Dreams against Despair: Thomas Berry and the power of myth

Dreams, in the sense of inspiring visions, and myths, in the sense of powerful beliefs, have a huge influence on our world. Think of Mandela and Gandhi: two lone figures whose dreams overturned a myth which upheld a powerful Establishment.

Deep down, I feel a lot of pain and despair for the state of our world: not only for the Earth itself, but for the inequalities and abuse among humans, and for the species we’re eliminating. Some of the wisest insights on these issues, which give me some hope, come from Thomas Berry.

Thomas Berry described himself as a cosmologist and Earth Scholar – he was also a Catholic priest, who was born and lived in the USA, and died in 2009 at the age of 94.  The idea of the universe as a story that we are part of and can shape positively, was crucial to his work.  The best of his books to start with is the Dream of the Earth.

Berry has a clear and stark view of the current situation:

“we could describe our industrial society as the addictive, paralysing manifestation of a deep cultural pathology…”  He comments that not only does materialist society regard the planet as something to be used, but also our cultural and even spiritual values see humans as separate from the Earth and other life on it.

Berry believes that an important reason for this situation is a rise of ‘redemption spirituality’, which largely regards this world as a vale of pain to escape from.  By focussing too much on the link between human and divine, “We have lost contact with the revelation of the divine in nature.”

Berry believes that myth is at the root of both the problem and the solution for our times: “the main difficulty in replacing the industrial order is not the physical nature of the situation, but its mythic entrancement… the myth is primary… so far the energy evoked by the ecological vision has not been sufficient to offset the energies evoked by the industrial vision – even when its desolation becomes so obvious…”

This new myth “must emerge from our new story of the universe.  This… can be understood as soon as we recognise that the evolutionary process is from the beginning a spiritual as well as a physical process.”  He comments that, “The human community must assume adult responsibilities in our role on Earth.  The recent centuries have been like an adolescent period in humans’ handling of this power.” Due to this, “we must invent, or re-invent, a sustainable human culture by a descent into our pre-rational, our instinctive, resources.”

So it’s crucial to the new story that we humans see ourselves as part of the continuing story of creation, “as that being in whom the universe reflects on and celebrates itself.”   This is the essence of creation spirituality, which is well explored in the book Genesis Meditations by Neil Douglas Klotz. As Neil says, our job description as humans is to understand what positive part we can play in the process of divine creation, and act on it.

Deeper contact with nature is crucial, both to give us the insights to move forward, and the passion to act on them and preserve this planet where, in truth, we are “a species among species”.  As Berry says, “The mythic dimension of the ecological age is… a deep insight into… the entire earth process.  This includes its seasonal rhythms as well as its historical transformations, its revelatory communication as well as its pragmatic functioning.”

Berry has a sense of optimism about the future, which may seem surprising.  It arises from his sense of the intelligence of Gaia, and a belief that if Gaia allowed humans to create this mess, it must be a huge growth opportunity for both humans and the planet: “the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the earth.  If the dynamics of the universe… guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process.”

Berry’s other key book is The Great Work: Our way into the Future. He believes the Great Work of our times is to reconnect humanity with nature. This has to start at the vision/dream level. He observes that not only in Native American, but many other cultures, e.g. early Christian (Benedictine, Cistercian) and Chinese, humans aimed to align their spiritual life with nature, e.g. the seasons. “We lose our intimacy with the natural world once we take on a secular life attitude.”

Berry is eloquent about the need to reconnect with the wild and sacred: “There is an ultimate wildness in…the universe, [for it], as existence itself, is a terrifying as well as a benign mode of being.” “It is out of the wild depths of the universe and of our own being that the greater visions must come.” This implies that the way out of current worldly chaos may look even more wild and chaotic.

There is deep work to be done in restoring the human connections to Nature. Our separation from nature “is healed…as soon as we perceive that the entire universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not primarily of objects to be exploited.” He goes on: “We must find our primary source of guidance in the inherent tendencies of our genetic coding…In Jungian terms…the primary archetypal forms [which]…find expression in the symbols of the Heroic Journey, Death-Rebirth…the Great Mother, the Tree of Life.”

Parallels between the individual and the whole cosmos can help this process: “…the story of the universe…is our most valuable resource in establishing a viable mode of being for the human species…” “…a new revelatory experience is needed…wherein human consciousness wakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process.” “We must…experience the universe in its psychic as well as its physical aspect…the sequence of evolutionary transformations as moments of grace and also as celebration moments in our new experience of the sacred.”

The problems of our world can look so vast and entrenched that it’s tempting to give up and look away. However, the dreams and new myths of even a few individuals can be transformative. How are we to know what will create a tipping point towards the positive?

My suggestion is to spend a lot of time in the beauty of Nature, to pray for positive transformation, and to picture it, and open to a sense of how you can help bring this about: which may be through visualising and praying for it. if you can find a supportive group to do this with, it helps a lot: we offer a number of events at Hazel Hill Wood which are opportunities for this.

For more on Thomas Berry and his work see: www.thomasberry.org.