Thomas Berry advocates that mankind’s relationship with nature can only be restored through adopting a ‘new story’. It is through stories Berry claims, that humans make meaningful sense of how the world came to be and their place and purpose in the world. Berry argues that we need a new story because contemporary scientific and religious narratives are unable to locate humans in a meaningful relationship with the earth’s ecosystems and their evolution over time.
Berry argues for a new story which provides a deeper understanding of the functioning of the universe, and which more strongly links humans to the universe and to nature itself. Berry argues that the stories we have used until now to tell ourselves about where we come from are removed from animals, plants and the grand story of the Cosmos, and have consequently encouraged alienation from the natural world.
The pathos in our own situation is that our secular society does not see the numinous quality or the deeper psychic powers associated with its own story, while the religious society rejects the story because it is presented only in its physical aspect. The remedy for this is to establish a deeper understanding of the spiritual dynamics of the universe as revealed through our own empirical insight into the mysteries of its functioning.
In this late twentieth century that can now be done with a clarity never before available to us. Empirical enquiry into the universe reveals that from its beginning in the galactic system to its earthly expression in human consciousness the universe carries within itself a psychic-spiritual as well as physical material dimension. Otherwise human consciousness emerges out of nowhere. The human is seen as an addendum or an intrusion and thus finds no real place in the story of the universe. In reality the human activates the most profound dimension of the universe itself, its capacity to reflect on and celebrate itself in conscious self-awareness.
The story of the universe is the story of the emergence of a galactic system in which each new level of expression emerges through the urgency of self-transcendence. Hydrogen in the presence of some millions of degree of heat emerges into helium. After the stars take shape as oceans of fire in the heavens, they go through a sequence of transformations. Some eventually explode into the stardust out of which the solar system and the earth take shape. Earth gives unique expression of itself in its rock and crystalline structures, and in the variety and splendour of living forms, until humans appear as the moment in which the unfolding universe becomes conscious of itself. The human emerges not only as an earthling, but a worldling. We bear the universe in our being as the universe bears us in its being. The two have a total presence to each other and to that deeper mystery out of which both the universe and ourselves have emerged.
If this integral vision is something new both to the scientist and to the believer, both are gradually becoming aware of this view of the real and its human meaning. It might be considered a new revelatory experience. Because we are moving into a new mythic age, it is little wonder that a kind of mutation is taking place in the entire earth-human order. A new paradigm of what it is to be human emerges. This is what is so exciting, yet so painful and so disrupting. One aspect of this change involves the shift in earth-human relations, for we now in large measure determine the earth process that once determined us. In a more integral way we could say that the earth that controlled itself directly in the former period now to an extensive degree controls itself through us.
In this new context the question appears as to where the values are, how they are determined, how they are transmitted. Whereas formerly values consisted in the perfection of the earthly image reflecting an external Logos in a world of fixed natures, values are now determined by the human sensitivity in responding to the creative urgencies of a developing world. The scientist and in the depths of the unconscious is drawn by the mystical attraction of communion with the emerging creative process. This would not be possible unless it were a call of subject to subject, if it were not an effort at total self-realization on the part of the scientists. As scientists, their taste for the real is what gives to their work its admirable quality. Their wish is to experience the real in its tangible, opaque, material aspect and to respond to that by establishing an interaction with the world that will advance the total process. If the demand for objectivity and the quantitative aspect of the real has led scientists to neglect subjectivity and the qualitative aspect of the real, this has been until now a condition for fulfilling their historical task. The most notable single development within science in recent years, however, has been a growing awareness of the integral physical-psychic dimension of reality.
The believing redemption community is awakening only slowly to this new context of understanding. There is a fear, a distrust, even a profound aversion to the natural world and all its processes. It would be difficult to find a theological seminary in this country that has an adequate programme on creation as it is experienced in these times. The theological curriculum is dominated by a long list of courses on redemption and how it functions in aiding humans to transcend the world, all based on biblical texts. Such a situation cannot long endure however, since a new sense of the earth and its revelatory import is arising in the believing community. The earth will not be ignored, nor will it long endure being despised, neglected or mistreated. The dynamics of creation are demanding attention once more in a form unknown for centuries to the orthodox Christian.
Now a new way of understanding values is required. We are returning to a more traditional context of story as our source of understanding and value. It is somewhat fascinating to realize that the final achievement of our scientific enquiry into the structure and functioning of the universe as evolutionary process is much closer to the narrative mode of explanation give in the bible that it is to the later, more philosophical mode of Christian explanation provided in our theologies.
It is of utmost importance that succeeding generations become aware of the larger story outlined here and the numinous, sacred values that have been resent in an expanding sequence over this entire time of the world’s existence. Within this context all our human affairs – all professions, occupations, and activities – have their meaning precisely in so far as they enhance this emerging world of subjective intercommunion with the total range of reality. Within this context the scientific community and the religious community have a common basis. The limitations of the redemption rhetoric and the scientific rhetoric can be seen and a new, more integral language of being and value can emerge.
Questions for reflection
- How do you personally reconcile the stories told by the Christian community and scientific communities? Does there need to be alignment, as Berry suggests?
- Do you agree that contemporary Christian narratives about how the world came to be alienate humankind from nature?
- Do you agree with the importance Berry places upon stories as providing meaningful context for humans to function properly?
Thomas Berry (1988) The Dream of the Earth
Thomas Berry (2009) The Great Work
Dieter Hessel and Rosemary Radford Reuther (2000) Christianity and Ecology