Sunday, 28 June 2009

More Thomas Berry

Sorry about the break there -- posting will be lighter than usual this week.

The following is from a 1993 conversation with Father Thomas Berry at his home in North Carolina. John Lane and Thomas Rain Crowe interviewed him for Appalachian Voices magazine.

JL: What was this area of the Piedmont like in 1920, when you were growing up, when you were a boy?

TB: Well, there was much more animal life! Frogs, deer, and birds in particular. That’s one thing I remembered. Never ran into many wolves, as they were pretty well gone at that time. I did walk in the woods a great deal when I was a child. Already, the woods and nature were the most important things in my life.

By the time I was ten or eleven years old, I had a feeling that something was wrong. I didn’t, of course, have the least idea of what this was all about, but I grew up with the feeling that I couldn’t trust the developing industrial world in which I was living.

… JL: There is a doctrine that’s developing in some evangelical churches that’s called “cultural mandate” about subduing the earth. Have you heard about this and have you thought about it? Is that a disturbing development to you?

TB: I’ve heard about it. To subdue the Earth? There are churches wherein this is a developing doctrine now. It’s about subordination rather than finding a way to become better stewards. We need to be finding more ways to learn. In fact, the more precise translation of the contemporary Biblical passage which modern man is familiar and that says “And man shall have dominion over all the land” is really closer in translation to “And man shall be steward to the land.”

I would say that this whole direction by the contemporary church is a total misreading of the Christian religion as well as all other religions. All religions are founded on our experiences with the earth and the universe. St. Thomas, a great thinker in the Catholic tradition, lived in the thirteenth century, but is still a wonderful teacher, and his teachings are still available to us. He always said that the universe symbolizes the hopeless perfection in things.

One can look at it this way: From the standpoint of existence, the divine is primary, and the universe is derivative. On the order of human knowledge, the universe is primary and the divine is consequential. The very nature of religion robs itself of the perception that the universe is not self-explanatory ...

JL: So, how do we read this landscape that’s being decimated by developers as a creative landscape? Rather than wanting to “redeem” it and at the same time not wanting to save it? I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard the recent “news” on the failure of environmentalists. “The death of the environmental movement,” some have said.

TB: They are saying, the opposition that is, that the environmental people are missing the point somewhere. That is quite terrible. They (the nay-sayers) are missing the point of the larger issue. And one of the ways they are missing the point is that they don’t understand how the human mind functions.

Humans can be described as “that being in whom the universe reflects on itself in a conscious mode of self-reflection.” We humans actually enable the planet Earth because we are members of the planet Earth. We enable the Earth to reflect on itself.

We’re doing a terrible job with what knowledge we have. It’s not that the knowledge is wrong. It’s that we don’t know how to use it. This is one of the basic failures of science. Science does not instruct us on how to use science.

JL: Talking about children is a good place to ask some questions about population. When you were a child growing up in North Carolina, there were less than two billion humans on the planet. And as predicted, the world’s population rose to 6.5 billion in about twenty five years. This all happening in your lifetime. The South is the fastest growing region in the country. Can the South survive? Can we, as Southerners, survive this population boom?

TB: I don’t think we can. It would be very difficult to survive with that much population. It goes against all odds with regard to carrying capacity. And it’s here that religion has been at fault. Especially the Catholic religion--which has failed extensively in not paying attention to the decline of the natural world, and in this way it’s losing its own foundations, because the biblical world is thoroughly cosmological. Rituals are cosmological. They presuppose the universe.

I was in a monastery for ten years. I didn’t even come home to Greensboro, where my family resided, during that time--between the ages of twenty to thirty. In the monastery, we’d celebrate dawn with prayers and meditations. And we’d celebrate the mid-day, and celebrate the early evening. At vespers, we’d celebrate the early evening, and then the late evening, which was wonderful! Then I’d get up at two-o’clock in the morning and I’d have these experiences with hymns that would be sung according to the time of day and seasons of the year. The whole of that monastic literature was woven into the cosmological cycle. The scriptures, the book-of-songs was thoroughly cosmological.

Thanks to Tennessee's amazing Albert Bates for reminding me of this interview.

1 comment:

lagedargent said...

Who can't but love that phrase: 'We enable the Earth to reflect on itself.'
As we are ourselves part of the natural world, of Gaia, so to speak, the enabler is not us, though, it's Earth. Maybe, we should rephrase the words into 'By us, Earth developed a means for self-reflexion.'
As we can never know, why Earth would feel inclined to reflect on itself, and to what ends, we may as well take the credit of our musings for ourselves, and pursue our own ends.
Pity, though, so many of our kind lack in reflection, and turn a blind eye on their great mother Earth.