The following excerpts are from Thomas Berry: Reflections on His Life and Thought, by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker (2010). These passages provide some background on Thomas Berry’s philosophy of a "New Story" (1978), which laid much of the groundwork, and created much of the context, for many of today’s discussions of a New Story.
"In 1978, Thomas
"While those graduate school days focused on historical and textual developments in the world’s religions, Thomas encouraged us also to explore the cosmology of religions. Under his guidance we related rituals, texts, teachings, and commentarial studies to the stories of creation and metaphysical speculation about the world. We struggled to understand the history, anthropology, and sociology embedded in those stories. Thomas forged ahead, articulating broad understandings of historical interactions and cultural relationships.
Gradually we began to appreciate his interest in cosmology as that which orients humans to the universe and to nature itself. ‘With a story,’ he would say, ‘people can endure catastrophe. And with a story they can gather the energies to change their lot.’ For him the first place to look for a story was in history. He began with Western history and later moved to Asian history. He was part of the early group of world historians seeking to define the contours of our human movement across the planet. He mused that the West was in search of a comprehensive story and cited historians such as Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Christopher Dawson, and Eric Vogelin to give nuance to his views. He drew on the philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico, stiching his arguments together with a sense of the sweeping ages of human and Earth history…. It was because of his remarkable grasp of world history that he could eventually make the transition into evolutionary history…. Gradually Thomas connected his study of history and evolutionary cosmology to the environmental issues of our day." (pp. 6-7)
"Increasingly he spoke of the rich creativity imparted by the Earth itself in its biodiversity. It was in the late 1980s that these ideas coalesced in his term ‘Ecozoic.’ This was his way of marking the end of a geological era in which thousands of species were disappearing each year…. But rather than leaving his audience in despair, he used the term Ecozoic to name the emerging period in which humans would recover their creative orietation to the Earth community.
He drew increasingly on the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for insight into the story of our times, namely, the emerging, evolutionary universe. Teilhard provided a large-scale vision of humans as situated within the vast context of cosmic evolution…. While Teilhard saw his work as science, Thomas narrated it as story." (pp. 7-8)
"Rather than settling on Teilhard’s insights, however, Thomas pushed beyond to explore the conjunction of cosmology and ecology…. He wanted us to see that in a geological instant we were diminishing the life of ecosystems, rivers, and oceans. Our historical moment was as significant as the change implied in a geological era.
While flying back from an environmental conference in the Seychelle Islands, looking down over the Nile River at 30,000 feet, he realized that he was not a theologian, but rather a ‘geologian.’ With this term, he viewed himself as a human being who emerged out of eons of Earth’s geological and biological evolution and was now reflecting on our world. This reflection was a way to reinvent the human at the species level.
The notion of reinventing to role of the human was enhanced when in 1982 Thomas met Brian Swimme who came to the Riverdale Center for a year of study…. Thomas’ years of study of world history and religions were paralleled by Brian’s comprehensive study of evolutionary history. From an intense decade-long collaboration including research, lectures, and conferences, there emerged in 1992 the jointly authoured book, The Universe Story. This was the first time the history of evolution was told as a story in which humans have a critical role.
After Thomas retired from teaching at the age of 64, he began some of his most significant writing in the area of evolutionary cosmology in relation to the ecological crisis. The Dream of the Earth was published in 1988, The Great Work in 1999, Evening Thoughts in 2007, and The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth and The Sacred Universe in 2009. These books elaborated on the ‘new story’ of our shared cosmological journey." (pp. 8-9)
"STORY AS FUNCTIONAL COSMOLOGY
Thomas spoke frequently of our broken relationship with nature and the drift away from older traditional stories of creation. These breaks followed from the inability of contemporary scientific, religious, and philosophical narratives to locate humans in a meaningful relationship with Earth’s ecosystems and their evolution over time. Ironically, as Thomas observed, the break with nature as well as with mythos, the storied magic of older cosmologies, occurred in the search for ‘progress’ and in the turn towards empirical reasoning as the exclusive guide to reality…. In an effort to move beyond our fixation with materialism that undermines our relationship with the natural world, Thomas spoke of a ‘functional cosmology.’ His concern was that we had lost emotional, affective connection with the processes of life embedded in the emergence of the cosmos itself. In the past, connection with these vital processes enabled a people and their cultural traditions to function so that they knew the deeper meaning of their life and work.
The transformative key for Thomas was story, namely, a narrative telling of our origins and our purpose. An origin story was, for Thomas, the most accepted explanation of reality. Narrated in ritual settings, woven into the structures of cities, celebrated in daily food and drink, these traditional stories provide meaning and direction for people in everyday life. But having lost their grounding in the natural world upon which we depend, many of these stories, and the institutions they spawned, ceased to function in a vital manner.
For Thomas then, contemporary humans are in between stories, that is, we have lost our connection to traditional cosmologies, and we have been unable to weave a functional cosmology from our collective scientific data. It is from within this context that Thomas forged his career as an engaged historian interested in articulating a new and functional cosmology.
Thomas’ emphasis on the cultural transmission of coherence and meaning throughout history brought him to one of his most singular insights regarding the cosmological stories of a people:
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 not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story. The Old Story sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with a life purpose, energized action. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were.
…. When a human community’s collective story disintegrates, that community experiences a dislocation symbolized most acutely by the loss of human orientation with the natural world." (pp. 10-11)
He sensed that humans had lost their way of being integrated into a larger cosmology. He pointed toward religious and cultural cosmologies in which humans relate to their bioregions as their most immediate experience of place. (p. 12)
In elaborating the character of awakening, Thomas Berry has drawn out the inner working of mythic forces and concomitant sensitivities that call for both individual and institutional change. Finally, Thomas provided creative historical analysis to the new cosmology in ways that expand Teilhard’s thought into ecological concerns.
…. Thomas observed that our desire for action may require even deeper contemplation of the roots of these problems. This is why he pointed us toward the universe story as a comprehensive context for responding to our ecological role in the modern world–a world that is being ravaged by industrial production and extraction. For Thomas, universe emergence as the story of our time can evoke in humans awe, wonder, and humility. At the same time, as a functional cosmology, it can encourage the ‘great work’ of ecological restoration and environmental education so needed in our times.
Since meeting Thomas Berry some 40 years ago we have become more aware of the many layers of his thinking that have organic continuity with one another. Among these layers the following can be noted: the play of texts, institutions, and personalities in the history of religions; the cultural-historical settings in which religions emerge and develop; the inherent and formative relationship of local bioregions and indigenous societies; the complex relations between and among the world’s religions; cosmological expressions within the various religions; the awakening to our growing realization of the continuity of the human with the community of life; and the evolutionary story as a functional cosmology for our multicultural planetary civilization.
…. Drawing out his syllables in a laconic North Carolinian manner, he would calmly elucidate complex topics that deeply engaged him. This reflective style enabled him to ponder both the problematic story of our industrial age as well as the ‘new story,’ the recovery of human energy and reinvention of the human spirit. Indeed for him the ‘new story’ was an engaged participatory event in which the universe was present in the telling." (pp. 19-20)
—John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Thomas Berry: Reflections on His Life and Thought (2010)