Identity, Diversity and Community: An Interview with Thomas Berry

Father Thomas Berry first spoke for the Schumacher Center in 1984, then again in 1991, and finally in 2003.

An inspired student of Teilhard de Chardin, he was deeply in love with the planet itself, as a living being. Its visible signs of deterioration grieved him. Concerned, he thought at first to use his gift of speech to describe the scope of Earth’s devastation, believing that such a picture would lead his listeners to acts of restoration.

But his approach, he admitted candidly, had the opposite effect. His audience grew depressed and disempowered.

So instead of a history of destruction, he began to describe a Universe that might be— a future Ecozic Era in which human-earth relations were again in harmony. And this Universe Story moved his audience to new action. Neglected lands of monasteries and convents were put in fruitful production growing vegetables for the local region and creating sites for affordable housing. Groups met in church basements and Grange halls, in town meetings and UN gatherings to discuss their responsibilities to shape a healthier world for the children, because of Thomas Berry.

Thomas Berry passed away in June of this year, but the example he set also applies to those concerned to shape a new economy—one that is fair and sustainable, that functions within ecological limits, and takes into account people and cultures throughout the world. We could, with justice on our side, focus on what is wrong with the current economy. Or we could take another path and strive to come together, consumers and producers, in our neighborhoods, towns, and regions, to implement new ways of conducting economic life based on a vision of possibility and right conduct. Thomas Berry never tired of pointing to such small examples that add up to big results.

We are pleased to share intern Nic Tuff’s 2006 interview with Father Berry as a small way of honoring his large influence on the life of the Schumacher Center and to declare openly that we miss him.


A Conversation with Thomas Berry by Nicholas Tuff [Abridged], June 28th, 2006

Nicholas Tuff [NT]: How does the Universe Story that you developed with Brian Swimme fit in with the cosmologies of other religions?

Thomas Berry [TB]: The Universe Story is the [creation] story as understood by the scientific world. The scientific world has been able to identify the stages through which the Universe has passed in 4 ½ billion years.

There are several ways in which you can approach the telling of how the Universe came into being. The scientific story is the account that emerges from an examination of the Universe as it communicates to us at the present time. It is a technical story told by measurements and numbers. It tells us something about the mechanics of the Universe, but doesn’t say anything about meaning.

Cosmology means, “understanding the Universe.” The scientific story cannot help us understand the essential things, like meanings or values, but it can tell us the mechanics of how things function. It can help us with medicine. It can help us with communications. It can help us by giving us the means to travel. But it cannot guide us in how to use these instruments.

There is another way of understanding the Universe—the way in which we experience the wonder and the majesty and the awe. Language is our way of understanding the Universe. Science in this sense doesn’t give us a meaningful language. It gives us language as measurement, but not as meaning.

We’ve lost cosmology. We still have religion, but we’ve lost cosmology. When we got Science we lost cosmology, because science began to think that only science gives you the reality of things; everything else tends to be imagination or religious belief, whereas science has this precision and exactness. The sense of the Universe is really what is missing. Science needs to be a function within a cosmology. When science thinks it is a cosmology, science will destroy the planet. When science functions within an acceptable cosmology, it becomes wisdom. At the present time, we either say something is scientific or that it is religious. If we don’t resolve things as science, we say that they are religious.


NT: What is the biggest problem in education?

TB: What I am concerned with in education is establishing an appreciation of Universe as Universe.

Why do you want the children to walk in the woods? Why do you want them to experience the rain and the wind and the dawn and the sunset and the whole amazing flurry of existence. The reason is to awaken in the children a sense of who they are and the context in which their life unfolds. In this way, the integral relatedness of the Universe will be preserved.

The Universe is composed of three aspects: Identity, Diversity and Community. There is no particular value in sameness. Sameness doesn’t add anything. Sameness is a value simply to accommodate what exists, but there’s no enrichment… numerically, sure, but not as a mode of being. Children need to be educated about the three aspects. They need to learn that to be is to be unique. We must foster these ideas of identity, diversity, and community: people are not the same.

One of my main interests of late is law. Every being has rights. People have figured out human rights. Animals and birds and rocks and rivers also have rights. Everything has rights.

What do I mean that everything has rights? A tree needs tree rights. A bird needs bird rights. The rights of a tree are not appropriate for a bird. Everything has its rights by the same source: that which brought them in to being.

To say that something exists is true, but not the same. Persons need to learn how to be different, to develop their own individuality, and talents. Identity requires an inner core of meaning independent of everything else, but the difference needs to be bonded with relatedness. A person needs to be distinct, but also needs to identify with otherness to make community. And that’s education.

Humans need to develop as humans. They are different from other modes of being and need to be identified as different, but then they need to relate to other modes of being in a positive way that’s beneficial for everybody. So the child needs to relate to otherness in a positive way, so it creates community.

It is this sense of the Universe that is lost. We have so exaggerated the value of the human that instead of relating positively, we are relating negatively, in an exploitative way, to otherness.


NT: So would you say this is our greatest challenge?

TB: Our greatest challenge is to fulfill those three roles (Identity, Diversity and Community). We must face this greatest challenge not simply as individuals, but also as a species. Species need to relate to other species, and humans need to relate to the other modes of being, because we are nothing without everything else. If you damage the outer world, you damage the inner world. You can not succeed when you are harmful to the other species. It is a losing game if you are harmful to the surrounding world.


NT: This makes me think about how much indigenous communities have to offer us.

TB: Indigenous communities, at their best, are fulfilled [in these three roles]. Indigenous communities have this intimacy of relationship and understand the roles that people play. Again, that’s the value of roles, of people being trained to fulfill a certain role. I think it is good that we aren’t overly fixated on specified roles in education, but on the other hand, it is regrettable that a person grows up with no particular skills to their larger life purpose.


NT: So offer them tools.

TB: Offer them tools, but also strengthen their vision, whereby they can fulfill their own inner spontaneities that they inherited with their life program.


NT: I am curious what you think about what is going on today [in 2006] in politics and with the wars in the Middle East?

TB: I think it belongs to an age of ultimate devastation… I believe I put it in my book A Dream of the Earth, that what is happening is that we are making the planet Earth uninhabitable by anything. We are just devastating planet Earth… and I don’t know of any other species that has had this effect on other species. There are conditions—physical, biological conditions that disturb the life systems of species—but the idea of something like this happening… I just don’t know.

What I say is that we have gone through three phases of life. The Paleozoic, the Old Life period, which terminated several hundred million years ago, 220 million years ago, when 95 percent species became extinct. The Middle Life Phase, the Mesozoic, which terminated 75 million years ago… that’s when the dinosaurs died out, when some 60 percent of all species became extinct. Then it was the Cenozoic, which was the recent life period. We are terminating the recent life period after some 75 million years, and, I suggest that we are entering an “Ecozoic Era.” We are leaving one phase and entering another. We are entering the fourth biological age.

What I am suggesting is that we have to restore some kind of Human-Earth relations. It’s the only remedy I know. That is where the problem is. That is where the remedy is.