“everything is shining in glory
singing a story
if love is a language
then I am just
learning to spell
while there’s a story
that the stars
[Excerpt, "soulstice," by Drew Dellinger]
The first person to introduce me to the power of story was Thomas Berry, the American ecological and cosmological writer and thinker. In 1978 Thomas Berry wrote an essay called, “The New Story,” and it starts like this:
“It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it is no longer effective, yet we have not learned the new story.”
And so, Thomas Berry was very much talking about the function of stories and the power of stories—the meta-story about stories, as David Spangler just referred to. When I was first studying with Tom Berry in 1991 he said, “It seems that we basically communicate meaning by narrative, at least that’s my approach to things: that narrative is our basic mode of understanding. The difficulty that we’re into has come, to a large extent, from the limitations and inadequacies of our story. And what we need, I think, and what we really have, is a new story."
Now, there are several elements to the new story. All of you are bringing a different thread of the new story. But when Berry was talking about the new story, a lot of what he was talking about was our new understanding of the universe and the unfolding of the planet Earth, what you could call The Universe Story. And so, for Berry, this was an amazing opportunity for the Western tradition to reconnect to the sense of interdependence and interconnectedness that Indigenous peoples have always maintained, have always held in their wisdom traditions.
So for him this scientific understanding that the universe exploded into existence some 13 billion years ago, expanded out in every direction for approximately a billion years, swirled itself into a trillion galaxies; galaxies that formed new elements in the hearts of their stars; stars that exploded with new element-rich clouds of stellar nebulae that could then swirl back into second-generation stars with planets around them; planets with the inner genius and creativity that they could bring forth oceans and atmosphere, the first cells of life, all of the creatures that we know. I don’t need to recount the whole story—you can get that in books—but what was significant about Berry’s vision was that it was a poetic vision of the interdependence of this seamless energy. He said it’s one single energy unfolding, and we are that. We are the space in which the universe reflects on and celebrates itself, just as the whales, and the trees, and the clouds are manifestations in which the universe celebrates itself.
For Thomas Berry, celebration was a one-word synonym for the cosmos. He’d say, ‘the stars shine, the rivers flow, the flowers bloom, the trees blossom, all in ecstatic celebration.’
So, for Berry, the universe was a communion and a celebration, and the true definition of the human was “the space in which the universe reflects on and celebrates itself.”
Now, for Berry, this was a chance for the Western tradition to restructure all of its thinking, but had a special role to play in education. Tom said once: “What is education? Education is knowing the story of the universe, how it began, how it came to be as it is, and the human role in the story. There is nothing else. We need to know the story, the universe story, in all its resonances, in all its meanings. The universe story is the divine story, the human story, the story of the trees, the story of the rivers, of the stars, the planets, everything. It is as simple as a kindergarten tale, yet as complex as all cosmology and all knowledge and all history…. It gives a new context for education.”
So that’s a little bit on cosmology and the universe story. I want to bring in a few thoughts about the connections between ecology, social justice, and cosmology. That’s been my special area of interest for the last 20 to 25 years: what are the connections between ecology, social justice, and cosmology or worldview?
First, let me say that—as I’m sure you all realize, and as is embodied by this gathering—that the new story is going to be a multiplicity of stories. The new story is going to be a kaleidoscope of stories. The author, John Berger, wrote, “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.”
So the new story, of course, has to come from the voices of women; come from the voices of communities of color; come from the voices of the Global South; come from the voices and the genius of youth. I think the youth who are rising up in Ferguson, Missouri—saying ‘enough’ to racism in policing and in society—have an integral thread, have an integral part to play in what’s going to be the new story. Can we recognize the leadership of the youth of Ferguson, Missouri, as we create this new story?
I think there are many, many inter-linkings and interconnections between ecology and social justice, and the connection is connection, basically; the interrelationship is interconnection. Gandhi said, “Underlying ahimsa, [or nonviolence,] is the unity of all life.” Joanna Macy said, “That sense of connectedness with all beings is politically subversive in the extreme.”
Some of the research that I’ve been doing lately has to do with Martin Luther King Jr., and as I really delved into his speeches, sermons, and writings, something began to jump out at me—perhaps because I had studied with Thomas Berry for 20 years—but Martin Luther King was constantly talking about interdependence, interrelationship, interconnection, mutuality. He would say, ‘I can’t be who I’m meant to be until you are who you’re meant to be.’
I would love to go into this more, but let me just summarize by giving an emblematic example. King gave a sermon in the last months of his life called, “A Christmas Eve Sermon on Peace,” in which he said, “If we are to have peace on earth we must develop a world perspective.” He said, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…. This is the way our universe is structured. This is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”
So here’s Martin Luther King, who we think of as an emblematic icon of social justice, civil rights, and human rights; he’s speaking ecologically; he’s speaking cosmologically; he’s speaking in terms of systems thinking: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.”
So basically the mission and the message that I carry as I travel around is that we need to build a movement that connects ecology, social justice, and cosmology, using the power of dream, the power of story, the power of art, and the power of action.
And so I’m just going to leave you with a poem that I would like to dedicate to this gathering, and to all of the visions, and the threads, and the traditions, and the stories, and the actions that you carry in your hearts, and that we’re co-creating together.
This poem is called, “re:vision.”
open your eyes.
imagine a melody,
a planet of stories
with islands of silence,
her curved surface
milky way blazing
in the sky above the city.
speaking in fractals,
the stars are telepathic
wake the poets.
wake the dreamers.
cultivate the tendrils
in the vineyard
of your heart
reorient our buildings to the solstice,
and from the center of the city,
see the stars.
Thank you so much, New Story Summit. Let’s planetize the movement.
(Findhorn, Scotland, September 27, 2014.)