Friday, February 11, 2011

#87. Stardust's Imperative: Reinterpretation

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In our day we have "a new mode of religious understanding," as Thomas Berry says. And it's not thanks to our religious traditions, he emphasizes, but to science.

The religious traditions are part of the problem. I quoted Bede Griffith in post #86: "The different world religions-- Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam-- have themselves to recover the ancient wisdom, which they have inherited, and this now has to be interpreted in the light of the knowledge of the world which Western science has given us."

The context for our new mode of religious understanding is the recovery of what Berry calls our "awareness of spiritual communication with the natural world." It was the religious experience of our earliest human ancestors and we remain genetically coded for it today.

While this is obviously not easy for some to accept, modern science is far from being in contradiction to religious perspectives; it offers, in fact, a contemporary context for the re-interpretation of the basic perspectives of our religious traditions.

We are "recovering reverence," says Berry. "Evolution has become our sacred story."


For a long time, the Western world didn't have a sacred story. We didn't even know we didn't have a sacred story! We were doubly estranged by both religion and science and, as a result, much of the Western world gave up on religion.

Secularists, agnostics, and atheists gave up on it completely, while those who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" gave up on its institutional forms. Those who remain in the traditional churches are in a different situation: they find themselves increasingly dismayed by their churches' irrelevance.

And then there are those of us who-- by personal inclination, curiosity, education, or stubbornness-- see something of great value in the old traditions and don't want to discard them. We want to see them in the new scientific context where they can once again be life-giving.

That's the topic of this post. Berry calls "reinterpretation." I've called it "Stardust's Imperative."


"Stardust" is a faithful reader of this blog; over the last several years she has contributed many good comments to my posts. In response to one of them, I suggested recently she re-read posts #20 and #39. The details are complicated but the main idea isn't: with regard to a view which I'd pointed out to her of the Russian Sophiologist, Sergius Bulgakov, she said, "What a beautiful thought!"

Then she added, "Everything I go back to now gets reinterpreted through a new filter."

That's "Stardust's Imperative": to reinterpret everything-- all the religious teachings that have come down to us-- through the "new filter" of evolutionary science.

As I said in another context, "when the traditional Western religious teachings are reinterpreted in terms of the New Cosmology, the result is an even deeper, richer and more beautiful understanding than was available earlier."

Thomas Berry says that when we look at the data itself, "we begin to see a story of immediate significance." Big History, the largest cosmic perspective, "reveals the mysteries of the universe coming forth from the original flaring forth of primordial energy, then passing through a series of irreversible transformation episodes that have brought into being the visible world around us."

In our day, Stardust's Imperative is the imperative of all of us. We all have to join with Stardust, Thomas Berry, Bede Griffith, Michael Dowd, and many others who are on the growing edge of Western culture, so that we too can have "an even deeper, richer and more beautiful understanding than was available earlier."


I want to give some examples of the "reinterpretations" Thomas Berry offers. But I want first to share an important thought about the process of reinterpretation itself.

Reinterpretation isn't just something for academics and scholars. It's part of everyday life. We do it all the time, because we know from personal experience that we see things differently when we understand them better. There's no reason to exclude our religious perspectives from this common human experience.

Beyond that, understanding old things in new ways is, for some of us, a special delight. It's exciting when we find that even our understanding itself is evolving. And one of the most significant things we come to understand is that, often, a new interpretation don't negate an older one but puts it in a larger context. It lets us see a bigger picture.

I think that's especially the case with regard to reinterpreting religious ideas in the new scientific context, but religion isn't the only area of life that needs reinterpretation as a result of new scientific findings. Science itself is constantly reinterpreting its own ideas.

Probably the most famous example is Einstein's theory of relativity. It's essentially a reinterpretation of the laws of gravity formulated by Isaac Newton back in the 17th century.

Newton's understanding wasn't wrong; we still experience gravity in everyday life just as he described it 350 years ago. But Newton's 17th-century-formulation is now understood in the larger, more-inclusive context of Einstein's laws of relativity.

That's a key idea to keep in mind with regard to Stardust's Imperative: reinterpretation lets us see older ideas in a newer and bigger context, but it doesn't negate them.

So we don't need to be afraid to look at earlier teachings in the larger context of modern science. Just as Einstein's laws of gravity don't contradict the earlier ones formulated by Newton but give us a better understanding of them, so the perspectives of the New Cosmology don't contradict the basic teachings of Western religion but put them in a much larger and more inclusive context.


In his 1985 essay "Christian Cosmology," Thomas Berry lists several big ideas from the Judeo-Christian tradition which can be reinterpreted in light of the New Cosmology. Here he's speaking to a Christian audience and so uses familiar Christian terms: "biblical revelation, the incarnation, redemption and the shaping of the Christian community."

Because the idea of community applies equally to all the Earth's religious traditions, East and West, I want to describe Berry's ideas about community first. From my experience I know that a sense of community is especially relevant to those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or secular or who think of themselves as "spiritual but not religious."


Sociologically, we know that community is a fundamental human need, and that our understanding of community, Christian or otherwise, centers on the idea of person.

Asian cultures are often criticized for not valuing human individuals as much as the Western society does, but both of the Earth's largest cultural groups, East and West, have something of importance to learn about persons in light of the cosmic perspective provided by modern science.

In Berry's words, "Persons are a cosmic phenomenon-- both a part of the process and also the process itself come to self-awareness." And it's this cosmic perspective, he says, which allows us to see our proper role in the universe. It allows us to see what persons are "for."

That role (our job, our common task) is, in Berry's words, "to return the universe to itself and to its numinous origins." And he points out that in doing this work we are dependent "for every aspect of our intellectual insight, spiritual development, imaginative creativity and emotional sensitivity" on the findings of science.

Berry's terms for the three main aspects of the cosmic process are differentiation, subjectivity and communion. And he notes that while differentiation-- the diversity of persons, "individuation" in Jungian terms-- is a central aspect of the cosmic process, our industrial society requires standardization. So do our religious institutions.

From the point of view of cosmic evolution, however, persons simply are not subject-able to standardization. So it's only when we have a clear understanding of the individual person as a cosmic phenomenon that we can have good sense of a community of persons.

It's in this perspective, says Berry, that the idea of "community" can be recognized as nothing less than the very goal and purpose of the cosmic process. In his words, "the ultimate community is the whole universe together." And in an extremely significant comment, he adds that "it is the task specifically of the Christian community to articulate and move the world towards the achievement of this purpose."

What a profound understanding of Christian community this is! For me, it's an outstanding example of the recovery of a buried treasure. It's an understanding of "church" utterly un-like that of the authoritarian patriarchal institution to which that name is usually given.

It is the sacramentum mundi of Karl Rahner and the mysterion tou cosmou of Raimundo Panikkar which I wrote about in several earlier posts. It is the Christian community's ancient understanding of itself as a sacred sign, a sacramental symbol of the ultimate community which the New Testament calls the "recapitulation" of the universe, "God all-in-all," the fullness of God in everything (Ephesians 1:10).

This is, indeed, a profound understanding. And Berry's understanding of the idea of "redemption" in the evolutionary context of the New Cosmology is no less profound.


Berry observes that at every level of the cosmic process-- from sub-atomic particles uniting in stars to form atoms of the chemical elements... to single-celled life-forms uniting to form the Earth's plants and animals... even to parents sacrificing themselves for the sake of their children-- "redemption" or "sacrifice" in some sense is always made at one level "for the emergence of a higher level."

In the static-dualistic worldview of the past, redemption was understood as a legal, even a financial, agreement: "a price must be paid." But in the dynamic evolutionary perspective we can see that "sacrifice"-- Berry even says "self-immolation" at one point-- is "a primary necessity in activating advanced modes of being in the cosmic process."

From the world's creation described in the book of Revelations as the sacrifice of "the lamb slain at the foundation of the world," to the life-story of Jesus, and to every parent changing a diaper at this moment anywhere in the world-- redemptive sacrifice is understood to be a primary necessity. It's a totally valid understanding of how the world works. We don't need to limit our understanding of redemption to the work of one person or one group of persons.


The same is true with regard to our understanding of "incarnation" and "revelation." In the perspectives of the New Cosmology, we can see that divine incarnation doesn't need to be limited to the life a single individual, nor does divine revelation need to be limited to the sacred stories of only one of the Earth's cultural groupings.

By whatever name-- the familiar Logos of John's Gospel, the less familiar Greek terms such as theosis or Raimundo Panikkar's cosmo-the-andric unity, even the quite unfamiliar Bogochelovechestvo of the Russian Sophiologists-- the divine-human unity expressed in the gospel story of Jesus makes good sense in terms of the New Cosmology.

So does the Passover story, the story of the Great Escape from Egypt recorded in the book of Exodus. Berry calls this biblical revelation "the historical unfolding of the divine in human history." He also notes that, as I've mentioned in several previous posts, it is the very source of our contemporary evolutionary cosmology.

Isn't this a fascinating thought, that Western religion gave us science, and western science is now returning the heart of Western religion to us!


The main thought I want to share in this post is that "Stardust's Imperative" really is an imperative. We simply cannot go back to the older dualistic religious perspectives-- any more than we can try to understand the universe or our human world without Einstein's ideas about relativity and Darwin's understanding of natural selection.

And just as Einstein's 20th-century theory of relativity doesn't invalidate but deepens our understanding of the law of gravity that Newton formulated in the 17th century, the same is true of Berry's understanding of our need to see traditional Christian teachings in the larger context of the New Cosmology.

Berry sums up these thoughts nicely: "We need to see that revelation, incarnation and redemption are primarily for the entire universe," he says. "And not," he adds, "for any [specific] individual or group."


That sounds good, but does "Stardust's Imperative"-- reinterpreting everything in our religious teachings through the "new filter" of evolutionary science-- really result is an "even deeper, richer and more beautiful understanding than was available earlier"?

I think it does. The new scientific cosmology helps us recover the most basic aspects of the Western world's religious traditions as they were understood before Western society became "doubly estranged" from the natural world and our spiritual communication with it.

One example that immediately comes to mind is the earliest known description of a gathering of a Christian community. The ancient text says that when the early Christians got together, they began by reading the scriptures and sharing news of the lives of their fellow believers. "And then," it says, "we stand up and pray for all the world."

This ancient practice is explicitly continued in the Christian communities of the Eastern churches. When they gather for what they still call their service of thanksgiving-- "returning the world to its numinous source" in Berry's language-- they pray, "We offer You what is Yours, on behalf of all and for all."

So from a traditional Christian point of view, the Eucharist is quite literally a work (a "liturgia" in Greek) done "for the entire universe." 

From the point of the view of the New Cosmology it is no less. An awkward but I think helpful way to say it is that it is the actualization by a community of cosmic persons of their cosmic role in the cosmic process.

We don't need to refer only to ancient texts and liturgical practices to appreciate this central understanding of service and its sacramental expression in the Eucharist. A contemporary example appears in a recent (January 27, 2011) New York Times article by a two-time 

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Nicholas Kristof.
Kristof is reporting on a complex situation in Phoenix where a bishop excommunicated first a nun, and then an entire Catholic hospital-- by refusing permission for the eucharist to be celebrated there. He quotes Jamie L. Manson, columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, who expresses beautifully the ancient understanding of eucharist and its connection with service "on behalf of all and for all."

"Though they will be denied the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist, the Eucharist will rise out of St. Joseph’s every time the sick are healed, the frightened are comforted, the lonely are visited, the weak are fed, and vigil is kept over the dying."

Clearly, the "new mode of religious understanding" which is ours thanks to science helps us to recover even the most basic teaching of Jesus.


The New Cosmology also helps us recover the confidence and trust that is the very essence of our personal lives when lived according to the religious perspective of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

When we recognize that "evolution is our sacred story" we see not only that creation is still in process and that we are co-creative participants 
in it, but also that we have an especially good way to understand our personal participation in that story: "passover."

As the text of the Passover Seder says, "this story holds true for us today." The Passover story tells us that we have nothing to lose in the long run, that we don't need to be afraid.

As I see it, Stardust's Imperative-- reinterpretation in light of the New Cosmology-- isn't something to shy away from. It's exciting.

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.