Where are you from? Earth!—A religious naturalist response to the current refugee crisis

Thomas Berry (1914-2009)
Readings: The opening three paragraphs of "The New Story" by Thomas Berry (in "The Dream of the Earth", Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988, pp. 123-124):

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story. Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. It consecrated suffering and integrated knowledge. We awoke in the morning and knew where we were. We could answer the questions of our children. We could identify crime, punish transgressors. Everything was taken care of because the story was there. It did not necessarily make people good, nor did it take away the pains and stupidities of life or make for unfailing warmth in human association. It did provide a context in which life could function in a meaningful manner.
          Presently this traditional story is dysfunctional in its larger social dimensions, even though some believe it firmly and act according to Its guidance. Aware of the dysfunctional aspects of the traditional program, some persons have moved on into different, often new-age, orientations, which have consistently proved ineffective In dealing with our present life situation. Even with advanced science and technology, with superb techniques in manufacturing and commerce, in communications and computation, our secular society remains without satisfactory meaning or the social discipline needed for a life leading to emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual fulfilment. Because of this lack of satisfaction many persons are returning to a religious fundamentalism. But that, too, can be seen as inadequate to supply the values for sustaining our needed social discipline. 
          A radical reassessment of the human situation is needed, especially concerning those basic values that give to life some satisfactory meaning. We need something that will supply in our times what was supplied formerly by our traditional religious story. If we are to achieve this purpose, we must begin where everything begins In human affairs—with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be, how they came to be as they are, and how the future can be given some satisfying direction. We need a story that will educate us, a story that will heal, guide, and discipline us.

This piece was first published by Teilhard Studies in 1977 which was later revised for it's inclusion in the 1988 collection, "The Dream of the Earth" mentioned above.

Here's a trailer for a film about Thomas Berry and "The Great Story" i.e. "The New Story"

You can hear Thomas Berry talk about nature and humans in the following short interview.

Every Morning by Mary Oliver (from Dream Work, 1984)

Every morning 
the world 
is created. 
Under the orange

sticks of the sun 
the heaped 
ashes of the night 
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches— 
and the ponds appear 
like black cloth 
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies. 
If it is your nature 
to be happy 
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination 
alighting everywhere. 
And if your spirit 
carries within it

the thorn 
that is heavier than lead— 
if it’s all you can do 
to keep on trudging—

there is still 
somewhere deep within you 
a beast shouting that the earth 
is exactly what it wanted—

each pond with its blazing lilies 
is a prayer heard and answered 
every morning,

whether or not 
you have ever dared to be happy, 
whether or not 
you have ever dared to pray.


Where are you from? Earth—A religious naturalist responds to the current refugee crisis

Whilst (my wife) Susanna and I were away the dreadful refugee crisis connected particularly with the conflict in Syria finally began, finally, to make it into our collective European consciousness, a process that, in the last few days, has been speeded up and deepened by the shocking images of the three-year old boy, Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on the beach at Kos and the long march by refugees from Budapest to the Austrian border.

This situation is, I’m sure, so present in our minds that, today, it seems impossible for to me not explicitly to address the matter in what I hope is some meaningful and genuinely useful way.

Firstly, I’m sure like many of you, I’m relieved to see that our own government seems finally to have recognised that we both can and should take in many, many more refugees, even though at present they are still far from pitching the number as high as they could. I encourage you to find appropriate ways to support this change of heart by our present government and push them to go much further.

However, despite this immediate practical response we, secondly, need to keep firmly in mind the painful fact that simply taking in refugees — even the maximum possible number — is not going to address the root causes of this tragedy which has been unfolding for years and for which, in part, European and American foreign policy must take some real blame. Clearly this requires from us, as individuals, religious communities and politicians a fundamental change of policy.

This thought about policy brings me to the third thing we can do and it is upon this matter that I wish to concentrate this morning primarily because it is fully within the area of my competence as a philosophically inclined, free-religious minister of religion. My initial point may seem to be unconnected to the current crisis, but please stay with me for you will see it's relevance even if, in the end, you come to disagree with me.

Just before going away for my summer vacation I introduced you to something said by Steve Dunsky, a film maker with the U.S. Forest Service. In a recent piece by him called, “Re-storying the World”, he noted that his colleagues at the “H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest” in Oregon were engaged in something they called “re-story-ation”, an activity which, in turn, allowed Dunsky to comment that,

“Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

As the refugee crisis has deepened — and I have continued my own thinking about religious naturalism as a religious position that is highly amenable to our own Unitarian tradition and powerfully relevant to our own age — it has struck me deeply, on this occasion to what feels like the very core of my being, that this explicit need for a new metaphor — for a re-story-ation — is now too urgent to ignore both by me, by a contemporary progressive church such as our own, and by our own culture as a whole.

The metaphor that, to my mind, needs consciously and respectfully to be let-go is our culture’s core, inherited religious one, namely that of monotheism: the metaphor of a supernatural being (mostly personified as a male person, a father) who exists in some other divine, perfect realm and who is creating and judging all things in this transient, imperfect world so as to prepare his chosen ones for entry into a future, perfect, eternal home away from this natural world.

Although most human knowledge and experience in our contemporary world now reveals that this story is vanishingly unlikely to be true in any literal sense, it is important to see that it’s power as a pure metaphor quietly persists and almost everywhere continues to influence us into believing and acting as if there were a fundamental division in reality between the natural and the supernatural. This metaphorical metaphysical division continues to play it’s part in encouraging so many of the earth’s peoples (including some modern atheists and humanists who carry with them a shadow of this old metaphor in their own philosophies) similarly to continue to divide themselves into radically different races, nations and beliefs. Additionally the old metaphor encourages humanity to see itself as apart and different from the rest of nature in some fundamental way and the dreadful political, social and ecological consequences of this are plain to see  — consequences that, in the future, may well make this present refugee crisis look minor by comparison.

Given these things, the core, metaphorical story of monotheism is surely today, as a matter of urgency, one that should gently be let go.

But the good news is that there already exists amongst most of us — if only we could publicly admit this and actively foreground it — a more genuinely believable core story, namely, the Epic of Evolution. Some of you may ask, well, what’s that? Well, here’s how Loyal Rue, the historian of religion and a religious naturalist himself, summarises it:

“In the course of epic events, matter was distilled out of radiant energy, segregated into galaxies, collapsed into stars, fused into atoms, swirled into planets, spliced into molecules, captured into cells, mutated into species, compromised into thought, and cajoled into cultures. All of this (and much more) is what matter has done as systems upon systems of organization have emerged over thirteen billion years of creative natural history.
The Epic of Evolution is the biggest of all pictures, the narrative context for all our thinking about who we are, where we have come from, and how we should live.  It is the ultimate account of how things are, and it is therefore the essential foundation for discourse about which things matter.” (Source: http://www.earthlight.org/personal26.html)

In his own presentation of the Epic of Evolution found in his book, “Everybody’s Story” (SUNY Press, 2000), Rue, offers this take on the epic:

“What is so special about this story? What reason is there for thinking a story of such themes has potential for advancing global solidarity and cooperation? The very same reason for thinking *any* story might have this potential — that is, it has the power to engage the deep structures of human nature and to transform how we think and what we do. In other words the narrative of cosmic evolution has the potential for harnessing the emotional effectors of kin selection and reciprocal altruism to serve the integrity of natural and social systems. The story of cosmic evolution reveals to us the common origin, nature, and destiny shared by all human beings. It documents our essential kinship as no other story can do. This is no contrived shamanistic legend; this is not a bit of clever tribal tattooing—it’s more like the real thing. This story shows us in the deepest possible sense that we are all sisters and brothers—fashioned from the same stellar dust, energised by the same star, nourished by the same planet, endowed with the same genetic code, and threatened by the same evils. This story, more than any other, humbles us before the magnitude and complexity of creation. Like no other story it bewilders us with the improbability of our existence, astonishes us with the interdependence of all things, and makes us feel grateful for the lives we have. And not least of all, inspires us to express our gratitude to the past by accepting a solemn and collective responsibility for the future” (p. 49).

Unlike the countless, often conflicting, older, metaphysical religious metaphors which, for all their undoubted local value and beauty (local in terms of both place, culture and time) are obviously NOT everybody’s story, today the Epic of Evolution genuinely can be shown to be everybody’s story.

It’s a genuinely shared story that reveals to us — both scientifically and poetically and religiously — that together we all belong to the earth and that there is no separation into the heavenly and the earthly, into insiders and outsiders. In terms of the epic of evolution — the religious naturalist core metaphor — there is simply no such thing as a refugee or immigrant because we all belong in nature, our ever present source and shared home. Whereas, in terms of the old metaphor of classical monotheism, there are in fact only refugees and immigrants, people who are constantly seeking to escape from what is perceived to be this faulty, flawed natural world and to make their eternal home across a mythical border in some other, foreign, supernatural land.  

To this old story I think we must begin to find the courage publicly to say “No, no, no!” and gently and sensitively (because we must respectfully acknowledge that this old story is or has been much loved by many — including, I have to say, myself — to find ways to encourage people to let this old core metaphor go. So, for example, amongst ourselves I ask whether it might not be time to consider gently and sensitively letting go of the Lord’s Prayer? I ask this because it is a prayer which is clearly speaking from out of the old, deeply problematic story.  We might also think about offering up to our children the kind of educational programme developed by Connie Barlow which teaches the religious significance of the Epic of Evolution.

But these local, liturgical and educational questions aside, I find myself compelled, as was the poet Mary Oliver, by a beast shouting deep within me to say that this earth, this natural world, is “exactly what it wanted” and to say, with as much passion as this inner beast can muster, that this refugee crisis has made me see that I personally can no longer, with anything like a clean conscience, continue to support making any kind of policy, including policy concerning the immigrants and refugees, on the basis of the old monotheistic core metaphor, not least of all because it is precisely this old metaphor that has contributed so much to creating and exacerbating this dreadful situation in the first place.

The Epic of Evolution, tells us a very different story, one upon which I think we can, and should, now be making our policy — both as individuals, as a local church and more widely in civic, secular society. It seems, at the very least, that most of us here today (tacitly or not) already hold the Epic of Evolution as our core religious metaphor because we know, deep in our bones, that we can hold it with full and genuine pathos (impressiveness) and a genuinely clean heart. We know that there need be no equivocation from us about living fully and religiously from out of it. Please ask yourself whether you can honestly say this anymore about the old monotheistic metaphor?

It seems clear to me that the Epic of Evolution offers us a believable, this-worldly religious story that can persuasively remind us that we (“we” being all sentient and non sentient things), we are all always-already at home together on this planet and it’s all we’ll ever get, it's all we'll ever need and, for that reason, it’s all we should ever want and give grateful thanks for.

Which point allows me to draw to a close with the cartoon I reproduced here, one drawn in 2014 by the Australian cartoonist Simon Kneebone, who offered it in response to boats of people trying to reach Australia from Indonesia. In that, as in this current crisis, it simply and starkly articulates a basic truth expressed by the Epic of Evolution: We are all from earth and upon it, our common and only home, united we can stand, but divided we will most certainly all fall.