness.  Go to see Anthropocene.  Watch Journey of the Universe on YouTube.  Visit the associated websites: and .  You will experience the universe and our small planet in new ways. These are first steps that may lead to increased understanding and commitment.



Roots and Wings


I’ve come upon Margaret Silf’s book, Roots and Wings, a series of short meditations which explores life from the Big Bang to the present. She sees the possibilities of an evolution from a world of fear and survival to one where love and discerning choice is our guide. No pie in-the-sky idealist, she is not convinced that a better would will automatically evolve unless we individually play our part in making it happen.

She notes some positives that we should be grateful for:

  • There is more awareness that we are a global family, and that decisions we make here and now have an impact on everyone else on the planet

  • More people are protesting that military force is not the answer

  • More people are seeking a spiritual dimension to their lives, including many who would not describe themselves as religious

  • More people care about the environment

  • More people seek balance in their lives

  • More people are seeking peace and justice in specific contexts

But lest we be euphoric, she also reminds us:

  • There is a breakdown in trust – in companies, in institutions, in professions that leaves people isolated, fearful and defensive

  • Our lives are shaped by the consumer markets of multinational corporations who think they control what is good for us – and that often merely means profitable for them

  • Despair drives too many to addictive behaviour and compulsions

  • Fear makes us very willing to sacrifice our personal freedom and restrict that of others

  • There are dark forces of anger and frustration that are unleashed in destructive and negative ways


I read this book long before I developed my current interest in writer Thomas Berry and they are unlikely to have ever met. But her Jesuit roots intersect well with his Passionist ones in love of and concern for the environment.

Whither spirituality?

A friend recently passed on an article from the Toronto Star published on December 26, 2018 entitled “A New Type of Church for the Community”.  This kind of article turns up infrequently – usually in a slow news period – in which the reporter presumably tries to find a new thread of hope in what is generally seen as a declining religious presence.  In this case, it’s a storefront church, with white plastic chairs, a row of computers against a wall lined with Bible verses – an example of a concept called a church plant.  Interestingly the concept is supported and funded by existing denominations as the answer to their failing numbers and impact.

 The writer goes on predictably to report the decline in numbers in religious affiliation and the storefront pastor’s seeing this as an opportunity to meet local needs for faith in a neighborhood setting.  Like more conventional denominations, the storefront already has programs, services at times other than Sunday, and responses to other immediate social needs. We also learn that this plant is supported by an organization called Church Planting Canada which is using modern marketing methodology with Facebook video ads and expensively designed websites free from denominational affiliation.  All this is totally predicable based on what the late writer Phyllis Tickle told the book publishing industry and the traditional denominations twenty years ago.  Her book, The Great Emergence outlined the cultural changes affecting religious life in Europe and the United States that were happening decades earlier.

 Among these changes is the reality that science and technology are the primary cultural forces - but there are others.  The doubts of Albert Schweitzer that the Jesus of Nazareth was the the Christ of history led to new scholarship.  Pentecostalism is a new and growing religion – and incidentally forms the base of Church Planting Canada. Alcoholics Anonymous is a strong healing ministry that calls on a nameless higher power and anticipated the rebirth of the small group movement – and more often than not meets in Church basements. Self-help dominates as a literary form.  While immigration is front-and-centre of the news today – with the misguided narrative that immigrants are all terrorists - except that we ourselves are mostly descendants of  immigrants who destroyed the habitats and spirituality of our native people. We now live in multicultural environments where the teachings of other religions have seeped into our consciousness.  And I find it fascinating that most of these profound changes have occurred in my own lifetime since the end of the second world war.

 While the planters are hopeful, it is instructive that their projects cost $50, 000 to $100,000 in grants in their initial year and considerable additional ones in the years following – ending up with exactly the same challenges that conventional churches face. Leaders often burn out quickly like those of any start-up in the arts or technology and the next set of leaders institutionalize the project.

Tickle in her essay also talks about the three strands of any religion – the approach to spirituality and recognition of the divine - the institutional framework and how it deals with leadership, formation, property, statutes, governance - and the approach to morality. In a recent article in the New York Times, the writer Donna Freitas notes an interesting feature of formation that I should pay more attention to – the fact that writers are discouraged by their editors for writing on the subject of religion for their young adult readers.  Sex is fine – and so are LGBTQ topics - but faith is off limits unless you lampoon it.  And I find in my own experience of working with young people from toddlers to teens - from learning to be nice, to learning the intricacies of liturgy, denominational history and pretty literal reading of scripture - that the one thing we hardly ever talk about is spirituality.

 Donna Frietas talks about her own reading as a young Catholic and my own mirrors it to some extent.  God talk at this stage and later in the early years of University were informed by books we read – more often metaphorical readings of authors like Lewis and Tolkien which also helped us deal with the stories of religion and how to ground their truth.  I have to wonder whether Bible verses on a wall above computers is going to do the job.  But what Ms Frietas does point out is that spirituality is immensely important to young people.  How many meaningful articles about religious traditions of spirituality do we see in the press about that?  Understanding that, of course takes much more preparatory work and research than interviewing a storefront pastor.

 Someone I met at the 2018 Parliament of World Religions does get it.  In response to the young people interested in spirituality and wanting to know more, he has created a very impressive website,   What he said when we met was, “I’m not an expert on spirituality, but I know who some of the experts are – and I am trying to direct young people to them – and I try to help them avoid the too many quick fix answers that are out there.”

 If mainstream denominations took this quest for spirituality more seriously, they might focus on their spiritual traditions rather than their historic denominational ones. That culture leaves them fighting old battles wearing new clothes.  The old stories have frequently lost their context, leaving the young adrift on a planet with its own cosmology that is not being addressed for them.  The young know that and they want better answers than the ones we are giving them.