A Reflection Inspired by the 8th Anniversary of the Death of Thomas Berry

Underpinning Narrative

Today, when we need it most, we have no underpinning narrative that unites us in a common identity and gives us purpose. Without such a foundation, it is extremely difficult to navigate the strange waters of our times.

David Brooks, the NY Times columnist wrote recently about how the Exodus story once served this purpose for our ancestors who came to this country, escaping bondage of various kinds, and seeking a new ‘promised land.’ They saw themselves as a ‘chosen people’ like the people of the original Exodus, with the role of building a ‘new Jerusalem’ and creating a ‘new covenant’. The founders of the United States had a similar sense of destiny, while Martin Luther King invoked the Exodus story in his attempts to expand this new covenant to all the races and peoples of our country. U.S. presidents in the later twentieth century took this further by proclaiming a global Exodus story for all nations, with the U.S. as the leader toward that new world.

The Exodus story inspired the values of social justice, care for the vulnerable and equality for all that shape the U.S. constitution. Over time these values expanded to include ‘ordinary’ people (besides the privileged class of white men who created the constitution): women, slaves, Native Americans, and the many sexual orientations. It is to be hoped that this expansion will, in the future, include refugees, animals, the land and the waters.

But, Brooks laments, this story has effectively gone. It no longer underpins our culture and the institutions that express it. The Exodus story has been replaced, not by a new story, but by a utilitarian philosophy and a technological mindset that is without a sense of purpose: why we are here: what America is for. This philosophy informs a number of models: one is the Libertarian model that emphasizes production, consumerism and acquisition – anything but citizenship; two is a new globalized version of the same; three is a multicultural model that proclaims inclusion into the same process; and four is an America First that is essentially self-focused and views outsiders as diluting and weakening our capacity to produce and consume. The leaders we elect reflect versions and combinations of these models: valueless, materialistic, corrupt, short-term thinking, autocratic on the one hand; idealistic and inadequately skilled in the art of collaboration, on the other.

A New Story

Clearly we need a new story, a new underpinning narrative around which we can all gather. We need a new sense of meaning and purpose that will inspire and direct our relationships with each other and the world we share. The Exodus story is a wonderful history of a people’s journey, and, as such, it is still a good framework for us. Of course the Exodus story – both its Biblical and American forms – was shaped by contexts that are quite different from ours today. The context of our Exodus story is more complex: we are more diverse and there are many more of us; we have more knowledge and technology to use it; we know more and are more aware of the implications of that knowledge: from impact to responsibilities. A new Exodus story will have to reflect all of this.

Thomas Berry was the person who helped me appreciate the critical nature of a new story when he spoke of a ‘functional cosmology.’ Every culture, he told me, needs a story of origins that defines our place in the unfolding of this larger story in order for us to be able to make sense of the world we live in. An adequate – ‘functional’ – cosmology enables me to get up in the morning, to deal with failure, to keep going in the face of overwhelming challenges, to integrate death, our own and others’. Such a cosmology today would have to include the vast, ever-expanding knowledge of the scientific community with its implications of universal interconnectedness and expansion. A truly functional cosmology would have to integrate the realities of this interconnected world: from sustainability to radical rights that go beyond humans.

However, Berry also suggested that the scientific story of the universe – scientific cosmology – is not enough. Rather this is simply the framework that requires the contribution of the vast universe of stories to become a truly functional cosmology. For a common story will only emerge out of the sharing of all the many forms of this universe. Clearly this is an ongoing and, indeed, endless process. But that doesn’t excuse us. In fact, it gives us all a new (or rediscovered) purpose as well as the opportunity to participate in a powerful way in the very unfolding of the universe, in what Berry calls ‘the Great Work’ of our time.

Berry suggests that we humans are the universe come to a self-reflective mode. The universe becomes aware of itself in us. This would suggest that our role – our great work – is to develop this self-awareness on behalf of the universe by engaging the myriad stories. Of course, we’ve been doing this throughout our history: telling our own stories but also the stories of the many forms of life we encounter and relate to. So we know how to do this: we know how to create a functional cosmology. It’s just that we’ve been distracted from our work by the seductive glitter of popular technology that keeps us increasingly busy and increasingly confused about what is real and valuable.

Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue

The essential work of the Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue (TBFED) is to assist the emergence of this new story that will serve as a functional cosmology for us all. TBFED, which was formed shortly after Berry’s death in 2009, does this by bringing together the multiple forms (threads) of this essential story in the various worlds of health, education, commerce, law, religion, play, etc. and helping us weave the new story from these threads: http://www.iona.edu/About/Iona-in-Community/The-Thomas-Berry-Forum-for-Ecological-Dialogue.aspx

The Forum also, and perhaps most importantly, does its work by being as well as fostering a community of contemplative ecologists. For, we need to tap into the underground stream of life that we all share in order to access its deep wisdom and higher power to guide and empower our efforts. We do this through our own wells – our own deep stories that are our entry points into this underground stream. Here we meet each other: all of us – human, certainly, but also animal and plant and earth and stars. Here we access the higher power that informs us, and all things. Here we discover the wisdom we need to survive and thrive in this mysterious world.

For the fact is, this is how we have survived (and thrived) till now. The Biologist, E.O. Wilson, has said that the reason humans are a successful species is that we have learned to come together: to form community, to collaborate, to love. We access the wisdom and power that we need through interacting with each other in deep dialogue which, as the Greek roots of the word suggest (dia = ‘through’ and logos = ‘meaning) is actually – at its best – participating in the emergence of meaning and truth. This universal dialogue has been the source of the stars and the planets, the plants and the animals, human beings and their mysterious consciousness.

Thomas Berry, like other major figures at times of change (Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis) tapped into the power and wisdom of this underground stream. Today, we need to do the same in what is clearly a moment of transition for us all.

17 thoughts on “A NEW STORY”

  1. I had no idea, Danny–but am delighted to discover–that you were/are a student of Thomas Berry. I was recently introduced to his work thanks to a “New Story” group associated with the (Quaker) Friends Meeting at Cambridge Mass., and am glad to have his language as a frame for my own search.

    As someone who has recently left his career in favor of learning how to be an activist on behalf of the climate, who also has decades of experience with (Buddhist-influenced) meditation, I love the term “contemplative ecologists.” I look forward to the dialogue that may emerge here. Thanks for sparking it and providing a platform.

    1. Grady, I too love the idea of ‘contemplative ecologists’. This week I’m with the health world in Philadelphia – Jefferson – where a comparable term surfaced: contemplative activists. I think there is a realization that we need to come out of a deep place if we are to respond in a creative way to the challenges of our day..

  2. Thank you for this fine reflection on the need for a “new” story which catches up by my understanding the best of former integrating stories, including the Exodus narrative. Thomas Berry represents for the spiritual life what Rachel Carson represents for the scientific mind, the canary in the cage.

  3. Beautifully written! But what would T. Berry have said in the face of world leaders (in government but also in business to a significant degree) who view the world as a fight between winners and losers? Of course I’m referring to one ignorant narcissist in particular, but let’s not pretend he is alone. Germany for example has been pushing their own “Germany first” approach to the economic crisis that has gripped Europe and possibly will see the disintegration of the EU, even if we laud their early leadership on the refugee crisis. This worry increases when the growing turbulence of the transition we are in as you say, feels like a threat to our security. We all have an easier time sharing our food and water in a context of abundance than when we feel under threat. Gangs are the natural response to a context of threat.

    1. John, you touch on painful realities. Winners and losers reminds me of an ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ that makes for a blind and toothless world… Yo are right about it being easier to share in a context of abundance. Of course, that may not last….

  4. Dear Danny, you introduced me to the Thomas Berry “New Story” twenty plus years ago. For that I am grateful.
    I even had the exciting opportunity to be in his presence, when he gave a powerful key note presentation at the United Nation’s Millennium World Peace Summit in August of 2000.
    Thomas Berry made the New Story relevant in my life, and now helps in the anguish that my adopted country America has withdrawn from the Paris accord.
    His New Story will reverberate with me also when next week I will be part of a three day intensive “Ministry in the Time of Climate Change” at the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and his message will strengthen my onward fight for a sustainable world for our children’s children.

    1. Keep up the good fight Hans. And let us know what comes out of the theological world. I had my own experience many years ago with the UN sponsored Environmental Sabbath when the churches and mosques were not ready for the implications of the environmental challenge. Berry used to say that these institutions – religion and perhaps the academic world – will be the last to change since they believe they possess the revealed truth…

      1. The Event at Union was great. I am certainly all fired up. There were 40+ participants and 15 presenters including Al Gore, who gave a powerful 2 hour presentation. He will have a new film out in July.
        I plan to incorporate some of his material in a an Eco event at CF August 20. Would love to have you be part of it?

  5. Dear Brother Danny–
    How well you’ve summarized Brooks’s op. ed piece. in NYT, which was itself a summary of a George Packard lecture he’d heard, plus some of his own insights.(BTW, I read Packer’s “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America a couple of years ago and it’s a highly readable backdrop to this conversation). And, now, of course, you introduced your singular mentor, Thomas Berry–a just-in-time move if ever there was one.
    What I’m hoping will get dialed in along the way is a conscious choice to steer away from the focus on Trump as an unfit president( we all know this already) and a broader search for an inclusive New Story that gives voice to the anguish of most of his base –the losers in the politics and policies of the past 40 years.We know the GOP disdains working and poor people; now they’ve gone after the middle class. Still, for a time, they put on a good show of caring about the environment(Nixon and following generation) and this bought them air cover .
    Now, the gloves are off; no more Mr. Nice Guy. Fine. We get it. But how about the Dems? Where were they when those same people , “from the coal mines of Kentucky to the California sun..” were having their jobs shipped out, their wages cut in half, their unions busted, their homes foreclosed, their schools segregated, their health care denied, their food stamps cut? Any story going forward must take into account not just a concern for climate and our environment, but for the well being of our fellow humans from every walk of life–whatever their politics or cosmology. Only then can we ever hope to forge a New Story, –one truly worthy of the human spirit.
    Thanks for all you do to stimulate and facilitate this dialogue.

    1. Real politics for me would be about convening the conversations that would generate and surface a new common story. Neither party in our country has shown themselves able to transcend their certainties in order to step into something bigger that can hold us all.

  6. Such a meaningful reflection, Danny – many thanks for articulating some of the current realities we face with some sense of hope! I will never forget reading Thomas Berry’s “The Dream of the Earth” for the first time, and feeling so profoundly transfixed by everything he was saying – and then the privilege -through you – of actually meeting him!! Bad as things were environmentally in the 90’s 7 early 200o’s, I don’t think he could have fully imagined the political darkness of these times. The TBFED is a bright light for our hearts to hold against the headlines & outrages of each day’s news, however, I do think we’re witnessing fresh sightings of the “power & wisdom” of the underground streams that connect us all….However, the existential question remains: all of life, as well as the Earth & our children’s & grandchildren’s futures, are held in a mystifying balance, with no secure outcome assured at this point!

    1. Thanks Sue. TBFED will be convening a forum in November (11th) to address the challenge of ‘learning to live in the Anthropocene’ (this era of human domination which threatens to destroy not only the earth but ourselves along with it. I’ll keep you posted…

  7. Dear Danny; A few of your lines seem to hit at the crux of it; “Berry suggests that we humans are the universe come to a self-reflective mode. The universe becomes aware of itself in us. This would suggest that our role – our great work – is to develop this self-awareness on behalf of the universe…………. ” Yes, and while we must help the planet of which we are an integral living part in this universe, it seems that a higher evolution of daily consciousness within us is the royal path and challenge.
    Thanks for this remembrance, as always,

    1. Thanks Peter. Deepening our own self awareness is clearly critical to any effort to address the challenges we all face in the world we share and are part of (we all live in the same soil/water/culture). It certainly gives me courage to continue my own small efforts knowing that I – along with all of us – am the universe in a self reflective mode. It’s what Thomas Berry called ‘The Great Work’ of our times and perhaps of our species….

  8. It has been so encouraging & thought-provoking to read the “Reply-er” comments from other kindred spirits that followed your incisive reflection, Danny, that I hope I can be forgiven for adding a 2nd comment to this thread: I’ve been thinking so much about why more people don’t connect powerfully at the heart level with Thomas B.’s (& other visionaries) message about the critical need – especially now – for “A New Story??!!” We have all the scientific evidence and the incredible images from the NASA explorations to be awed everyday by the miracles which surround us, yet enough of us don’t get it. In re-reading TB’s “Dream of the Earth”, and his Great Work,” for the upteenth time, it became crystal clear to me that his language is calling out for a new 21st c. interpretation with pictures/images/music to reach the hearts of more people. In nonprofit fundraising, one of the core principles is “to connect the heart to the checkbook” – grab people at the cellular level with fewer words, more photos, images to make the cause come alive & resonate personally with potential donors. We need to move all the nations of the world beyond small-story nationalism to catalyze a deep “biophilia” for our shared humanity and the only Home Planet we know!!! This seems impossible, however I always remember my father’s story from his WWII days aboard Navy aircraft carriers: a battleship is turned by a (relatively) small lever that attaches to the huge steering mechanism and that provides the power to turn the entire ship. So it doesn’t have to be all 6B people on the planet who “get it” about changing course – just enough of us to be “the lever” to drive he power for the changes that are needed!

    1. Yes Sue, it IS about reaching the heart; it’s about falling in love with life and the world. Of course, people in love have not REASONED themselves into love. Rather change – like love – begins with a deep experience; what the experience means in itself and what it means for me comes afterwards. This applies to nations as well as individuals: one way to move nations towards ‘biophilia’ is the example of Bhutan, the little kingdom in the Himalayas that declared a shift to ‘Gross National Happiness’ as the foundation and goal of their efforts. Focusing on this rather unusual – but heart-centered – goal of course requires attention to all of the dimensions of happiness that include a healthy environment, the rights of all species and the particular responsibilities of some. It also includes collaborating with other nations to ‘allow’ the conditions that enable them to foster their own GNH. Perhaps Bhutan is the small lever your father spoke of…

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