A Conversation with Thomas Berry

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NT: There’s the Christian Creation Myth that God created the World in 7 days. There is the various Indigenous Creation Myths. Then, there is the Universe Story which you and Brian Swimme developed. How does the Universe Story in with the Christian cosmology as well as the indigenous perspectives and those of other religions?

TB: Well, the Universe Story that Brian Swimme and I put together was the story as understood by the scientific world. The scientific world has been able to examine and to identify the stages through which the Universe has passed in some billions of years… perhaps 4 ½ billion years. In telling the story, Brian told the first part and I told the second. The first half was in telling the story of the pre- human and I told the human story.

There are several ways in which you can approach the telling of how the Universe came into being. The scientific story is the account that emerges from an examination of the Universe as it communicates to us at the present time. It is a technical story as told by measurement and number and the whole procedures of the [scientific method], understanding the sequence of events that leads us to present time. which tells us something about the mechanics of the Universe, but doesn’t say anything about meaning. Science, for instance, yields us no idea of how to use Science. We are not using Science very wisely. As sometimes they say of Science, the scientists can count the vibrations of the instruments, but they cannot hear the music. So the aspect of the Universe that is communicated with the scientific program is a very limited thing, but then there is science as an aid to cosmology. Cosmology  means,  “understanding  the  Universe.”

In terms of meaning or value and in terms of guidance, [Science] cannot help us with the essential things that are needed, except by telling us the mechanics of how things function. It can help us with medicine. It can help us with communications. It can help us by giving us the means to travel, but it cannot guide us in how to use these instruments.

There is another way of understanding the Universe— the way in which we experience the wonder and the majesty and the awe of the Universe and we turn to language. Language is our way of understanding the Universe. Science in this sense doesn’t give us a meaningful language. It gives us language as measurement but not as meaning so the great need, as I expressed once at an event for the Academy of the Advancement of Science. AAA had a conference at the Museum of Natural History in New York. I ended a series of 20 talks. I ended it with a very simple way of thinking about science and cosmology. Of course, we’ve lost cosmology. We still have religion, but we’ve lost cosmology. That’s really  the  challenge and difficulty of present—our loss of the Universe. The Universe, presupposing the existence of human kind depends on some kind of Creative Principle. The Creative Principle is first and the Universe is derivative. But for the human understanding, the Universe is first and the Divine is sequential. That is… we go from the Universe to the Divine. So the Universe is First in every way… first in our Knowledge of the Divine of human life and its meaning, in governance… in everything. Cosmology is very important. When we got Science, we lost cosmology, because science began to think that only science gives you the reality of things. Everything else tends to be imagination or religious belief, whereas science has this precision and exactness about what it is about to tell a person. This sense of the universe is really what is missing. Science needs to be a function within a cosmology. When Science thinks it is a cosmology, science will destroy the planet. When Science functions within an acceptable cosmology, it becomes wisdom.

Science can be very helpful in telling us the details about things, like the resolution of the problems like global warming. In this case, s scientific approach is needed. This capacity to limit our use of the natural world is necessary, but is not sufficient. It doesn’t help with the basic problems which have to do with our understanding of how the Universe functions and our human adaptation to these principles which we get through our humanistic sciences.

At the present time, we either say something is scientific or that it is religious. If we don’t resolve things as science, we say that they are religious.

NT: What is the deepest problem in education?

TB: What I am concerned with is establishing an appreciation of Universe as Universe, not as a function of the affective way of economics because that keeps the children caught in the absence of cosmology. There is only one way to escape that.

Why do you want the children to walk in the woods? Why do want them to experience the rain and the wind and the dawn and the sunset and the whole amazing flurry of existence. The reason is to awaken in the child of [a sense] who they are. And the context in which their life unfolds. So life needs to unfold by all these powers of the Universe, particularly with community relationships. The integral relatedness of the Universe will be preserved. When you have a Universe, religion is possible. That’s one of the basic things. The wonder of the universe is so vast and overwhelming, beyond human thought. You can’t make a tree from origin. To bring existence into the diversity of what exists.

The Universe is composed of three aspects: Identity, Diversity and Community. There is no particular value of sameness. Sameness doesn’t add anything. Sameness is a value simply to accommodate what exists but there’s no enrichment… numerically, sure, but not as a mode of being. These three aspects made the Universe. That is what the child needs to be educated by. To be is to be unique. People are not the same. I remember when I was ten years old that I had heard a child [tell] his parents that he liked some of the kids better than others and this concerned me so I asked mother, “Do you like some children better than others?”

Immediately, without hesitation, my mother said, “I feel closest to the one who needs me the most.” This idea of fostering the identity, diversity, and community: a child is qualitatively different in nature. Here’s something you will need to think about: Being is an analogy. It’s like this indifference to say a thing exists.

One of my main latest interests was law. Every being has rights. People have figured out human rights; animals and birds and rocks and rivers [also] have rights. Everything has rights. How could everything have rights? Well, it’s an analogy. A tree needs tree rights. A bird needs bird rights. The rights of a tree are no good for bird. Everything gets its rights by the same source: that which brought them into being. To say that something exists is true, but not the same.

A person needs to learn how to be different, to develop their own individuality, and talents. Identity requires an inner core of meaning independent of everything else, and also needs relatedness with everything else and needs to be different. The difference needs to be bonded with relatedness. It needs to be identical, distinct, and needs to identify with otherness so that you make community. And that’s education. Humans need to develop as humans. They are different from other modes of being and need to be identified as different, but then they need to relate to other modes of being in a positive way that’s beneficial for everybody. So the child needs to relate to otherness in a positive way and so it creates community. It is this sense of the Universe is what is lost. We have so exaggerated the value of the human so that instead of relating positively, we are relating negatively in an exploitative way to otherness.

NT: So would you say that is our greatest challenge? 

TB: Our greatest challenge is to fulfill those three roles. (Identity, Diversity, and Community). Our greatest challenge is not simply as individuals, but also as a species. Species need to relate to other species, and humans need to relate to the other modes of being because We are nothing without everything else. If you damage the outer world, you damage the inner world. You cannot succeed when you are harmful to the other species. It is a losing game if you are harmful to the surrounding world.

NT: When you are speaking of this, I am reflecting how much indigenous communities have to offer us.

TB: Indigenous communities, at their best, are fulfilled [in these three roles]. Indigenous communities have this intimacy of relationship and understand the roles that people play. Again, that’s the value of roles—of people being trained to fulfill a certain role. It’s all for the good that we aren’t fixated to overly specified roles in our education, but on the other hand, it is regretful that a person grows up with no particular skills to their larger life purpose.

NT: So offer them tools.

TB: Offer them tools, but also strengthen their vision, whereby they can fulfill their own inner spontaneities that they inherited with their life program.

NT: I am curious what you think about what is going on today, with the Bush administration, with the wars in the Middle East, etc.?

TB: I think it belongs to an age of ultimate devastation… I believe I put it in my book, A Dream of the Earth, that what is happening is that we making the Planet Earth uninhabitable by anything. We are just devastating Planet Earth… and I don’t know of any other species that has had this effect on other species. There are conditions… of physical, biological conditions that disturb the life systems of species, but the idea of something like THIS happening… I just don’t know.

What I say is that we have gone through three phases of life. The Paleozoic, the Old Life period, which terminated several hundred million years ago, 220 million years ago, when 95% species became extinct. The Middle Life Phase, the Mesozoic, terminated 75 million years ago… and that’s when the Dinosaurs died out when some 60 % of all species became extinct. Then it was the Cenozoic, which was the recent life period. We are terminating the recent life period after some 75 million years, and, I suggest that we are entering an “Ecozoic Era.” We are leaving one phase and entering another. We are entering the fourth biological age.

What I am suggesting… We have to restore some kind of Human-Earth relations. It’s the only remedy I know. That’s where the problem is. That’s where the remedy is.

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