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Sacred Earth: A Global Cosmology for Our Time II

Father Thomas Berry and Ashok Gangadean

Thomas Berry interviewed by Ashok Gangadean

Part 2: Wonder, Interconnectivity, A New Universe Story

Ashok: A child’s intimacy with nature, which you mention, brings out what is so fundamental in the emerging cosmology— that is, the interconnectivity, the communion of all that is in the universe. I know that your work has brought into focus the contrast between the universe as a collection of mere objects on the one hand and as a communion of subjects on the other. This communion of being in a deep dialogue with nature and with one another is the living pulse of your cosmology, is it not?

Fr. Thomas: Yes, exactly. This coherence needs to be established and clarified, particularly at the present time, when we’re into real difficulties as the human population increases and makes greater demands on the natural world. Science has tended to become the instrument of the economic and political orders at the expense of the cosmological order.

The preservation of a capacity to respond to the universe intimately is necessary now more than ever. I think this capacity forms the basis on which all the religions have developed. And the mystery that is evident in the mystics indicates how very conscious they are that a reality that is beyond human understanding is being dealt with. Scientists vaguely recognize this, but they are plunging as far as they can into analyzing things. Nevertheless, scientists do attain marvelous achievements, and these achievements can be of fantastic significance. I am thinking now of the film called The Awakening Universe that Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker have made—the story of the universe, for popular distribution, in which hopefully people will see the brilliance of scientific expression reflected in it.

We are in a rather remarkable situation at the present time. I frequently talk of the 21st century as “the new order of things.” The 20th century is finished in the sense of vast achievements. Whether these achievements were destructive, or whatever, they certainly controlled our human mode of relationship with the universe. But the 21st century has to be one of a recovery of the universe in a different context. It has to be in the context of an emotional basis of understanding because science tends to withdraw from the emotional, the intuitive, and the imaginative understanding of the universe and because science’s proper functioning is in a different order of things. When it comes to relating to the universe, cosmological order needs to be restored. Particularly in the 21st century, children need to be restored to the cosmological experience. This book by Richard Louv called The Last Child in the Woods has received widespread attention. The subtitle is Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. The “nature deficit disorder” idea comes from the finding that children who have no contact with the natural world feel the effects of that deprivation in their deepest activities.

Ashok: I’d like to talk about the challenge before us in the 21st century of looking not just through an analytical lens of science  but through the cosmological lens, which brings us into a whole-human-being experience of interconnectivity. It is apparent where the deep wisdom and vision for guidance lies and provides a global vision; also, as you mentioned, it comes from all of our great spiritual traditions.

Fr. Thomas: Well, that’s basic to what I’ve been proposing for some time. It’s something that I seem to have envisaged, roughly, very early in my life. As a child, I had a need to satisfy a wilderness tendency, and I was extremely fortunate. I was raised in a family that let me roam, let me have my experiences. The unfolding of my thinking has been consistent throughout my lifetime. It’s taken me many years to shape the full range of patterns that are needed to express my thoughts; but to some extent I’ve been able, I think, to present my thoughts with some coherence.

What is most important for the 21st century— and I know the time is short— is for young people not to become overwhelmed by a negative description of what’s happening. In trying to be clear and comprehensive in presenting exactly what the people of the 21st century can expect to deal with, some voices describe the situation as overwhelmingly catastrophic. Focusing on the difficulties, however, tends to overwhelm the creativity that is needed. Guidance towards creativity is what’s most urgent at the present time. We need a description of the challenge; but above all, we need a vision that will carry us through the challenge— a vision that will enable us to create a wonderful 21st century.

Ashok: Yes. And your story— a cosmological story of the universe that brings out the deep intimacy between the sacred human, the sacred child, and the sacred Earth— is vital in constructing the vision, in achieving this restoration. Could you talk about sacred Earth and the sacred child? I’d like to explore what education for the sacred child of the 21st century might be like when based on a cosmology of the kind you speak of.

Fr. Thomas: Well, the education that’s needed is available to some extent in the classical nature literature that is so wonderfully written. We also have things like the Boy Scout movement, which began around 1906. It saw the need for boys and young men to have a nature experience, and it set up a pattern whereby they could do this. Sadly, my memory for names is somewhat impaired since the stroke, but a person could easily think of people who have been doing a part both on the awakening side and on the creative side. And we have our heritage books, such as Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, written in 1925. At that time, it was almost the first work that seriously tried to present the idea of the coming decline. Then in the last half of the last century, there was a new awakening. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her pioneering book, The Silent Spring, warning that there soon might be no birdsong to herald the spring.

Of course, the tragedy of our times is not so much the fact that the economists or the politicians or even the educators have failed, but that the religions themselves have been a total failure. Very little about the reconstruction of a cosmology has been heard seriously from religion; and when people do, what they hear misses the point— it’s talk about ecology. Ecology is not the problem. Ecology is a big part of the problem, of course, but the problem itself is much deeper— it’s about how humans relate to the natural world. Topics like efficient use of the planet, for example, do not get to the heart of the answer. The answer is something much more profound, something much closer to the basic purpose of religion; but the religious leadership has missed it. Religion should point out that the shaping of a coherent cosmology is a sacred thing, the very basis on which the world of human meaning is founded. What would happen if we didn’t have the universe, the thrill of human existence, the vastness of the stars at night, the dawn, the flowering of springtime, the animals, the whole array of the universe that spills out such fascinating experiences for the human being? This is the challenge— how to re-awaken a conscious relationship to the cosmos, how to protect it, how to enable it to return to its primordial expression. The catastrophe is not just some simple regret about the diminishment of the Earth; rather, it’s a whole, vast attitude.

We are confronted with the fact that when it comes to the question of how to approach the construction of a new cosmology the cosmological order doesn’t have status in the religious forum. It doesn’t have status in the political forum, in the economic forum, and not even in the educational forum. Religion itself doesn’t have status in the public forum. I think there’s a wonderful field opening up for a new visionary presentation. I think it’s already happening. People are beginning to feel that they are missing something. Younger people are beginning to respond to the wonder and beauty of the natural world; so I have the expectation that the unfolding in the 21st century is going to be very creative, very admirable and memorable for its theories, visions, proposals and insights. I think scientists will help with this. The idea that scientists don’t belong in this awakening is wrong. Scientists belong right at the heart of these things. Intellectual vision is important, but the proper function of intelligence is to unify.

We’ve come to understand that the human being is that being in whom the universe reflects and celebrates itself in a special mode of conscious self-awareness. So a human being is the universe in its reflective modality. In fact, you could say that everything has two dimensions— its particular dimension and its universe dimension— because nothing particular could be what it is without everything else. This new appreciation of the universe could bring forth a very satisfying way of life.

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

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7 January 2009

Tagged Under
cosmology, religion, Earth, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, children, awakening universe,
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