awakening consciousness

Back in the fall of 1968, I returned from my first trip to Mexico to resume my undergraduate studies at St. Louis University.

Back in the fall of 1968, I returned from my first trip to Mexico to resume my undergraduate studies at St. Louis University. During the preceding summer months I, as a 20-year-old, had led a group of Canadian teenagers on a long bus odyssey from Winnipeg, Man., to the then small town of Santa Fe de los Altos above Mexico City. There we had spent several weeks on a Christian service project basically helping dig a drainage ditch for the pastor of the colonial-era church serving that community.

The material poverty we saw contrasted mightily with the gracious hospitality of the Mexicans we met. “Mi casa es su casa” was not an idle phrase. Our hosts took the time to make sure we experienced the rich cultural heritage of their country from the pyramids of Teotihuacan to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I came back, though, with more questions about what I had seen and experienced than answers. This pushed me into taking an introductory course on Latin American history.

Professor Harold Bradley S.J. taught that course which had on its reading list books like John Gerassi’s The Great Fear in Latin America. This man, that book, my Mexican experience all contributed to raising my awareness and understanding, my consciousness, of the Latin American reality and the root causes of the problems afflicting that region of the world. Over the next three years, more courses along with work and study trips to Guatemala, Chile, Bolivia and Puerto Rico would deepen and intensify this consciousness raising process.

All of us can surely point to times in our lives where we have come to understand in a more profound way some aspect of our lives or the world around us. Ursula Goodenough and Terrence W. Deacon wrote in an article for The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science a few years back that “Human consciousness is not only an emergent phenomenon, it epitomizes the logic of emergence in its very form. Human minds, deeply entangled in symbolic culture, have an effective causal locus that extends across continents and millennia, growing out of the experience of countless individuals. Consciousness emerges as an incessant creation of something out of nothing, a process continually transcending itself. To be human is to know what it feels like to be evolution happening.”

We see this all around us. In my six decades, the evolution of a common consciousness on our understanding of issues as basic as the role of women in society or the inherent equality of all humans regardless of skin colour or ethnic origin cannot be denied. More recently, we have come to see the acceptance of the reality of climate change and its anthropogenic origins as a similar shift in global consciousness. The pace of this shift in consciousness must accelerate if we are to check the powerful forces seemingly bent on environmental destruction, accelerating social inequality and stridently propagating fear and using violence to defend a status quo which privileges only a very few.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator – who incidentally once held my one-year-old daughter Ilona on his knee – wrote in his seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed that “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Which course do we choose? What issues are we being called to awaken our consciousness on right now? How can we become engaged in transforming our world and helping others to do so?

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact