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