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.3
The coherence and meaning of time as expressed in a people’s story responds to the efforts made by humans to define themselves.4 The discovery of a universe story is akin to the exhortatory quality of religious inspiration evident, for example, in Virgil’s telling of the founding of Rome in the Aeneid. 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. In such moments the language of apocalypse may forestall cultural collapse. Apocalyptic language communicates the feeling of loss and the sense of impending doom while employing the exhortation needed to recover deeper relatedness to the Earth community. In the following passage, Berry draws on the exhortatory rhetoric of apocalypse within the context of the environmental crisis:
If the supreme disaster in the comprehensive story of the Earth is our present closing down of the major life systems of the planet, then the supreme need of our times is to bring about a healing of the Earth through this mutually enhancing human presence to the Earth community. To achieve this mode of presence a new type of sensitivity is needed, a sensitivity that is something more than romantic attachment to some of the more brilliant manifestations of the natural world. A sensitivity that comprehends the larger patterns of nature, its severe demands as well as its delightful aspects, and is willing to see the human diminish so that other life forms might flourish.5
Just as apocalypse raises an alarm in order to provide a path for a community in distress, so Thomas spoke about environmental degradation as ultimately disastrous for the human community while, at the same time, he indicated a path forward. The apocalyptic tone in Berry’s thought is prompted by his perception of humans as distancing themselves from the Earth community. 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.
These healing cosmologies call for a sensitivity and affectivity to the larger patterns of life and death in the natural world. He described this affectivity not simply as an inner psychological state of the human, but as an historical shift that he later associated with the term, Ecozoic. By this term, he sought to delineate a time in which humans would willingly see themselves diminish so that the life of the planet might not only survive but actually flourish. He suggested that this called for a reinvention of the human at the species level. Central to such a reinvention was a historical understanding of who we are as a species.
3. Thomas Berry, “The New Story: Comments on the Origin, Identification and Transmission of Values,” Teilhard Studies 1 (Winter 1978).
4. While Thomas Berry’s sense of reinvention owes much to the thought of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), there are also parallel and contemporary conceptualizations in Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983); and Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
5. Thomas Berry, “The Dream of the Earth: Our Way into the Future” in The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 212.
Story as Functional Cosmology
The Critique of Modernity and the Environmental Crisis