Thomas Berry, priest, educator, and author of the United Nations’ World Charter for Nature, has for years been pushing back the philosophical/theological haze around our relationship to the earth. In this interview he describes how, in addition to the often anti-earth attitudes we have inherited from the past, our traditions offer us positive models that we can draw from if we so choose. He can be reached at the Center For Earth Studies, 5801 Palisade Ave, Bronx, NY 10471
Betty: You have said, "It’s not bad people who are ruining the earth. It’s good people, and when I talk about good people, I’m including the total religious, humanistic tradition of the Western World!" What is it, especially in the Western Christian tradition, that has led us to this place.
Thomas: Most of Christianity today is alien to the earth process. It is focused on redemption. Being a Christian has to do with the Christ reality and this is thought to have nothing to do with the earth. In the redemption process, there is a sense of personal intercommunion that tends to be all absorbing. It misses a great deal of the doctrine of Christ as spoken by St. Paul, who frequently mentions the idea that in Christ, all things hold together. That is a magnificent thing but it is not usually understood. It is a way of thinking of the universe as a cosmic person.
Betty: How has the emphasis on redemptive theology contributed to our alienation from the land?
Thomas: It has concentrated our attention totally on the human and has given us a completely homocentric view of the earth. In a theocentric and homocentric world, what is left out is the natural or biological world. It is a background against which everything takes place, but it is seen as spiritually irrelevant.
In the Middle Ages, this disregard of the natural world in religious life was not much of a problem because they were immersed in the natural world through their daily activities. But there was a break that occurred, I think, at the time of the Black Death in 1346-49. People had no idea how or why – they had no idea of germs. All they could figure was God thought the world was wicked and he put a great curse on it. I wouldn’t blame it entirely on the Black Death perhaps, but certainly that was a significant and traumatic moment of Western civilization when the earth began to be seen as a place of suffering and in a a certain sense cursed. One needed to be redeemed from it.
An example of this is the morality plays, particularly in the everyman plays, where the basic question was, "What can you take with you when you die?" The idea was that since you cannot take anything with you, nothing here is of great value. It is an amazing attitude, but in it you find the spiritual longing for the promised land. So we imagine ourselves going through this desert of the earth to the promised land.
Betty: Is that the only attitude toward the earth that developed in the Christian tradition?
Thomas: Fortunately, no. It is just the most influential one in our society today. There are five models of positive relationship to land which have developed through Christian history: the animate model of the Celtic period, the custodial model of the Benedictine period, the fraternal model of St. Francis, the fertility model presented by Hildegard of Bingen and the integral model brought to us by Teilhard de Chardin.
Celtic There is a very special relationship with the natural world in the Christian Celtic literature. It is a positive relationship that has to do with the protecting and safeguarding of the human against all the powers of evil. It seems to me that the Celtic influence presents a kind of animate model. In the Celtic world of the fifth and sixth centuries, there was a combination of saintliness and "ecology" – a sense of spirit presences in nature. Everywhere – in the countryside, in monasteries – there was a holy intimacy between the human and the divine in nature; an abandonment to spiritual work and simultaneously a cultivation of the earth.
Celtic literature is full of this aliveness of nature. There are some wonderful passages calling upon the forces of the natural world to come between the human and the destructive forces of the demonic world. That’s why people like Yeats are able to draw so powerfully on the sense of the natural world. What I sometimes suggest is that our future cultural/spiritual development needs to assimilate this sense of animate nature which in the past we have often labeled as paganism and had difficulty in assimilating. The Celtic model is helpful for its creative interaction with the animate world (or the spirit world) and nature, and its creation of a magnificent symbolism of life.
Benedictine A second basic relationship with land in the Christian tradition is illustrated by the Benedictine period, from the time of St. Benedict in the 6th century until about the 13th century. During this time, the whole of the European city life had dissolved and it was a world of a great manoral economy – a landed economy of the estates and the great abbeys. One of the great things the Benedictines developed was the idea that intellectual activity was associated with physical work, particularly work related to the land. It was the first time that the humanistic type life was intimately related to servile arts. In classical times, anybody who was anybody or did anything noteworthy would never think of working with land or doing what’s called servile work. Even music was done by servants.
With the Benedictines, a very special relationship with land developed. There was an emphasis on the cultivation of the soil as well as learning about it, so we get that fundamental sense of the custodial relationship of the human community with the land.
The Benedictines developed much of their sense of earth through food growing during these centuries. It was probably then that the land sense of Christianity developed. In general, a person could say that Christianity began as basically a city phenomena and the relationship to land was not developed to any extent before the Benedictines. You must also understand that this was a very violent period, until about the 1200s. The small farmers would give their land to some lord, feudal person or to some abbey and would be semi-serfs because they wanted protection. Everybody had to be associated with a large establishment, so you get these large Benedictine centers with granaries. They developed the whole agrarian economy based on the skills and arts of working the land.
St. Francis Then the cities re-emerged, starting during the end of the 11th century and beginning of 12th. That is when a new type of religious order was needed, so St. Dominic and St. Francis founded the mendicant orders. These orders, the begging orders, supported themselves by freewill offerings in the cities and they no longer supported themselves off the land. But interestingly enough, at the same time, St. Francis developed a new relationship with the natural world – a mystique of fraternity.
You know about the wolf of Gubbio? It’s a story about a wolf who was afflicting one of the towns of Italy, eating their livestock and threatening the children. The townspeople wanted to kill it, but St. Francis said, "No, don’t. I will go out and talk to this wolf." The wolf told St. Francis he had to have something to eat so they made a pact. The people of the village would see that some food was provided for the wolf and the wolf would leave them alone. St. Francis had this kind of relationship with the birds, the fish, the animals – all living things. He supplied a wonderful sense of the earth community in what I call a fraternal model of human/earth relations.
Hildegard of Bingen There is a fourth model which developed through Hildegard of Bingen who, although many have not heard of her, was to my mind the greatest of the women of the Middle Ages. She was called the Sybil of the Rhine, set up a Benedictine monastery for both men and women, and was one of the most remarkable people in the whole history of the Western civilization. She was a musician, visionary, and wrote the first herbal of the Middle Ages. She was in contact with the emperor and the papacy and was something of a power throughout Europe until she died in 1179. She provides a sense of the earth in its sacred relationship with the divine as its source of fertility. She saw the divine in the greening of the earth and spoke of the "kiss of the Earth" that produced all. It was a kind of wedding relationship between Heaven Father/Earth Mother – a thing of union that she spoke of in erotic terms and she understood in a very profound way. I think we need more of an understanding and acceptance of her earth creation concept today.
Teilhard de Chardin The fifth model was articulated by Teilhard de Chardin, who developed the sense that the earth, as it has developed, is not simply a physical process, but from the beginning has had a conscious, psychic or spiritual element. Even an atom has a spiritual dimension. The whole unfolding process of the earth is the unfolding of inner spiritual dynamics from the beginning. Teilhard constantly insists that this process cannot be reduced simply to mechanistic considerations, that its manifestation of the divine is the unfolding of a spiritual reality, and in this sense we now can deal with the earth as that being that created the human. Prior to this there was the sense that the divine created the human and that every individual human had to be created separately by a separate divine act; the world was here but the humans were so spiritual that the humans couldn’t be created out of the earth. Teilhard reasserted the fact that we emerged from the earth in the totality of our being, our souls as well as our bodies – in an evolutionary context, an emergent process.
Teilhard is saying: the story of the earth is the story of the human. Our story is the earth story; and that’s what got him into a certain amount of trouble because this was a new way of thinking in the Christian world. By spiritualizing the earth he seems to de-spiritualize man, but only to those who are blind to the full spiritual being of the earth.
Betty: Are there other cultural traditions that can help us regain this sense? Perhaps you could say something about your studies of the Native American cultures and their relationship to land.
Thomas: The Native American probably has one of the best orientations toward both the natural world and the divine world. They have a really remarkable sense of a monotheistic Great spirit presence and its manifestation in and through the natural world. This led them to a certain reverence and personal presence and communication between the human and the natural world.
This is illustrated in the way they pray. They address themselves to the universe by way of six directions – the four, East, West, North, South, and then to the Heaven and Earth. Another example is when a child was born, he or she would be presented to the sun and all the prayers would be said asking the blessing of the natural world on the child. They continually place themselves in their cosmological context in almost anything they do, so it becomes almost instinctive to think in terms of the broader community of life.
If we continue following the current dominant redemption myth, we will destroy the Earth and ourselves at the same time. We need to begin to create a New Story or New Myth at a very basic level that will enable us to reestablish our relationship with the earth in a profoundly spiritual way. We are fortunate to have positive models in both the European Christian and the Native American traditions, but we must choose to make them real in our own lives if they are to do us any good.
The Bioshelter Project
At St. John The Divine
One of the remarkable places where an old institution is building a new relationship to life and nature in the way that Thomas Berry describes is the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in New York City. Among its more than twenty major community, educational, and artistic programs is one called the Urban Bioshelter Project – a marvelous blend of symbolism, education, and practicality. Its most dramatic aspect is the plan to finish the Cathedral by making the south transept, not out of stone, but as a giant greenhouse – the Rene Dubos Urban Bioshelter – thus both heating the whole Cathedral with solar energy and bringing the strong presence of green nature into the body of the Cathedral.
The other part of the project aims at spreading food growing throughout the city by promoting vacant lot and roof top gardens aided by a small bioshelter-greenhouse. They have begun with a half- acre garden and bioshelter on the Cathedral grounds, and are providing produce for St. John’s Sunday soup kitchen.
Mark Greenwald, project director, says of the project,
"We use this garden, turned over from lawn a year ago, for demonstration, education and outreach. Many city residents, and particularly children, see here how various foods grow, things they’ve only seen on their plate or in a grocery bin.
"The first experimental bioshelter in NYC is also shown in the garden, as well as a fish-growing tank which we built out of the same material as the greenhouse. Both demonstrate the kind of inexpensive, simple and vandalproof approach which is needed in places like New York.
"What we are engaged in is more than just a ‘greening’ project. Its economic and environmental implications may be quite significant over time, and we take these aspects very seriously."