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Thomas Berry's Historical Mission of Our Times

November 24, 2020

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The present human situation can be described in three sentences: In the twentieth century the glory of the human has become the desolation of Earth. The desolation of Earth is becoming the destiny of the human. All human institutions, professions, programs, and activities must now be judged primarily by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. In the light of these statements, it is proposed that the historical mission of our times is: To reinvent the human At the species level With critical reflection Within the community of life systems In a time-developmental context By means of story and Shared dream experience.


The first phase, “To reinvent the human,” suggests that the planetary crisis we are facing seems to be beyond the competence of our present cultural traditions. What is needed is something beyond existing traditions to bring us back to the most fundamental aspect of the human: giving shape to ourselves. The issue has never been as critical as it is now. The human is at an impasse because we have brought the entire set of life systems of the planet to an impasse. The viability of the human is in question. Our present difficulty is that we envisage the universe simply in its physical dimensions. We have lost the awareness that the universe has from the beginning been a psychic-spiritual as well as material-physical reality. It has taken the entire course of the evolutionary process for the universe to find its expression in the florescence of living forms and in the various modes of consciousness that are manifested throughout Earth. The immense curvature of space holds all things together in an embrace that is sufficiently closed to provide structural integrity to the universe and yet sufficiently open to enable the universe to continue its unfolding. Within this context we need a new appreciation of our cosmocentric identity.

Second, we must work “at the species level” because our problems are primarily problems of species. This is clear in every aspect of the human. As regards economics, we need not simply a national or a global economy, but a species economy. Our schools of business teach the skills whereby the greatest possible amount of natural resources is processed as quickly as possible, put through the consumer economy, and then passed on to the junk heap where it is at best useless and at worst toxic to every living being. There is need for the human species to develop reciprocal economic relationships with other life forms, providing a sustaining pattern of mutual support, as is the case with other life systems. As regards law, we need a special legal tradition that would provide for the legal rights of geological and biological, as well as human, components of the Earth community. A legal system exclusively for humans is not realistic. Habitat, for example, must be given legal status as sacred and inviolable.


Third, I say “with critical reflection” because this reinventing of the human needs to be done with the utmost competence. We need all our scientific knowledge. We cannot abandon our technologies. We must, however, ensure that our technologies are coherent with the technologies of the natural world. Our knowledge needs to be a creative response to the natural world rather than a domination of the natural world. We insist on critical understanding as we enter the Ecological age in order to avoid a romantic attraction to the natural world that would not meet the urgencies of what we are about. The natural world is violent and dangerous as well as serene and benign. Our intimacies with the natural world must not conceal the fact that we are engaged in a constant struggle with natural forces. Life has a bitter and burdensome aspect at all levels, yet its total effect is to strengthen the inner substance of the living world and to provide the never-ending excitement of a grand adventure.

Fourth, we need to reinvent the human “within the community of life systems.” Because Earth is not adequately understood either by our spiritual or by our scientific traditions, the human has become an addendum or an intrusion. We have found this situation to our liking since it enables us to avoid the problem of integral presence to Earth. This attitude prevents us from considering Earth as a single society with ethical relations determined primarily by the well-being of the total Earth community. But while Earth is a single integral community, it is not a global sameness. It is highly differentiated in bioregional communities—in Arctic as well as tropical regions, in mountains, valleys, plains and coastal regions. These bioregions can be described as identifiable geographical areas of interacting life systems that are relatively self-sustaining in the ever-renewing processes of nature. As the functional units of the planet, these bioregions can be described as self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-governing, self-healing, and self-fulfilling communities. Human population levels, our economic activities, our educational processes, our governance, our healing, our fulfillment must be envisaged as integral with this community process.


Earth itself is the primary progenitor, economist, educator, lawgiver, healer, and fulfillment for everything on Earth. There are great difficulties in identifying just how to establish a viable context for a flourishing and sustainable human mode of being. Of one thing we can be sure, however, and it is that our own future is inseparable from the future of the larger life community. That is because this life community brought us into being and sustains us in every expression of our human quality of life—in our aesthetic and emotional sensitivities, our intellectual perceptions, our sense of the divine, and our physical nourishment and bodily healing.


Fifth, reinventing the human must take place in “a time developmental context.” This constitutes what might be called the cosmological dimension of the program we are outlining here. Our sense of who we are and what our role is must begin where the universe begins. Not only the formation of the universe but also our own physical and spiritual shaping begin with the origin of the universe. —Appendix in The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth, 117–20


Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, eds. Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community (Modern Spiritual Masters) (pp. 164-168). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.


Thomas Berry's Historical Mission of Our Times

November 24, 2020

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