Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The dream of the earth

Thomas Berry traces some of the present tension between science and faith to the trauma of the Black Death in 14th-century Europe, which may have killed up to a third of the population. There were two responses, he says: One toward a religious redemption out of this tragic world, the other toward greater control of the physical world to escape its pain and increase its utility to humans -- redemptive, otherworldly religion, on the one hand, the scientific and industrial revolutions, on the other. We know, of course, which reponse led to the eradication of plague.

An excessive commitment to redemptive stories remains with us, says Berry. At its center is a preoccupation with the Savior, the interior spiritual life of the faithful, and focus on a postearthly paradise. Meanwhile, a new creation story has evolved within the secular scientific community, a story that "seems destined to become the universal story taught to every child who receives formal education in its modern form anywhere in the world."

Berry imagines a cosmology based on evolutionary science in which the Christian redemptive story might still play a role. According to this story, the cosmos and every creature in it reflects "the divine exemplar" -- what Plato called the Good, Plotinus the One, and Christians God. "All things are beautiful by this beauty. The supremely beautiful is the integrity and harmony of the total cosmic order."

The scientific story by itself is inadequate, say Berry. It is a story of objects, not subjects. Every being has its own interior, its self, its mystery, its sacred aspect. Reverence to the natural world will be total or will be not at all. When a vision of this vast symbolic -- I would call it sacramental -- world with its all-pervasive numinous qualities is lost, the world is open to the terrifying environmental assault we have witnessed in our own time. Thus, the integrity of the earth and our own spiritual lives are intimately bound up together.

But all is not lost:
Here we might observe that the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the earth. If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and the seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.
This vision of the future is not altogether original with Berry. It has precedents among John Erigena, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Teilhard de Chardin, and many others, generally dismissed as heretics. I see no indication, alas, that an understanding of God as cosmic process has made much progress today; rather, redemptive, supernatural salvic stories seem on the rise globally. Which is not to denigrate Thomas Berry's brave efforts to bring our intellectual and spiritual lives into consonance.