The Sacred Universe
The Sacred Universe
by Peter Reason
Cover: Small Yellow Bird by Craigie Aitchinson. Courtesy: Bridgeman Art Library
Peter Reason celebrates the late great Thomas Berry’s vision of being human. The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth by Thomas Berry. Orbis Books, 2009. ISBN: 9781570758515 The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Berry. Columbia University Press, 2009. ISBN: 9780231149525
With the death of Thomas Berry last year, we have lost one of the great religious and ecological teachers of our time. Yet through the good work of two of his former students and now editors, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, we have access to a range of his papers and thus to the great richness of his thoughts.
These two books collect together Berry’s unpublished papers, dating back to 1972. In some ways the content will be familiar to those who have studied Berry’s earlier books – and indeed the serious student of Berry’s work may recognise whole paragraphs that were reworked for The Great Work. Yet with closer study the reader will find in these papers a fuller articulation of much of Berry’s thought, with particular emphasis on its religious dimension. Further, they demonstrate the development of Berry’s thinking over time and how his earlier insights developed into fuller articulations.
I found several places where the essence of Berry’s thought is presented succinctly in a few short pages. Christian Cosmology (Chapter 4 in The Christian Future) is helpful in setting out, point by point, how the universe constitutes a sacred community and the primary revelation of the divine; and The Cosmology of Religions (Chapter 9 in The Sacred Universe) provides a challenge to anthropocentrism.
Berry points out that we humans “find it difficult…to think of ourselves as integral or subject to the universe, to the planet Earth, or to the community of living beings. We think of ourselves as the primary referent”; yet we can learn from our emerging understanding of the evolution of the universe and of Earth that “our nature as species…has emerged out of planetary process” and we are thus part of a wider sacred community.
But maybe these books are important most of all because they show Berry as a profound religious thinker, and demonstrate the necessity of radically new religious imagination for the crisis of our times. When the materialist vision and ‘new atheism’ of writers such as Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens holds so much of popular attention and vies with religious fundamentalism to trivialise religious debate, the profound, subtle and boldly religious thinking Thomas Berry presents has a particular importance. For Berry shows us in these two books that the present crisis actually arises out of religious traditions, and calls for a most profound revolution in the nature of religious imagination in response.
He shows, too, how religious life, in all its traditional forms, “reached a certain state of stagnation” and a “spiritual impasse” even before the rise of the modern scientific and materialist world. He argues that there has been a failure of religious imagination in Christian thought over several centuries: caught in a historical rather than a cosmological perspective, emphasising human-divine and human-human relations at the expense of human-Earth relations, and defensive in the face of secular scientific society, it “has shown neither the intelligence nor the willingness to walk with us through this modern period of our splendour and our shame”. He further points out that the “present disruption of all the basic life systems of Earth has come about within a culture that emerged from the Christian-biblical matrix”.
The emphasis in Christianity on redemption from this fallen world – rather than revelation of the divine in the wonders of the life on Earth – and the promise of a millennial period when the ills of the human condition would be lifted, together lead to an alienation from the natural world, a dissatisfaction with the world as it actually is, even a rage against the unsatisfactory qualities of human existence. All this opens the way for the technological exploitation of the world in the name of ‘progress’ whereby we will ‘improve’ the planet through human activities. Thus the “radiant presence of the divine” is lost and the Earth becomes “a commodity to be bought and sold”.
In the face of what he sees as this failure of religious imagination and the challenge of secularism, Berry dares to take our religious intuition and marry it to our scientific understanding of the universe as an evolving whole, so that the natural world becomes the primary source of religious consciousness: “the genius of our times is to join the physical identification, experience, and understanding of the Earth, given by scientific inquiry, with the traditional mythic symbols and rituals”.
Through the teachings of science we understand anew the universe as a sequence of irreversible transformations leading to ever-greater complexity and out of which the human being has evolved. Applying a religious imagination to this discovery, we can see that “from the beginning the universe has a psychic-spiritual as well as a material-physical aspect”. Each part of this evolving universe is both a reflection of and integral with the whole, so that the universe itself is the “primary sacred community”.
While emphasising the diversity of religious revelation, Berry shows how this new Universe Story can be entirely compatible with the Christian tradition, for example following Thomas Aquinas in asserting that “the order of the universe is the ultimate and noblest perfection in things” and that this perfection lies both in its wholeness and in its differentiation: “each part articulates the whole in some unique fashion. The perfection, however, is in the whole, not in the part as such”; and it is in this “fabric of the whole” that the divine reveals itself most fully. So it follows that:
“The spirituality of the Earth refers to a quality of the Earth itself, not a human spirituality with special reference to the planet Earth. Earth is the maternal principle out of which we are born and from which we derive all that we are and all that we have. Simply put, we are Earthlings. The Earth is our origin, our nourishment, our educator, our healer, our fulfilment. The human and the Earth are totally implicated, each in the other. If there is no spirituality in the Earth, then there is no spirituality in ourselves.”
And, even wider, in this new religious vision spiritual traditions are not just localised on parts of the Earth, but have their origins in the “limitless swirl of space”, just as humans do. We are integral with the universe, so that “the universe is the larger dimension of our own being”, and in turn the human enables the universe to “reflect on and celebrate itself…in a special mode of conscious self-awareness”.
Thomas Berry demonstrates in these papers the qualities he calls for: humanist vision and imagination. Into this new religious vision we can weave ecological economics, natural capitalism, a legal system that recognises the rights of all beings, new forms of education, and so on. But the vision comes first: without it we do not have the capacity to respond fully to the challenges of our times.