February 2nd, 2005

Caroline Webb writes: Speaking at a conference in Berkeley California in November 2002, cosmologist Brian Swimme recalls his astonishment after his first meeting in 1982 with the person who has emerged as one of the leading thinkers of the world, and who became his primary mentor and co-worker: Thomas Berry. “I have been having coffee with Confucius, for heaven’s sake. This person is as giant a thinker as Confucius — and I’ve been having coffee with him!”  The description seems apt. As the seminal influence of this American monk, philosopher, cultural historian, poet and teacher continues to expand into all fields of society, it would seem that Berry’s contribution is most especially that of a visionary. Visionaries and prophets are known for their interference with complacent social beliefs and Thomas is no exception. His call to us — whatever the field we work in — is to come off the pedestal of human superiority over nature and expand our horizons far beyond our anthropocentrism, all the way out to the stars. Emphasizing time and again that the real context for all human affairs is the universe which gave birth to us, Berry’s life work has been to call humanity into a new partnership with the Earth, imbued with reverence and wonder, which he describes as `a mutually enhancing relationship and presence’. In that altered relationship and presence lies the key to a true sustainability for all life, far into the future.

Now 87, with three books to his name that address fundamental issues of our relationship with the cosmos and with Earth,(1) Berry’s creativity is undiminished. Preferring the title of `geologian’ to that of `theologian’, and having been heard many times to call for the Bible to be placed on a shelf for twenty years while attention is paid to the `primary sacrament’, namely the Universe itself, Thomas is now busy with generating ideas and principles by which our legal structures and thinking may be altered. Jurisprudence — the philosophy of law and the assumptions couched in all national constitutions, written or unwritten — has become his primary focus for tackling the deep-rooted causes of human destruction of nature.

I met Thomas Berry and discussed his work on creating an `Earth jurisprudence’ at a conference held in honour of his work in Berkeley, California called The Cosmological Imagination: Transforming World Views for the Planetary Era.(2)The following interview is reposted from Cadeus Magazine.

The Mystique of the Earth

An Interview with Thomas Berry in 2003

Caroline Webb:

As Caduceus is a magazine concerned with healing, transformation and wholeness, I’d like to start with asking how you approach the question of healing — whether for an individual, a community or the planet. What do you see as its essence?

Thomas Berry:

Healing presupposes the integral unity of things. What is the context of healing? Human health is a subsystem of the Earth’s health. You cannot have well humans on a sick planet. And that is what we are trying to do, with all our technologies: we are trying to have well humans on a sick planet. The same principle applies for economics: you cannot have a viable human economy by destroying the Earth’s economy. So a person could apply this in different ways. Everything we have is derivative from the larger community out of which we come and to which or in which we are fulfilled.

Caroline Webb:

We have a sense of spirituality that is still very anthropocentric, and your interest in an Earth jurisprudence gives me a different sense about what it means to be spiritual.

To think that we can have
a viable human economy
by destroying the Earth
economy is absurd

Thomas Berry:

We talk about spirituality but first of all humans are not spirits. That’s why I don’t use the word `spirit’ or `spirituality’ much. `Spirit’ has no inner reference to body, or to matter. We are ensouled beings. The soul is that vital principle in a living organic body, and all living beings are ensouled beings. Humans have an intelligent soul, a soul that is capable of reflecting on itself and on the deeper aspects of the universe. In the human it’s not so much that we know the universe, but the universe knows itself in us. And in a certain sense we could apply this to every aspect of things — like `governance’. The human has been trying to establish a human governance out of its own needs, or its own functioning, but in reality human governance is a function of the universe, particularly of planet Earth, so planet Earth is the unit of governance. The ecology issue emerges out of the fact that humans have been constructing a government for humans, by humans and with its destiny in developing the human — but that won’t work because if the human is looking for its own benefit rather than the benefit of the larger community, if we become predators on the natural community, then we lose in every way.

The American constitution is a disaster for everything that is not human. It may be wonderful for humans to have all these rights, including rights of property without restriction on the part of government as to what they own or what they do with it, but if there are no rights and no protections for anything that is not human, then we establish a predator relationship. And so humans in this country are just devouring everything — because that’s what this constitution stands for — for humans to devour, to manipulate, to use. So the whole idea of humans being human is gone. We’ve been caught up in a mechanistic world, because what we make, makes us. We make the automobile, the automobile makes us. We make an industrial economy, the industrial economy makes us. We are now in a weird dream world of industrial technological imagination. Who would be so destructive to the very basis out of which we exist, that we spoil our water and our air? For what? To invent an industrial economy. We are so brilliant scientifically and so absurd in any other way. We are into a deep cultural pathology — in ordinary language, we are crazy. To think that we can have a viable human economy by destroying the Earth economy is absurd.

Caroline Webb:

I see what you mean, but the whole world is currently committed to the idea that not only is an industrial economy inevitable but it is a positive benefit. It seems to be the only way we can think of `progress’.

Thomas Berry:

We have all grown up with the indoctrination of industrial processes and we don’t know anything else; we are captured by this pathology. We present our whole industrial process as benign, as a benefit, as the only way to go, when it is obviously so inhuman. It distorts education, political life, economics and all aspects of the community’s existence.

What I am proposing is the development of an integral human order within the order of the planet Earth: that we begin to think of an integral relationship of every aspect of existence with all other aspects, because in the design of Nature things are inherently supportive of other things.

It’s a question of developing a qualitative relationship instead of a quantitative one. We are so quantitatively oriented that we see the planet Earth as a natural resource to be used. That’s the basic distortion of modern times that comes from Descartes who said there is only `mind’ and `matter’ — with humans being the only ones with `mind’. So the idea arose that there is no living principle in living organisms: it’s just a mechanistic process that biologists would say is an `emergent property’ of matter. And if there is nothing `there’ then obviously it is something to be used. But as soon as the person begins to think of living beings as ensouled beings and thinks of the planet as a qualitative presence, to be communed with primarily, not simply as a natural resource to be used, then we can restore the key element in human-earth relationships that has been distorted in the West ever since the 16th and 17th centuries.

Caroline Webb:

How does one make a living, how does one survive without in some way using what’s around us? Are you saying we shouldn’t be using nature?

Thomas Berry:

We can’t survive without using what’s around us but we have to do it in such a way that we recognize this mystique of the community of the Earth. It is time to step back and find the human place in the natural world and not think that we can make the human world primary and the natural world secondary. We have got to say to ourselves, `Let’s begin to try to understand the natural world and find a way of prospering the natural world first.’ Then find our survival within that context. Because if we think we can put ourselves first and then fit the natural world into our programme, it’s not going to work. We have got to fit the human project into the Earth project. That is what I am suggesting with Law. You have got to fit human law into the structure and functioning of planet Earth.

Caroline Webb:

So being aware of that mystique would make all the difference?

Thomas Berry:

All the difference in the world. In other words it’s the mystique of the mountains and the birds, the sea — it’s what makes us sing. It’s what makes our literature. Even though we have worked out a mechanics that is fairly helpful, it doesn’t give us an interior world. The natural world gives us an interior world. It gives us a healing presence, a fulfilling presence. By the term `presence’ I mean that indwelling quality that manifests itself throughout the natural world. We find this awesome presence in the sun and moon and stars in the heavens, in the mountains and seas of Earth, in the dawn and sunset, in the forests and meadows and wildlife. We are immersed in an ever-renewing wonder-world that evokes our music and dance, our poetry and literature as well as our philosophical reflection and our scientific inquiry. None of our industrial productions brings such inspiration as we obtain from these sources.

We should do away with
the light pollution in cities
so that children can see
the stars


So, even if we use solar energy, without some mystique of the Sun and the Earth, it won’t work. We should do away with the light pollution in cities so that children and all of us can see the stars. Our children don’t have the experience of seeing the stars, and they are crippled, emotionally and in other ways. And that’s the danger of putting children into this context of computers and machines, because what we make, makes us. Children don’t have contact with anything natural, they don’t wander through the meadows and see butterflies, fireflies, lizards and frogs and so they do not have contact with reality — they are living in an artificial world. The greater difficulty is not the physical damage to our lungs from industrial pollution; it is what is happening to our souls, our minds and our emotions.

Caroline Webb:

You are developing a response to these problems with your work on creating a jurisprudence for the Earth. Can you tell me what this is about?

Thomas Berry:

It comes from the realization that we cannot carry out an environmental programme within the present legal structures of our society. We are actually re-thinking law within the context of Earth as a whole, so that we are into a world democracy, or what Vandana Shiva calls `Earth democracy‘, which means that every component of the community of Earth needs to have its say, and to find its place and needs a spokesperson. There is no such thing as a human community separate from the Earth community, and to legislate simply in relation to humans, in an isolated context, giving all rights to humans, is unrealistic. The planet Earth functions as an integral community and no part of that community can be guided in its activities except with reference to the total community. Just like a body cannot function in some parts without integration with all the other parts. That’s why in economics, human economy is an extension of Earth economy. So with political affairs, human legislation must insert itself into the structural functioning of the planet Earth. If we have a Bill of Rights for humans, we should have a Bill of Rights for the natural world because otherwise it’s a distortion.

Caroline Webb:

So the principles you have written would become a foundation for constitutions and actual laws?(3)

Thomas Berry:

Yes. The basic idea of what I have written should be in the prologue of every constitution. Instead of `We, the people of this country ordain this and that . . .’, it would be a question of: `We the people, recognizing ourselves as a member of this great Earth community, hereby do this and that, with responsibility not only to ourselves but to the integral community of the planet Earth’. This would be the prologue, the basis of everything that follows.

Practically speaking, the principles of Earth jurisprudence cover the four basic establishments that rule our lives: the government-legal, the economic, the educational and the religious. Each of these functions in this larger context. Religion is founded on this deep meaning that is conveyed by the mysterious functioning of the universe that surrounds us, by the stars in the heavens and by all the wonders of Earth. So in economics, human economy functions in integral relationship with the Earth economy. And the same with government: Government must function in relationship with the governing principles that are observed throughout the planet. And then education must be primarily an awakening in the human mind to the teachings of the universe.

Caroline Webb:

Some critics of ecological philosophy say that we are advocating that we go back to a pre-industrial stage. Are you saying it is not a technological future?

Thomas Berry:

No, it is a technological future — but with a difference from how we are doing things today. We can never go back to being pre-industrial. But we can think of being post-industrial. The way to look at it is to have human technologies that are coherent with Earth technologies. It’s the coherence — that is, the proper interplay and their mutual interaction — that fosters both the natural systems and the human systems. We need to work out patterns of interaction where the human and the natural world interact creatively. We need a mutually beneficial mode of human presence on the planet Earth. For instance, we should improve the fertility of the land rather than disimprove it by exploiting it. That’s the criminal aspect of our whole chemical cultivation of the soil.

Caroline Webb:

Are there initiatives taking place that reflect the ideas you are speaking of here?

Thomas Berry:

Yes, many. To mention a few that I know: Richard Register, an architect in California doing new designs for cities; John and Nancy Todd in Burlington, Vermont who have worked out ways for dealing with human waste through artificially constructed wetlands; Wes Jackson in Kansas who is restoring the native prairie grasses that has potential for helping with our food problem. Then religiously there is Miriam Therese McGillis and her Eco-Literacy farm, Genesis Farm in New Jersey. And there is Liz Hosken of the Gaia Foundation in London who organized a meeting in April 2001 based originally on my principles for a new jurisprudence at the Airlie Conference Center outside Washington. A group of people involved in the law and with indigenous peoples came together from South Africa, Britain, Colombia, Canada and the United States. The outcome of that meeting is Wild Law,(4) an excellent book on Earth jurisprudence written by environmental lawyer, Cormac Cullinan, which was launched at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Capetown 2002.

Indigenous people still live
in a universe, but we don’t;
we live in an economic system

Caroline Webb:

You frequently place your ideas in the context of `cosmology’, but many people I meet do not understand this word. What, in our contemporary situation, does it mean?

Thomas Berry:

Well, a better word is `comprehensive community’. The universe is a community of subjects, not a collection of objects. It is intimate. Every aspect is intimately present to all other aspects. With varying styles, various techniques, humans have always understood this. Seeing the universe as a great cosmic liturgy, they always validated the human by a ritual insertion of the human into the universe, into the cosmological order. This is done at transforming moments, and humans have always had springtime rituals, summer harvest rituals and the winter solstice at the moment of decline. This is the order of the universe and ritual is the way in which humans establish their basic rapport with the natural world in visible form.

Transformation moments are sacred moments. It’s like the day-night ritual. As the night draws on, the body quiets down and the mind and the emotions become very sensitive and aware of the more spiritual moments or the more meaningful qualitative moments in inter-human relations and in human-Earth relations and in human-Cosmos relations. We become aware of the vastness of the universe and of our relationship with it. At transformation moments the small self meets the great Self. Everything in the universe is necessary for each part of the universe. So everything in the universe has two modes: its particular mode and its universal mode, because we are present to the whole universe, as the physicist says, `without passing through the intervening space’. That’s one of the most remarkable discoveries of physics, and it’s one of the least understood, how things are present to — and influencing each other — without passing through the intervening space. So I would say, the appreciation of that makes the difference between someone who is humanly more fulfilled and more true and more developed, and those who are in some manner unfulfilled, because they cannot be fulfilled within `mechanism’. It is that subjective presence of things to each other.

The Human Venture from Thomas Berry’s inspirational writing

From The Universe Story (1992)

The narrative of the universe, told in the sequence of its transformations and in the depth of its meaning, will undoubtedly constitute the comprehensive context of the future. Already through this story the various peoples of the Earth are identifying where they are in time and space. They are also attaining a sense of relatedness to the various living and non-living components of the Earth community. Through this story we learn that we have a common genetic line of development. Every living being of Earth is cousin to every other living being. Even beyond the realm of the living we have common origin in the primordial Flaring Forth of the energies from which the universe in all its aspects is derived. (p5)

Poetry and the depths of the soul emerge from the human world because the inner form of the mountains and the numinous quality of the sky have activated these depths in the human. . . The inner depths of each being in the universe are activated by the surrounding universe. (p41)

Until the present we have not been able to celebrate properly this larger story of the universe, yet this is the high achievement of our scientific inquiry into the universe. Once we begin to celebrate the story of the universe we will understand the attraction that so draws our scientists to their work, why every detail of our scientific inquiry becomes so important. (p268)

To succeed in this task of shaping the future, the will of the more comprehensive self must be functioning. The individual will can function in this capacity only through an acknowledged union with the deeper structures of reality. Even beyond union with the human community must be union with the Earth, with the universe itself in the full wonder of its being. Only the Earth can adequately will the Earth. If we will the future effectively it will be because the guidance and the powers of the Earth have been communicated to us, not because we have determined the future of the Earth simply with some rational faculty.

Central to this process is our contact with the sacred, and the vast range of Earth’s psychic dynamism. While our sense of the sacred can never be recovered precisely as it existed in former centuries, it can be recovered in the mystique of the Earth, in the epic of evolution. (p173)

We are a pervasive presence. By definition we are that reality in whom the entire Earth comes to a special mode of reflexive consciousness. We are ourselves a mystical quality of the Earth, a unifying principle, an integration of the various polarities of the material and the spiritual, the physical and the psychic, the natural and the artistic, the intuitive and the scientific. We are the unity in which all these inhere and achieve a special mode of functioning. In this way the human acts as a pervading logos. (p174)

From The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (1999)

Our traditional spiritual values are disorienting by their insistence on the unsatisfactory nature of the existing order of things and the need for relief by reference to some transearthly experience. Religious persons are constantly asserting the high spiritual nature of the human against the lack of any spiritual dimension of the natural world. All earthly affairs are considered microphase concerns relative to the spiritual concerns that determine our destiny in some other transcendent world. (p101)

Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and geocide, the devastation of the Earth itself. (p104)

Perhaps a new revelatory experience is taking place, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process. Humanity has seldom participated in such a vision since shamanic times, but in such renewal lies our hope for the future for ourselves and for the entire planet on which we live. (p106)

The human venture depends absolutely
on this quality of awe and reverence
and joy in the Earth and all
that lives and grows upon the Earth

It would be difficult to overemphasize the magnificence of this evolutionary doctrine. It provides a grandeur in our view of the universe and our human role in it that is overwhelming. Indeed, in its human expression the universe is able to reflect on itself and enjoy its grandeur in a special mode of conscious self-awareness. The evolutionary vision provides the most profound mystique of the universe. (p169)

Our main source of psychic energy in the future will depend on our ability to understand this symbol of evolution in an acceptable context of interpretation. Only in the context of an emergent universe will the human project come to an integral understanding of itself. We must however come to experience the universe in its psychic as well as in its physical aspect. We need to experience the sequence of evolutionary transformations as moments of grace and also as celebration moments in our new experience of the sacred. (p169)

The universe must be experienced as the Great Self. Each is fulfilled in the other: the Great Self is fulfilled in the individual self, the individual self is fulfilled in the Great Self. Alienation is overcome as soon as we experience this surge of energy from the source that has brought the universe through the centuries. New fields of energy become available to support the human venture. These new energies find expression and support in celebration. For in the end the universe can only be explained in terms of celebration. It is all an exuberant expression of existence itself. (p170)

This story of the emergent universe is now our dominant sacred story. (p170)

Thomas Berry:

Indigenous people still live in a universe, but we don’t; we live in an economic system. We’ve got all kinds of scientists but we don’t have a universe. There is an Earth out there, but for us it’s just a collection of resources to be exploited. It’s got no dignity. But really it is a communication of wonder.

Let me recite a poem I wrote about children. It expresses what I mean about `cosmology’:

The child awakens to the universe
The mind of the child to a world of wonder
Imagination to a world of beauty
Emotions to a world of intimacy

It takes a universe to make a child
Both in outer form and inner spirit
It takes a universe to educate a child
It takes a universe to fulfil a child

And the first obligation of any generation to its children
Is to bring these two together
So that the child is fulfilled in the universe
And the universe is fulfilled in the child

While the stars ring out in the Heavens

  1. Berry, Thomas, The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988 Berry, Thomas and Swimme, Brian, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1992 Berry, Thomas, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, Bell Tower, New York, 1999

  2. The conference was organized by the Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies in November 2002. See www.ciis.edu/pcc/

  3. Thomas Berry has formulated these principles in The Origin, Differentiation and Role of Rights, which is available on the website http://www.ratical.org/many_worlds/GreatWork.html

  4. Cullinan, Cormac, Wild Law, SiberInk, South Africa, 2002. This book may be obtained through www.earthjurisprudence.net or from The Gaia Foundation, 18 Well Walk, London NW3 1LD. Telephone: +44 207435 5000. email: liz@gaianet.org

Caroline Webb is a photographer and filmmaker, with a background in documentary production for British television on international environment and development issues. She is an MA student in the Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness department of the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, writing a thesis on the sacred implications of the phenomenon of photosynthesis and how we may awaken a new sense of cosmology founded on the sciences. Email: lifewebb@mac.com
Copyright © 2003 Thomas Berry
Copyright © 2003 Caroline Webb
Copyright © 2003 Caduceus

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