The Origin and Significance of the New Story - About Thomas Berry
Berry's ideas on the New Story began in the early 1970s as he pondered the magnitude of the social, political, and economic problems we were facing in the human community. His articulation of the need for a new orientation and direction was motivated by his deep concern for the almost suicidal path of humans in their destruction of the earth and in their violence and indifference to one another. The need for a New Story or a functional cosmology, then, arose not as an abstract idea, but as a response to the sufferings of humans in a universe where they saw themselves as deeply alienated(20). This alienation was, no doubt, a particular experience of the west in the post war years as expressed in existentialist philosophy, the death of God theology, and the theater of the absurd. Nonetheless, the spirit of disaffection, ennui, and alienation has spread to other parts of the world due to western cultural influences. Berry's New Story provides an important antidote to this disillusionment and despair. It creates, above all, a new context for connection, for purpose, for action. It is an idea with direct implications for providing the human energy needed for positive social, political, and economic change.
Berry first published the "New Story" in 1978 as the initial booklet of the Teilhard Studies series in 1978. It was published nearly a decade later by Cross Currents. It was revised slightly for its publication in the Dream of the Earth in 1988. Berry originally subtitled the work "Comments on the Origin, Identification and Transmission of Values." The story, then, is intended to be a new orientation and perspective which would provide a moral basis for action. In other words, it is seen as a comprehensive basis for nurturing reciprocity between humans and for fostering reverence between humans and the earth.
Berry opens his essay by observing: "We are in between stories." He notes how the old story was functional because: "It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purpose, energized action. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education."(21) This context of meaning provided by the old story is no longer operative. People are turning to new age novelties or to religious fundamentalism for orientation and direction. However, neither of these directions will ultimately be satisfying. We are confronted with dysfunctionalism in both religious communities and in secular societies. Berry proposes a new story of how things came to be, where we are now, and how the our human future can be given some meaningful direction. In losing our direction we have lost our values and orientation for human action. This is what the New Story can provide.
Secondly, as this reality of developmental time begins to dawn on the human community (although still fiercely resisted by creationists) a realization of the subjective communion of the human with the earth likewise begins to be felt. As Berry expresses it: "The human emerges not only as an earthling, but also as a worldling. We bear the universe in our beings as the universe bears us in its being. The two have a total presence to each other and to that deeper mystery out of which both the universe and ourselves have emerged."(25) This subjective presence of things to one another is one of the most distinctive features of Berry's thought. In The Divine Milieu Teilhard writes of this interior attraction of things in the following passage: "In the Divine Milieu all the elements of the universe touch each other by that which is most inward and ultimate in them."(26) Berry has suggested that the importance of the awareness of the subjective dimension of the universe story cannot be underestimated. Indeed, he writes: "...the reality and value of the interior subjective numinous aspect of the entire cosmic order is being appreciated as the basic condition in which the story makes any sense at all."(27)
Berry states, then, that to communicate values within this new frame of reference of the earth story we need to identify the basic principles of the universe process itself. These are the primordial intentions of the universe towards differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. Differentiation refers to the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe. No two things are completely alike. Subjectivity is the interior numinous component present in all reality also called consciousness. Communion is the ability to relate to other people and things due to the presence of subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of to the presence of subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of things for one another. These are principles which can become the basis of a more comprehensive ecological and social ethics that sees the human community as dependent upon and interactive with the earth community. only such a perspective can result in the survival of both humans and the earth. As Berry has stated humans and the earth will go into the future as one single multiform event or we will not go into the future at all.
Berry closes his essay on "The New Story" with a powerful passage evoking a confidence in the future despite the tragedies of the present. He writes:
"If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture."(28)
This then is Berry's New Story, born out of his own intellectual formation as a cultural historian of the West, turning toward Asian religions, examining indigenous traditions, and finally culminating in the study of the scientific story of the universe itself. It is a story of personal evolution against the background of cosmic evolution. It is the story of one person's intellectual history in relation to earth history. It is the story of all of our histories in conjunction with planetary history. It is a story awaiting new tellings, new chapters, and ever deeper confidence in the beauty and mystery of its unfolding.
Archive of Thomas Berry's writings:
Audio Excerpts for Thomas Berry's book, THE GREAT WORK