Sunday, November 11, 2012

#121. Our Way into the Future: Thomas Berry's Vision.

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Post #121 is an extensive review, written for my own self-understanding, of Thomas Berry's book on the role of global humanity at this present transitional time in the Earth's evolution.


The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, by Thomas Berry. Crown Publishing Group (December 1999)

This is an exciting book for me personally. Nearly everything I consider important is here: modern science, biological evolution, cosmic perspectives, the meaning of life, shamanism, sacred ceremonies, seasonal celebrations, ancient myths and archetypes, Jungian psychology! These central concerns of my adult life, some of which are seemingly so marginal to contemporary society, are acknowledged and affirmed in Berry’s book as of central significance. That's why I find his work so fascinating.


Berry begins by saying that his book is about awe and wonder, the beauty of the world, the meaning of life. And it is indeed about all of that. It’s really almost too much to deal with; the ideas are almost too big to handle.

The great work of our time, to which the title refers, is the cosmic task given to us by the universe at this time in history. Many cultures have had such cosmic tasks; examples are the spirituality created by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the classical culture of the Greek world, and the unification of Europe by the Medieval world.

Our great work, says Berry, is that in a world devastated by industrial civilization, we are to learn how to enter into right relations with all the components of the natural world. Berry makes the point that this communion with “all our relations” is a shamanic vocation, and that we can trust that along with such a calling we are given the ability to fulfill it.

Our task, here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is to help in the transition to a new world. Berry also makes the important point that in human history, just as in the lives of individuals, dark times are creative.

The essence of Berry’s viewpoint is that we humans are part of the universe and to align ourselves with it is what life is all about. Quite fascinating, and personally satisfying to me, is his claim that we do this most intentionally via sacred ceremonies. Berry says that a necessary condition for recovery of our relatedness with the earth is the recovery of daily and seasonal ritual. He makes this point not in passing but at the very beginning of the book. His emphasis delights me because an understanding of the principles and practice of sacred ritual, especially seasonal ceremonies, has been a major focus of my life.

Ours is essentially a world of wonder and awe, given to us for our delight! How different that vision of reality is from the typical views of Americans.

But those conventional perspectives are not, and never were, the norm for humanity. As Berry says, for most of human history the powers and forces of nature were thought of as personal manifestations of the numinous, expressions of the sacred Mystery behind the universe. For a time in human history, some five thousand years, a period which seems long to us but was in fact a very small fraction of humanity’s existence, this sense of the sacramental nature of the world was lost.

But-- and this comes as a surprise to many-- modern science allows us to recover it. Berry calls the modern scientific understanding of the origin and development of the earth, including the emergence of life and human consciousness as an integral part of it, the New Sacred Story.

All cultures have stories about their origins and significance. What’s especially important with regard to this New Story is that it is global; thanks to modern scientific education, it is the common heritage of everyone, everywhere.

As an example of humanity’s ancient sacred vision Berry offers the religions of native Americans. They are, he says, among the most impressive spiritual traditions known to us. As examples, he highlights a few practices: the vision quest of the Plains Indians, the baby blessings of the Omaha, the healing rituals of the Navaho, and the thanksgiving ceremonies of the Iroquois.

Berry describes the arrival of Europeans in North America as one of the most fateful moments in human history. “Everything changed,” he says.

Europeans came with the view that the natural world has no rights, that it exists only for exploitation, for trade and commerce. Great damage was done. We see that damage all around us. But this perspective is now being thoroughly critiqued and we are beginning once again to pursue the ancient vision. “We live,” Berry says, “in a historic moment.”

As he points out, all transitional moments are liminal; they are characterized by uncomfortable feelings of being “betwixt and between,” when the old is gone but the new is not yet.

Our historic moment, says Berry, is awesome in its liminality; it marks the sunset of 65 million years of life on earth, the old Cenozoic Age, and the dawn of a new period, the Ecozoic Age. This recovery of the numinous, the wild and natural, says Berry, calls for a supreme creative response.

Any summary on my part of the content of that response is nearly impossible; the best I can do is mention a few major ideas: The universe is itself sacred, the manifestation of Mystery, and reverence before its beauty and terror is the beginning of wisdom. This means, as Berry says, that there is nothing trivial about our lives. The source of all human creativity is the earth’s natural wildness, a wildness which is not random and senseless.

As Berry puts it, the universe is both at home with itself, and yet profoundly discontented with any final expression of itself, so that its wildness is both a natural expanding force and a containing power which results in a creative disequilibrium between expansion and containment. Berry calls this creative balance “a sacred exuberance manifesting the deepest spirit of the cosmos,” and notes that at the human level it shows itself especially in dreams and art.

The implications of such a cosmic vision are enormous. To begin with, each human person can be understood to be the universe reflecting on and celebrating itself. This means that the universe needs each of us, that we wouldn’t even exist if we didn’t have a basic role to play. It also means that we need the universe, just as we need one another. Out of this perspective a fundamental ethical principle emerges: “we do not enhance ourselves by diminishing others, human or non-human.”

The diminishment of the non-human by humans is the central issue of the twenty-first century; and, says Berry, it comes down to a struggle between corporations and ecologists.

The corporations have all the power. They possess the earth’s natural resources and they control the national governments; the earth is already severely damaged. Healing, Berry says, can only happen by an effort and action as intense and vigorous as that which caused the damage in the first place.

He compares the present situation to a bewitchment (although he doesn’t use that word) or an entrancement. Nature is perceived as having no rights while, since the late 1800’s, corporations have had the same legal rights as individual persons.

The situation is like a cultural addiction, he says, and points out that the pathology is especially evident in everyday language where words like “progress” and “profit” are validated and promoted as positive terms, while in reality “progress” is synonymous with the earth’s degradation and “profit” means a deficit for the earth. “Development” is other example; it in fact almost always means destruction of the natural environment.

As Berry points out, the important question is, Why this damage? If we do not enhance ourselves by diminishing others, why this mentally disturbed attitude, this mental illness, which makes ours the most pathological of all cultures? The answer, he says, lies in that inner rage against the limitations of the real world which is found at the heart of western culture. This inner rage seeks to dominate and control the natural world which it perceives as threat. We remain unaware of it, for the most part, precisely because we are caught in the power of its addictive trance.

The best understanding I have of this inner rage which seeks, as Berry says, to dominate and control the natural world, comes from an unlikely source. It’s one I stumbled on accidentally: a psychoanalytic study of fascism based on the literature of pre-Nazi fascist groups known as the Freikorpsmen. The book is Male Fantasies, Volume II, by Klaus Theweleit (University of Minnesota Press, 1987). It is especially helpful because the fascist Freikorps provides us with an example of Western culture’s inner rage at its most blatant extreme.

Fascism, according to Klaus Theweleit, is a repudiation of everyday life and the natural world; it is against everything that constitutes enjoyment and pleasure. It has its origin in the fascist male ego’s fear and hatred of the feminine.

Similarly, the inner rage and destructive violence against women and nature found at the heart of western culture has its origin in the patriarchal ego’s terror at the threat of its destruction. The threat comes from a fear of fusion with the mother, says Theweleit, and is based on lack of pre-oedipal separation from her.

“Such men were never fully born,” he says; they never differentiated enough from their maternal source to relate, as a separate ego, to an other, and they can only feel the integrity of the ego-self and sustain a sense of bodily boundaries by inflicting violence on others.

Similarly, disdain for the world and the contemporary exploitation and destruction of the natural environment by Western civilization is a desire to destroy the mother. It is the result of the patriarchal ego’s alienation from nature. It comes from the sense of not being cared for by Mother Earth, of not being wanted by the universe. At bottom, is the feeling that reality itself is not to be trusted.

As I said previously, how different this attitude of alienation, fear and hatred is from the ancient view that ours is essentially a world of wonder and awe, given to us for our delight. How different, indeed, from patriarchal culture’s rage and destructive violence against nature is the ancient perspective that we are part of the universe and to align ourselves with it is what life is all about!

How may this alienation be overcome? According to Berry, the path to reorientation is to be found in a return to the depths of our own psychological roots. We can overcome our alienation from nature, he says, by “our attention to fundamental archetypal images found in the human psyche.”

He mentions specifically those of the Great Mother, the Eternal Round of Death and Rebirth, the Cosmic Tree of Life and the Hero-Journey. These empowering archetypes, he notes, need to be valued and promoted especially by the guiding professions, education and religion, because as symbolic images they provide us with the basic story of how the world works and how humans fit into it. (An excellent book on the topic of archetypal guidance is Tracking the Gods, The Place of Myth in Modern Life, by James Hollis [Inner City, 1995]).



There are four basic human establishments, politics, economics, religion and education, says Berry, and at present all four are failing. The reason for their failure is simple: each presumes a radical discontinuity between the human and non-human. Personally, I find it amazing that our political, economic, religious and educational establishments continue to alienate us from the world of nature. It is very difficult to understand how we can continue to remain so unconscious.

Berry has much to say about education and religion. As guiding professions, they, especially, need to be grounded in the modern scientific story of the earth. But, as he says, they tend to remain stuck in fundamentalist traditions of the past or to get lost in New Age trivia.

Berry notes that although there are many twentieth-century nature writers-- Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez and Gary Snyder, for example-- they have no influence on the contemporary university. The present educational system exists simply to prepare students for roles in the domination of the earth, not to be in relationship with it. In his view, the educational establishment is one of the principal supports of our contemporary social pathology.

His sees the religious establishment as being no better. Religion is seriously deficient, he says, in not teaching effectively that the natural world is the primary revelation. Its overemphasis on redemption, for example, “leaves us unable to benefit religiously from that primary and most profound mode of experiencing the divine in the immediacies of life.”

Berry makes the point that, in education generally, liberal studies and the humanities are so extensively focused on the human that our place in the cosmos is missed. He says that in Western culture up until thirteenth century, the cosmos was understood as primary recipient of the benefits of the incarnation and redemption, but that in the fourteenth century, the experience of the Black Death in Europe changed that perspective. The result was an aversion to nature, which in the seventeenth century was pushed further by Rene Des Cartes, who saw nature only as a machine to be exploited. Even today, Berry notes, scientists still remain suspicious of nature.

Yet we are now coming to see that a more reasonable response to the world is not hatred and fear but awe and wonder. Education can give us a new revelation of the mystery of the universe. Berry calls his generation “autistic” with regard to the presence of personal spirit-powers in the natural world. “Religion has been too pious, corporations too plundering, governments too subservient.”

Is healing possible? Is there a way out of this pathological condition of alienation from the real world?

With regard to reestablishing the continuity between the human and non-human, Berry stresses that it is the place of the universities to provide guidance to the young. He says that in an evolutionary perspective, the university can be seen as the universe reflecting upon itself and communicating its self-reflection to the human community, so that the basic course at every level of education must be the New Story of the universe and humanity’s place in it.

Against rationalism and materialism, Berry makes the point that we ourselves are the best evidence for the fact that the universe is a mind-producing, psyche-producing and relatedness-producing process.

But even at the pre-human level there is, as he says, much evidence that natural things are in some sense subjects to be related to, not merely objects for exploitative use. This experience of relating to the personal presences found in nature is one of the most difficult things for contemporary people to understand. For some wonderful examples, see Jane Goodall’s recent book, Reason for Hope, A Spiritual Journey (Warner Books, 1999).

Berry says we need to re-think everything in terms of the New Story: how, for example, the older cultural forms fit into the new context and how, for each of us, the New Story is also our own personal story.

To me, this seems one of the most important aspects of his whole vision: seeing that our personal development, that our inner growth or “individuation,” as Jungians call it, is in direct continuity with the rest of the evolution of the earth. It would seem to be a powerful response, for example, to the restlessness and rootlessness of contemporary young people. The New Story says to each one of us: “You count. Your life is not trivial. The universe needs you.”

Such a perspective should come from the religious traditions, but the western religious attitude toward nature remains superficial; it finds itself unable to accept life in the conditions given to us. “Salvation” has come to mean “from life in the world,” rather than “for the life of the world.”

Thus, says Berry, contemporary religion and the humanistic traditions are principal supporters of our present alienation. We need to go back to our genetic roots: we need to recover the historical and psychological roots of our human heritage in the Paleolithic and shamanic perspectives of a sacred earth. It is in this very old, yet totally new, revelatory experience that “our hope for the future” lies.



At present, every aspect of life is absorbed into the context of commerce and industry; and, as Berry observes, we do not seem to be able even to imagine any other. Ecologists and environmentalists are still considered radical, or romantic, or simply caught up in New Age trivia-- an indication, he says, of the pathology of our addiction which can bear no alternatives.

For several centuries, since early 1600’s, industry and commerce have been the principal instruments of devastation of the planet. At present, financial corporations direct the discovery and use of science and technology for the benefit of humans and financial gain. But, Berry says, devastation of the planet for human benefit is simply unacceptable.

Since the late 1800s, corporations in the United States have had the same legal rights as individual persons, but none of the responsibilities.

His condemnation of corporations is relentless. They oppose government regulation, they resist restraints based on concerns for environmental protection, they do not share profits with their workers. By their control of media and advertising, their corruption of governments, and their oppression of the workers, they are the most influential of all institutions on the planet.

From the time of the early settlers and the building of canals and railroads, to the development of electricity, cars and petroleum, and now to their extension from the United States to the entire planet, corporations have justified their devastation of the natural world, as well as their use of public lands and public money, their manipulation of the media and their exploitation of workers, always in terms of progress and free enterprise.

This is the central issue of the early twenty-first century, says Berry. This is the stark reality that has to be dealt with now.

Certain defining moments contributed to the creation of the present situation, Berry points out.

The joining of Judeo-Christian spirituality with Greco-Roman humanism and imperialism allowed for the mentality of a radical discontinuity between nature and humanity, and this attitude of alienation from nature led, via the Black Death, to seeing nature as a threat. It also led to the modern scientific suspicion of nature, allowing for control of nature by commerce and industry.

Since the 1880’s, this has produced a terminal (rather than an ever-renewing, organic) economy, resulting from the extraction industries’ use of the earth’s resources without regard for consequences. Our great need now, says Berry, is to see that the earth and biodiversity are the primary values: to see that nothing exists in isolation, that “nothing can be itself without everything else.”

One especially important aspect of this organic rather than mechanical worldview is the issue of diversity and standardization. As Berry says, “nature abhors uniformity; it produces individuals.”

Berry’s focus on the petroleum industry is especially enlightening. As both an extraction industry and the source of innumerable synthetic and damaging petro-chemicals, it is the cause of enormous problems. Yet it is the world’s most profitable industry and the very basis of our present way of life; and it is not sustainable, in any case, for more than a few more decades.

Berry concludes that in the face of all this, if there is to be hope for the future, we need to “reinvent the human.”



How can we go about reinventing the human? We humans create ourselves, in a cultural sense. As Annie Dillard says, quoting an anthropologist in her new book, For the Time Being, “Once the naked ape starts to talk, the mouth becomes the organ of reproduction.” Berry says we create ourselves “via story and vision.” Tribal peoples in West Africa call sacred rites and stories “the amazing word of the world.” How can we learn to speak again this “amazing word?” Where can we turn for help?

Our present cultural traditions are, as Berry says, at an impasse. The older traditions are not in themselves equal to the task before us. They have neither prevented the present devastation of the earth, nor have some of them even begun to critique it. We need a new cultural focus.

And we have it, says Berry, in the new revelation of cosmogenesis given to us by modern science: our awareness of the universe as an evolutionary process, and situating the human within the larger context of earth and nature.

This New Story-- that we humans are part of the universe and to align ourselves with it is what life is all about-- is probably the greatest change in human consciousness since we first appeared two or three million years ago; it is the global equivalent of the creation stories and origin myths of earlier cultures.

But this present understanding of the universe as evolving and emergent, and of the human psyche as integral to cosmic emergence, is especially significant not only in that it allows us to see ourselves as the result of cosmic evolution. It now allows us also to see ourselves as the guiding influence for the earth’s continued development.

This is where “our hope for the future” lies.

Only with this vision we will be able to overcome the current trance state and addictive pathology of our present culture. Only with such a vision, says Berry, can we think in terms of local subsistence economies and legal rights for the mineral, plant and animal components of the earth. Only with such a vision will we be able to accomplish our Great Work, the cosmic task given to us by the universe at this time in history.



First, it seems to me especially important to realize that this new revelation of sacred earth is, in fact, a recovery of the shamanic and sacramental perspective that is our human birthright from Paleolithic times.

It’s in our genes, as Berry says: it’s a recovery of empowering archetypal images from deep within the human unconscious. To the images Berry mentions, especially those of the Great Mother and the Hero-Journey, I want to add two: the Shaman and the Trickster.

Any implementation of the New Story seems to me to be especially dependent on a recovery of these two archetypes. The Hero is part of the patriarchal stage of development, and we need to go beyond the hero.

If, as Berry has said, the root of our problems lies especially in the inner hatred and rage against nature and the feminine on the part of the patriarchal ego, then it seems especially important that we recognize that there is an alternative to this patriarchal model of manhood, one which is not based on fear of the natural world.

Deep within the male psyche is a much earlier masculine archetype, that of the shamanic trickster. It prevailed through most of human history and is an image of manhood in communion with, rather than alienated from, the earth. It still remains to be discovered by our culture.

The fact that we are only just beginning to recognize the existence of an alternative to patriarchal masculinity demonstrates the strength of our continued enmeshment in the patriarchal trance state.

If our culture thinks of the shaman at all, it thinks of him as a primitive witch doctor; perhaps, even, as one practicing satanic rites. The reality is different.

As Berry says, during the Paleolithic age, which constitutes approximately ninety-eight percent of human history, we humans found the meaning of life in responding to the ocean of physical and psychical energies in which we live. Our ancestors experienced the energies and forces of the earth as spirit-powers and personal presences. Being sensitive and responsive to those earth energies is precisely what shamanism is all about.

In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, C. G. Jung says that whether or not they appear to be personal, when these archetypal powers present themselves to us, we should consciously relate to them.

“Talk to them,” Jung says. That such an experience of the powers of the earth and the human psyche remains so little understood in our culture is yet another indication of the patriarchal ego’s alienation from the currents of life on earth.

It seems to me that if we are ever to move beyond the patriarchal male ego’s alienation from the world, it is absolutely essential that we recover the empowering image of the shamanic male, one who is not afraid to be in communion with the powers of the earth and the Mystery of the universe. Sacred manhood and sacred earth go together; we can’t have one without the other.

We also need to recover the related image of the Trickster. We know this archetype from the cartoon character of Wily Coyote and perhaps Brer Rabbit, but it is much more significant than simply that of an individual who plays tricks and causes unnecessary troubles. The Trickster image is also part of sacred manhood.

Just as the Shaman is one who is unafraid in the face of the powers of the earth and the unconscious, so the Trickster is one who is unafraid in the face of the conventional views of society.

Our empowerment by the Trickster archetype is what allows us to go beyond the conventions of the patriarchal perspective. Patriarchal authority demands of us that we do what we’re told, that we do not question authority, that we don’t rock the boat. The Trickster has the courage to laugh at the pomposity and rigidity of the patriarchal mind and to move on to deal with the life-giving issues that need to be dealt with.

But going “beyond the hero,” with the recovery of the Shaman and Trickster images of a grounded and sacred manhood, allows us to recover even something more. It allows us to recover the very basis of the Western religious tradition, the sacramental nature of the world.

The archetypal energies of the earth and the forces of the unconscious can be understood from two different points of view.

From one perspective, they are the source of our personal meaning, identity and purpose: they literally empower us to be who and what we are. This is especially important in that “nature abhors uniformity,” as Berry says. The universe wants and needs each one of us in our personal uniqueness.

From another point of view, which does not exclude the first, the spiritual energies of the earth are nothing less than manifestations of the numinous. They are epiphanies of the sacred, expressions of the Mystery of the universe giving itself to us. And giving itself to us as our very selves.

To the patriarchal mind this sounds like the grossest heresy, but it is in fact the ancient sacramental vision of life. It proclaims that “In God we live and move and have our being,” that we are participants in the divine nature, that we are co-creators along with God.

And, thus, that the transfiguration of the world is in our hands.

Berry says our future depends on our ability to see ourselves in this context. How diminished our lives are when we are alienated from the currents of life on earth!

The modern worldview is overwhelming in its grandeur and the New Story allows us to see again that what life is all about is to experience awe, reverence, joy in the earth. Our future depends on our ability to see ourselves as celebrants of the sacred, to see the evolutionary transitions as moments of grace, and to see that it is all now up to us.

As Berry puts it, we need not only to be present to the earth, but to be the earth. And our task is to direct its development during the next sequence of transformations.

Finally, there is the question of whether we are up to it. Are we capable of carrying out the Great Work which the universe has given us?

Berry says that we can in fact trust that we are capable of accomplishing the cosmic task to which we are called. He says that we can indeed trust, based on past experience, that we will be properly guided by the spirit-powers of the earth and the archetypal energies of the human psyche.

He notes that these spiritual energies are not depleted but increased when we use and share them. But he cautions that “such natural forces are available to us not by domination but by invocation.” The ancestral powers will guide us rightly when we give them our attention. “For our success,” he says, “we need only call upon them.”

It would seem, then, that one of the most immediate tasks before us is to learn how to give our attention to the ancestral powers of the earth.

As the tribal peoples of West African say, the ‘grandfathers’ and ‘grandmothers’ are summoned to our support via “laughter, rite and story.” If it comes as a surprise to many that contemporary modern science allows us to recover the ancient sacramental vision of the world, the age-old significance of sacred rites is probably more of a surprise.

Far from being the superstitious practices of primitive peoples, sacred ritual is the very means by which the guidance of the spiritual forces of the earth is evoked. This has always been known by everyone, everywhere, except in our own patriarchal society.

But the techniques of ritual story-telling and sacred ceremonies have been preserved for us, outside mainstream global culture, by the native peoples of our planet. It is to them that we must turn for help if we are to begin to implement the New Story.


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