Story as Functional Cosmology
Thomas spoke frequently of our broken relationship with nature and the drift away from older traditional stories of creation. These breaks followed from the inability of contemporary scientific, religious, and philosophical narratives to locate humans in a meaningful relationship with Earth’s ecosystems and their evolution over time. Ironically, as Thomas observed, the break with nature as well as with mythos, the storied magic of older cosmologies, occurred in the search for “progress” and in the turn towards empirical reasoning as the exclusive guide to reality. The ways in which the drives toward economic progress and the reliance on reason alone have undermined the human spirit have only now become clear. Berry wrote:
That these centuries of “progress” should now be ending in increasing stress for the human is a final evidence that what humans do to the outer world they do to their own interior world. As the natural world receded in its diversity and abundance, so the human finds itself impoverished in its economic resources, in its imaginative powers, in its human sensitivities, and in significant aspects of its intellectual intuitions. 2
Thomas conjectures that, having constructed an industrialized world that is not sustainable, humans will eventually live among the ruins of a degraded natural world. In an effort to move us beyond our fixation with materialism that undermines our relationship with the natural world, Thomas spoke of a “functional cosmology.” His concern was that we had lost emotional, affective connection with the processes of life embedded in the emergence of the cosmos itself. In the past, connection with these vital processes enabled a people and their cultural traditions to function so that they knew the deeper meaning of their life and work.
The transformative key for Thomas was story, namely, a narrative telling of our origins and our purpose. An origin story was, for Thomas, the shared dialogue about, and most accepted explanation of, reality. Narrated in ritual settings, engineered into the structures of cities, celebrated in daily food and drink, these traditional stories provide meaning and direction for people in everyday life. But having lost their grounding in the natural world upon which we depend, many of these stories stopped functioning in a vital manner. In effect, the stories and the institutions propagated by their values activated the belief that they were the world, that they were cosmologies in themselves.
For Thomas, then, contemporary humans are in between stories. That is, we have lost our connection to traditional cosmologies, and we have been unable to weave a functional cosmology from our collective scientific data. It is within this context that Thomas forged his career as an engaged cultural historian interested in articulating a new and functional cosmology.
2. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 242.