Spiritual practices are often deeply related to stories of religious figures. Christian contemplatives engage in lectio divina or holy reading of the Bible and thus are thoroughly familiar with its many narratives from the foundational creation stories to the four Gospels and Paul’s letters. Buddhist meditators know the story of Prince Siddhārtha Gautama of the Shakya clan who became known as the Buddha. Hindus revere the Bhagavad Gita and other stories found in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas. Jews and Muslims also have their sacred narratives, many of which are shared with Christians.
Historically speaking, sacred texts were treasured by many as sources of all we needed to know to give our life its fullest meaning. That has certainly been true in the past. Is it still true today? In his seminal essay “The New Story.” Thomas Berry wrote:
We need something that will supply in our times what was supplied formerly by our traditional religious story. If we are to achieve this purpose, we must begin where everything begins in human affairs – with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be, how they came to be as they are, and how the future can be given some satisfying direction. We need a story that will educate us, a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us.
What might a new story look like? What elements should be included? Certainly science needs to be considered because it has radically restructured our understanding of the physical universe. Prior to the scientific age, people believed that the cosmos was filled with spiritual beings in realms above and below the earth’s surface. The spiritual journey was often portrayed as one traversing such realms, a great example being Dante’s path through hell, purgatory, and paradise. But because of contemporary physics and astronomy, the universe is now viewed as mostly a vast empty space (more accurately dark energy and dark matter) and a myriad of galaxies with no sign of life (that has been discovered yet). In his Pensees Pascal described his sense of insignificant smallness before such a cosmos:
I see the terrifying spaces of the universe that enclose me, and I find myself attached to a corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am more in this place than in another, nor why this little time that is given me to live is assigned me at this point more than another out of all the eternity that has preceded me and out of all that will follow me.
Like Pascal, many in the West no longer viewed the vastnesses above the planet as a spiritually rich cosmos. How did this happen? Drawing on his studies as a cultural historian, Berry argued that because of the devastation wreaked by the Black Death on Europe in the Middle Ages (about a third of the population died in the 14th century), Christian spirituality turned away from the natural world and its potential for divine revelation. Instead it focused on the need for the soul’s release from the pains and sorrows of the physical realm. Medieval theologians could speak of the book of scripture and the book of nature as complementary sources of spiritual wisdom, while nature and the created universe have only more recently become central theological themes, probably because of the ecological crisis. When I searched Boston College Libraries’ online catalog for books with the subject heading “Nature–religious aspect,” I had the following results:
Number of titles with the subject heading “Nature–religious aspect” published during
These numbers confirm what I’ve found to be the case during my involvement in theological research over the past four decades. The writings of Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and others as well as climate change data being gathered by the scientific community, have had a significant impact on theologians and other religious writers, causing them to regard the natural world as a major focus of their work.
Berry argues that until quite recently we’ve had two narratives, a redemption story based on scripture and a creation story based on scientific research. Despite many worthwhile efforts to reconcile religion and science, the lack of a unifying vision led to the formation of two significant but intellectually separate segments in our society, a redemption community (most prominently evangelical Christians) and a creation community (secular scientists). I hope that we are beginning to see greater collaboration between the two groups.
For anyone wishing to read Berry’s essay, it is available on the web as a PDF.