The need to nurture a spiritual, environmental link

ON THE BAY

September 24, 1994|By TOM HORTON

"I wish. . . . that I could preach the green-brown woods to all the juiceless world. . . . crying, Repent, for the Kingdom of Sequoia is at hand."

John Muir, California

nature writer and founder

of the Sierra Club

Last weekend, I said no to a kayak exploration of the bay's islands; passed up the annual cleanup of my local river; ignored one of the year's most glorious outdoor days.

I drove three hours to sit all day in Towson State University's Newman Center to hear an 80-year-old Passionist monk from New York talk about rewriting the creation story of the universe. I felt that Thomas Berry's talk was a most important event concerning the future of the Chesapeake Bay.

It becomes clearer every year that we can never adequately preserve nature in the bay watershed (or on the planet) through laws and regulations alone. Such environmental controls -- also technological ones -- will always be vital. But they have their limits, and in many cases we are entering areas of diminishing returns.

Environmental education can, ideally, lead us to better our behavior toward nature voluntarily, and we are just scratching the surface of its vast potential. But alone, education won't make us reassess fundamental values, like our materialism, that often run counter to a sustainable environment.

Something more powerful, even spiritual -- an environmental ethic -- is what it will take, especially given our rapid population growth. But neither our traditional churches nor the quicker "religion" we get from Arab oil embargoes and recognition of an unraveling Chesapeake, seem sufficient.

Now comes soft-spoken, eminently logical, profoundly radical Thomas Berry -- monk, lecturer, scholar, Fordham University professor and cultural historian.

His seminal book in 1988, "The Dream of the Earth," posited a new cosmology, a way of seeing the natural world as divine and humans' sacred role in fostering the well-being of all life systems.

We are still caught, he said, in the Genesis story, of the fall and expulsion from the garden and original sin and assignment of nature to the exclusive control and use of humankind. It is a valid story within the context of the ancient times in which it was written, but ultimately defeating in our modern struggle to reconcile humans and nature on a more crowded, polluted globe, he says.

Berry's new story of the universe's creation is one whose telling has become possible only with advances of the last few decades in physics and astronomy that have fleshed the so-called "Big Bang" theory with rich detail.

This "primordial flaring forth," he says, carried within its matter the potential for all the "emergent magnificence" that has been and will be our universe.

Berry's universe, one still evolving, and fraught with possibilities, is neither predetermined nor random -- rather, it is "creative."

Humans, who sprang up only within the last few milliseconds of Earth's 4-billion-year evolutionary day, are for Berry "the universe finally come to consciousness" -- the first expression of the primordial matter capable of reflecting on creation.

You can see the possibilities for an environmental ethic in a universe sacred in all its life forms. Consider, for example, the preservation of biological diversity, a current priority on the nation's environmental agenda.

Suppose, in addition to arguing for diversity on the basis of future medicines that might lie in undiscovered plants, or in terms of the beauty of rare orchids, or even that diverse ecosystems are healthier -- suppose you injected the aspect of the sacred. Then, to willfully diminish natural diversity becomes not only foolish, but unethical, immoral, profane.

As for the reality of our current relations to nature, Berry describes them as "autistic . . . cut off from seeing, hearing, feeling the poetry and mystery of it all."

"It is the deepest crisis of our time," he says. "We don't live in the universe."

The old scholar says he can reduce to three sentences what is, and what needs to be:

* In the 20th century, the glory of humans has become the desolation of the Earth.

* The desolation of the Earth is becoming the destiny of humans.

* All human institutions must be judged by the degree to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.

As intriguing as Berry's new cosmology is the group that organized the one-day Spirit of the Earth Symposium, attended by about 100 people. Mostly Catholics and Episcopalians from affluent suburban neighborhoods, they seemed far closer to mainstream culture than to any New Age stereotype. For two years, they had been meeting, monthly, with Danny Martin, a doctoral student under Berry and founder of the International Coordinating Committee on Religion and the Earth.

They and many who attended spoke variously of searching for human community or concern for the deterioration of the environment.

To Martin and Berry, those ideas are connected; a healthy human and natural community are mutual in the new cosmology.

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