May 15, 2019
Can the Universe Story Bring Us Together? A New Biography of Thomas Berry
by Michael Lerner, Commonweal President
“The universe,” Thomas Berry wrote in his prescient Dream of the Earth, “is a single, gorgeous, celebratory event.”
Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal recently published Thomas Berry—A Biography. It is the definitive biography of one of the most revolutionary thinkers of our time. Thomas Berry was a cultural historian who later called himself a “geologian.” I spoke with Mary Evelyn about this biography in an incandescent New School conversation (our third, including a wonderful spiritual biography).
Mary Evelyn is co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim. They both worked intimately with Thomas Berry for more than 30 years.
Thomas Berry’s central premise is (1) all religions have cosmological stories, (2) modern science shows us a comprehensive cosmological story for the first time, (3) this story is filled with beauty and wonder, (4) it has the power to bring humanity together, and (5) it is ultimately a cosmology of love.
“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” Thomas Berry wrote. “The human is neither an addendum nor an intrusion into the universe. We are quintessentially integral with the universe.”
The question I explored with Mary Evelyn is whether Thomas Berry’s premise is true. Does the Universe Story have the power to bring humanity together? If so, Thomas Berry is as great a figure as Saint Paul in Christianity, Maimonides in Judaism, or Ibn Arabi in Islam. He wrote:
We are not lacking in the dynamic forces needed to create the future. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension. But this energy, in an ultimate sense, is ours not by domination but by invocation.
When we exile the scientific telling of the story from the humanities…we do not allow them to be an integral expression of the great story. [Quotes from Mary Evelyn and John’s website]
After our conversation, Mary Evelyn emailed me:
This quote from Teilhard in particular resonates with what you said about love at the heart of the universe: “The most telling and profound way of describing the evolution of the universe would undoubtedly be to trace the evolution of love.”
My choice to believe (I phrase that carefully) that love is at the heart of the universe is based in part on intuition and sacred texts, in part on Teilhard, Thomas Berry, Brian Thomas Swimme, and Mary Evelyn, and in part on the anthropic principle.
The anthropic principle is a philosophical consideration that observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. [Excerpted from Wikipedia]
I incline toward the strong anthropic principle. The weak version drove the development of the theory of the multiverse. Physicists could not abide the implications (from the only universe we know exists) that the universe appears designed to accommodate consciousness. If the universe is designed to accommodate the evolution of consciousness, it is surely designed to trace the evolution of love. I do not assert this is a necessary conclusion. I simply align myself with Teilhard, Berry, and many of the greatest spiritual traditions. “If free will exists,” William James said, “my first choice is to believe in free will.” If the universe story is our cosmological story, and if this story may trace the evolution of love, as Teilhard and Thomas Berry believed, my first choice is to embrace this deepest of all intuitions.
Thomas Berry understood the evolution of conscious life as the evolution of the ability of the universe to look back on itself. Humanity is thus an expression of the evolution of cosmological love. Science and technology are a necessary part of the ability of the universe to become self-reflective. But only if we understand the universe as “a communion of subjects” do we unlock “the sea of energy beyond all comprehension.” Only thus will we arrive at a loving and living future.
Mary Evelyn and John have worked closely with Brian Thomas Swimme in launching a beautiful multimedia project, The Journey of the Universe. When Thomas Berry met Brian, he joyfully announced, “I have found my Plato.” During our conversation, I asked Mary Evelyn, “if Brian Thomas Swimme was Thomas Berry’s Plato, who are you?” I said I saw her as Thomas Berry’s lineage holder. Mary Evelyn said she saw herself as a midwife helping to birth the story of the journey of the universe. Her response reflects her personal modesty. But as I reflected further, Mary Evelyn’s vision of herself as a midwife to the greatest of all stories is deeply apt. It is also an affirmation of the intuition that love, cosmos, and creation are one—and a celebration of the infinite beauty and power of the feminine principle.