In the 1988 environmental classic, Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry warned that Western civilization was on the verge of collapse. To protect our planetary home, he said, we would have to reinvent the human, reorganizing all of our professions so they support the web of life.
Berry urged us to find a new focus for business, medicine, law, science, and religion, “making them self-nourishing, self-organizing, and self-sustaining,” ensuring that each discipline serves the health and well-being of all the Earth’s inhabitants.
Of late, our leaders have continued to focus on “The Art of the Deal” placing brazen self-interest and the pursuit of profit over the welfare of the living world. It has taken the triple threat of a pandemic, a failing economy, and climate change, to prove how vulnerable we are once we disturb the hegemony of Mother Nature.
A scholar and a Passionist priest who called himself a “geologian,” Berry was fluent in fourteen languages and widely read in the disciplines of archaeology, philosophy, cosmology, religion, earth science, and world history. In 1984, I interviewed him for The Tarrytown Letter, a magazine of new ideas.
We began with Toynbee’s notion that we are moving into a chapter in human history in which our choice is going to be, not between a whole world and a shredded up world, but between one world and no world. Berry views this period of disinformation and dissolution as the last gasp of the old era, a painful yet necessary prelude to the new ecological age.
This conversation also touches on the breakdown of institutions and our radically changing sense of time.
~Valerie Andrews, Editor/Founder, Reinventing Home
Toynbee felt civilization was at a turning point. “I believe the human race is going to choose life and good,” he said, “not death and evil.” Do we have grounds for hope?
One of the most important things happening now is the linking of the history of the human with the story of the earth.
In Ceremonial Time, John Mitchell looked at a single square mile, starting toward the end of the Pleistocene age. He followed the development of all life forms here from the glacial period until the present.
The problem is we can’t go back to virgin civilization. We have now entered irreversible time and have to rethink the role of the human on this earth. We frequently talk about ourselves as political, ethnic or religious entities but we need to think of ourselves as a species in a larger life community.
The great shock of the 20th century was a work by Oswald Spengler called The Decline of the West. From the 16th and 17th centuries on, the essential word in the Western vocabulary was progress. It was just inconceivable to speak about a process of decline. What Spengler brought into focus was that the West was already in such a period. His model was that civilizations go through a period of birth, creativity, maturity, and decay. Once we enter that arc of decline, we try to slow it down with institutionalization. Yet what we are seeing now is merely a hardening of a civilization that can never be restored.
We have gone through a period of isolating ourselves from other species and are discovering that this way, we have no future. And so we must begin a new historical epoch. One in which we re-enter the community of life and give birth to a new Ecological Age.
The first calendars date from Sumeria, about five thousand years ago. Did our separation from the earth begin as soon as we had a concept of linear time?
This was mitigated in the agricultural era by the use of seasonal calendars. It wasn’t until the industrial age that the linear process took hold and the pressure really began to build.
Today our sense of time today has much in common with the ancient Chinese calendar with its focus on cultural and political periods. When there was a transition to a new emperor, a new calendar began and (his reign was associated with) a new universe, a new world. We see this same kind of thinking when we declare a New Frontier or a New Deal. Our political regimes try to legitimize themselves by carrying the mystique of transformation.
Now, thanks to science, something new is happening. We’re shifting to a cosmic calendar because we’re finally able to empirically date the beginning of the universe, date the origin of the earth, and of life itself.
How will these insights change our culture?
The 18th-century Italian historian Giambattista Vico had some extraordinary perceptions. He was aware that each era of transition has to lead us back to life itself. He said that when a civilization grows away from the vigor of its founding myth, it comes into a barbarism of refinement. This is a very good way of looking at our present moment.
For too long, the Western world has tried to control things through reason and analysis. Early on, the Chinese went the other way and asked, “What does a person do before he reasons?” They were more sensitive to the deeper layers of reality that C.G. Jung discovered in his work on archetypes. He believed the archetypal world of the unconscious is our major determinant. Our capacity to commune with this world dictates how we act.
Right now we seem to have a very narrow point of view. In conventional history, we’ve left out the earth, the body, the feminine, and the unconscious.
That’s a very good analysis of our predicament. With the feminine goes our creativity. It’s interesting to me that Thomas Aquinas said a really competent intellectual has a very strong sense of the feminine and an extremely developed sense of touch.
To get to the next stage, we must also accept our shadow, as Jung insists. We must incorporate the dark side of the personality and own up to our dark use of technology to poison the biosphere. As Jung says, we grow on our pathologies. That is where the possibility for renewal lies.
There’s one other exercise that might be helpful. And that’s to go back and recount our first memories of nurturing, listing those things that have given us a sense of place.
That would be a fascinating experience, requiring us to think about the Hegelian process, the dialectic of history.
We did something similar at a conference on Religion and the Earth in Canada. The organizers decided to expand a meditation on the stations of the cross to consider the stations of the universe. Special places were identified where people could encounter the wild and the eerie, where we could feel the waves and the winds and the turbulence of nature. At one point, we went down to the marshland to contemplate the emergence of life, to focus on the earth as a water planet where everything has that freshness and feeling of luxuriant growth. Finally, we meditated on the flowers and proteins in the grain that provided us with basic sustenance.
Without flowers, civilization never would have been born.
Do we need a new kind of spirituality to help us appreciate the history of the earth?
What we need to do is stop thinking in terms of personal redemption and focus on the liturgy of the universe. There is a violence here, as Annie Dillard perceives, that gives nature its richness and meaning. We are dealing with a sacred dimension where each being gives itself to another being for its sustenance.
So the universe embodies sacrifice?
Yes. Supernovas are a splendid example of the sacrificial moment. The stars collapse upon themselves, and in an enormous blast of heat, the universe disperses into space. We are stardust. We are made from these elements that gave shape to everything on earth.
Sacrifice, in our ego-dominated society, is a terrifying thing.
That’s where we are, though, in the Age of Materialism, as we try to get meaning from the endless process of consumption. The challenge in the future will be to keep our spiritual traditions alive and be sure we stay in touch with life’s deeper spontaneities.
We are at a very critical moment in this country with our new euphoria about the business world and a renewal of the hundred-year-old ideal that had its culmination in Carnegie and Ford. These individuals led us into the phase of conglomerates and transnationals. Their descendants view everything as an intensification of the consumer process and they have yet to understand the economics of the earth.
Too many entrepreneurs today think of the earth as a financial resource rather than a life community. Yet the future lies in a new definition of management as planetary management.
If you inject a certain form of bacteria into an organism you’ll witness a bloom and then a crash. We have been in the bloom phase (of entrepreneurship) for some time and as a result, we have a great conflict between the goals of each bioregion and the goals of the economy.
Toynbee noted that the disintegration of civilization is always preceded by an exaggerated sense of unity. How is this playing out?
Our impulse to unify should not be focussed on politics or economics but on the planet itself. The genius of the earth is that it hides its unity in diversity. Ultimately, every individual, starting from his or her own vantage point, has the responsibility to synthesize heaven, earth, and the human. In the long run this will lead us to a reinvention of the professions.
In biology, we will have to study the total web of life systems, the role of the biospheres in the historical process. The deeper intention of life itself.
In commerce, we will have to understand the total range and nature of our economic enterprise and endeavor to relate it to other forms of life. And we must consider the mystical communion that occurs when we exchange goods with one another.
In medicine, we will need to consider our relation to the earth and its role as our primary self-healing system. We also need to honor our healers and their capacity to manifest the divine.
In physics, we must find the history of the world and the key to the story of the universe. This discipline will provide a new creation myth for all humanity.
As a result of this, the individual will become so woven into the life process that things will be unintelligible apart from this larger context.
This is the true unity. It won’t come solely from our rational or analytic efforts. But it will require us to venture more deeply into ourselves and into the nature of the universe.
Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry
The Great Work: Our Way into the Future by Thomas Berry
The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religions in the 21st Century by Thomas Berry and Mary Evelyn Tucker
The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler
Civilization on Trial by Arnold J. Toynbee