Sightings from the Treehouse: Thomas Berry's Universe

Photo courtesy of Chris Donaghue
When I first discovered Thomas Berry, world religion scholar and renowned author, my eyes opened wide as I felt a void being filled. Over the past 50 years, scientific findings about the creation of the universe, earth, life and consciousness have provided answers about our origins. Thomas Berry’s work culminated in the call for a new creation story, one based on scientific fact and not just faith. He urges us to move from a scientific-technological focus to one based on ecological principles; one founded on recognizing the intrinsic value of nature. The whole planet is one complex ecosystem all working in harmony and self-supporting, thus enabling the earth to maintain conditions suitable for life and its evolution. James Lovelock calls this the Gaia Theory.   Everything is interconnected. Berry felt the old creation story for Christians, Genesis, served its purpose through history, but new scientific discoveries beg for a new creation story.
The New Story has four components:

  • Formation of the universe about 13.8 billion years ago,
  • Earth formation about 4.6 billion years ago,
  • Creation and evolution of life beginning 3.6 billion years ago, and
  • The development of consciousness, particularly human self-consciousness, 6 million years ago.

These science-based discoveries detail the formation of creation, which encompasses the whole universe. From the universe’s origins came the matter that formed earth, life and ultimately consciousness, which reached its peak with the evolution of humans.
In 2016, the Presbyterian General Assembly developed their version of the new story, Affirmation of Creation, and distributed it to its councils (synods and presbyteries) for study, reflection, and ultimately approval. Laudato Si by Pope Francis also touches on the genesis of the creation and the intrinsic value of nature. This concept is not new. Early Christianity accepted that people were an integral part of nature, not separate from it.   This is stated clearly by St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) but following the Black Plague (mid-1300s), which was little understood in the 14th century, resulted in people believing the epidemic was punishment by God for their sins. This belief led to the notion that the cure for the disease was to win God’s forgiveness. Ultimately John Calvin’s (1509-1564) influence caused the church’s focus to shift almost exclusively to redemption and an eternal afterlife (Bartlett, 2003 pp 18-20). In fact, appreciation of nature was considered paganism. Other religions such as Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Islam accept our place in nature.

Reverend Woody Bartlett (retired), co-founder of Georgia Interfaith Power & Light (GIPL), describes his awakening to this new story about Gaia in Living by Surprise: A Christian Response to the Ecological Crisis. He internalizes this new story into his theological thinking and lays out his view of the new cosmology and describes the dynamics to bridge the split between science and religion.
Another view of the new creation story forms the basis for the scientific pantheists, which derive their spiritual thinking through the appreciation of the natural laws that created and govern the universe.   There is no theological basis to their philosophy, they feel that nature is the ultimate context for human existence. Some well-known pantheists include: Emerson, Thoreau, Einstein, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Rachel Carson, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Unitarian Universalists accept and integrate pantheism into their spiritual teachings.

A recent Pew Research Center survey on American’s belief in God found that 90% believe in a higher power, with 56% professing faith in a biblical God and another 33% believe in a higher power or spiritual force. Ten percent of Americans do not believe in any higher power or spiritual force.
Regardless of one’s beliefs and convictions, natural laws control our planet and the universe. Our continuing violation of natural laws and abuse of Earth’s ecosystems are destroying creation and its life support systems. We must maintain a healthy global ecosystem to sustain life as we know it. We are not.
A growing interfaith ecotheology movement is an encouraging sign since the faith community can influence their many followers concerning creation care policy and environmental ethics. The next Sightings blog will explore this growing ecotheology trend.
Read more of the Sightings from the Treehouse Blog Series.  Sightings from the Treehouse is a blog series written by GIPL’s former Director of the Power Wise Program, Bob Donaghue.