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Sacred Earth: A Global Cosmology for our Time I

A Conversation with Fr. Thomas Berry, Part One of Three

Thomas Berry interviewed by Ashok Gangadean

This discussion with the cultural historian Thomas Berry about his cosmological and geologian worldview with philosophy professor Ashok Gangadean was originally published in a slightly longer form in Elixir: A Journal of Consciousness and Conscience no. 2 (Spring 2007).

For background on Thomas Berry and his contribution to a New Story about the cosmos, see Mary Evelyn Tucker’s profile.

Ashok Gangadean is a professor of philosophy at Haverford College.

Part 1: Cosmology, Science, and Orders of Knowledge

Ashok: Your work has been monumentally important in helping to open a space for a deeper consciousness centered around our sacred Earth. How do you see your work and its impact in terms of a new lens for viewing our planet and the challenges before us in this global age?

Fr. Thomas: I see my work as an effort to develop the cosmological dimension of Christian thought that existed prior to the changes that took place in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries in the wake of the plague. Before that, there was a sense of a two-fold revelatory source of our religious understanding—the natural world and the revelatory experience of the Bible. But after the Black Death and after the discovery of printing and the Bible’s increased availability and the new incentive to read, the emphasis shifted from the more comprehensive revelatory experience to a single source: the biblical revelatory experience. The Christian world thereby lost a whole dimension of its thinking. What I’m proposing is that since then, the cosmological dimension, or the universe dimension, which is the primary revelatory experience, has been taken over by the scientific world; and now the scientific world has also lost a sense of cosmology. Neither science nor religion has a cosmology, and it’s that lack of a cosmology that is causing our difficulty now. We’re preoccupied with a “science vs. religion” issue, but I don’t think that’s the real problem. The problem with both science and religion is the lack of a cosmology. That, briefly, is my overview of where we are intellectually.

Ashok: What I see in your work and in that of many of your colleagues who have been influenced by you is a real shift to seeing our universe and its evolution as a living, unfolding story, a sacred story. Could you comment on that?

Fr. Thomas: The cosmological order of ideas seems to be the primary function of the human mind, the human intelligence. It’s our sense of a universe that is primary. It is primary in all religions, all over the world. A primary human response is the awareness that the universe is not self-explanatory; and because it’s not self-explanatory, there’s a need for an explanation, which ends up being religion. That is what I would suggest is the common basis of the different religions of the world. What was previously missing in the domain of human intelligence is what we now call science. The empirical sciences did not develop until after the discovery of printing, after the abandonment, in a way, of the cosmological approach to religion. There was a shift to the experimental basis of knowledge and science, and we began a completely different experience for human intelligence.

What seems to be needed is to continue to expand and deepen our scientific work. One of the things that tends to be missed is the fact that these are qualitatively different areas of consciousness. Science and cosmology need to be coherent with each other; but they will never establish a single knowledge system, so to speak. They function differently.

Ashok: I believe you are suggesting that while science deals with an objectified nature, cosmologically, the universe is seen as a living organism. In the cosmological lens, so to speak, everything is profoundly interconnected in a unified field. So I see your stress upon the universe as a living, dynamic story— as word and narrative —being deeply rooted in the biblical origins, as is the case with many traditions. The different traditions have espoused this idea of the primal word, or infinite consciousness, that reverberates out as our universe. It is this primal word that manifests as the universe story and narrative. It seems to me that this insight of a living universe story has been the heart of the great impact of your vision and work.

Fr. Thomas: Well, it has been; but perhaps equally, or even more so, there is the impact of classical cosmology. I’m primarily not a religious thinker but a thinker in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas and in the tradition of Aristotle— in the ways both experienced the universe and were able to present it with such clarity. They began something that is less developed in our time: the order of thought and logic allied with the power of imagination.

People like Aristotle had a profound insight into the logic of human thought that made room for imagination. It gave us a different type of knowledge of the universe. This type of knowledge, I think, is what is neglected in both science and religion.

Ashok: This brings me to Earth itself, which builds upon earlier thinking like that of Teilhard de Chardin and others in an evolutionary perspective. There is this view that the Earth is sacred and that the Divine pervades the Earth. I think the Earth also provides a metaphor and, literally, a common ground that can bring science, cosmology, and religion together. Could you talk a bit about your vision of the Earth?

Fr. Thomas: Well, given what we know, I see the Earth in its living forms and human understanding as the most profound expression of the universe. The universe itself is primary in every attribute— it is one, it is diverse, and it is coherent. By “coherence,” I mean the integrity of a pattern in which every created entity is in a relationship to every other one. So there’s a single but diversified universe and the understanding of the diversity and the coherence is the basic way of entering cosmology. I would say that such an understanding is the basis of religion, but it is not itself religion. With regard to the order of existence, the Divine is first and the universe is derivative. With regard to human knowledge, the universe is first and the Divine is sequential in the development of our conceptual knowledge.

There is an immediacy with which we experience the universe; for instance, when we look at a child, we see that the child is neither religious, nor cosmological, nor scientific. But the child has a certain immediacy with the universe. In addition, there is also a general human response, what you might call “wonder,” to the universe— the beauty of it and its intimacy. The response to the universe on the part of the child stays with us all our lives. It’s not that we need, exactly, to go beyond the child’s experience, but that as we grow older, we need to articulate our experience, to understand the diversity in a more structured way. That means we need, later on, to include the sciences in order to provide us with another vantage point from which we view the universe.

But one of the things that science is less equipped for is its use. Science gives us knowledge and it gives us power, but it doesn’t give us guidance as to how to use knowledge or power. So we must ask the important question, “What science is there that can guide us in the use of science?” The difficulty with science is that scientists think it is a cosmology

Ashok Gangadean is a professor of philosophy at Haverford College, Haverford, PA. He was the first director of Haverford’s Center for the Cross–Cultural Study and is the founder–director of the Global Dialogue Institute.

Read more about Ashok Gangadean

Comments (1)
  • My small book, “Myth of the Earth” was recently published by painting and writing for 40 years, while contemplating how science and religion can come together.
    ISBN #978-0-557-38356-6

    — Lorraine Almeida on April 30, 2010

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17 December 2008

Tagged Under
Teilhard de Chardin, cosmology, religion, Earth, Thomas Berry, universe, ecology, New Story, education, Aristotle, science, Thomas Aquinas,
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