Friday, June 20, 2008

What Happened in the Meadow

"I think I know," she said. "When the dust was ready, Spirit . . . like . . . breathed into it." "But how did Spirit get there?"

"It didn't get there, it was always there," said Dawn. "It had to wait, that's all." (from The Story of Everything, Chapter 30)


Up until now I've been distinguishing Old and New Stories by asking how they begin. With an eternal Spirit, who creates Matter and Life? Or with Matter, from which emerge Life and Spirit?

In the New Story Spirit comes at the end. But therein lies a conundrum. Shouldn't something that emerges late in a development be present in what comes early--as a potential, say, or a seed? Hearing the New Story, a girl named Dawn concludes that Spirit was always in the cosmos. It was simply waiting to appear. Philosopher Friedrich Schelling thought of Spirit as "slumbering" in nature, only to awaken in mind and finally realize itself as Spirit.

There exists today a kindred cosmology. It's been called the New Story or the Universe Story or the Great Story. The names are interchangeable. As part of an organized movement, this cosmology seeks to redeem our ecological crisis. Spirit is inherent in Matter, it says; the universe has been sacred from its inception.

You can trace this cosmology back to North Carolina, where an 11-year-old boy crossed a creek into a beautiful meadow he had never seen before. A "magic moment" there (it seems to have been a mystical experience) proved decisive. He left with a simple idea that he carried for life. "Whatever fosters this meadow is good. What does harm to this meadow is not good." The year was 1925, and the boy's name was William Berry.

William changed his name when he entered the Passionist order of Catholic priests nine years later. He became Thomas in honor of Thomas Aquinas. After his ordination, he embarked on a remarkable education. First, a doctorate in western intellectual history, then a trip to China. He began teaching Asian religions in the United States and wrote books on Buddhism (1966) and the Religions of India (1971). Confucianism stood out for him because it expressed an "intimate relationship between the cosmic and the human." To the Chinese, he said, the human being is the "understanding heart" (hsin) of the entire universe.

Berry also developed an empathy for small indigenous religions and published a number of articles on native Americans. He found in these traditions a deep reverence for the land and all that lived on it, and a recognition of our dependency on it. Native people were a link to the meadow.

But the world had lost that link, and so at the age of 64 Berry called for a New Story of the cosmos. He published his summons in 1978 as the opening essay in a series on the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin. It later became a Sierra Club book called The Dream of the Earth (1988). Evolution, said Teilhard and Berry, was not just a condition of life on earth; it was a condition of the universe. The cosmos isn't static and neither are we. Rather, we are part of a living, breathing cosmogenesis, sacred from the beginning, Spirit lying in wait.

Next week I'll tell you more about Berry's New Story and how it became the Universe Story. But right now the sun is shining outside my window, and I'm thinking it's time to find myself a meadow . . . and wait. Berry's was covered with thick grass and white lilies. Crickets were singing on that decisive day, woods were swaying gently in the distance, clouds floating across a clear blue sky. Says Berry, "It was a wonder world that I have carried in my unconscious and that has evolved all of my thinking." Something happened there.




Mark A. Thomas said...

It looks like the Japanese believed that matter is infused with spirit and science is even brought in to explain. Check out NOVA's 'Secrets of the Samurai Sword:
Parallel to this in the West we had alchemy which again was matter infused with spirit which led to the qualitative sciences such as chemistry.

Anonymous said...

I went to Fordham University in 1975 to study world religions and spirituality.There I met an incredible man named Thomas Berry. I ended up studying the Universe and religions as expressions of a numinous process that both traditional religionists and scientists have missed. Why? Many reasons. Check the human brain both a product of this process and a means that it has devised to become conscious of itself.