For Thomas Berry it’s all a question of story. For him there are two basic stories – the religious story and the story of the universe. Most of us in the west have been brought up on the religious story – a transcendent creator God with human beings being the highpoint of creation; the first human beings disobeying God’s commands and being expelled from a beautiful and fruitful garden; this original sin affecting all human beings born into the world, leaving them in a state of alienation from God; Jesus, God’s Son offering a way of salvation through baptism; the final destiny of life being heaven or hell. Thomas Berry believes that this story no longer works. It belongs to a three – fold universe with God in his heaven, the destiny of those who have lived a good life; with the earth stable and unchanging at the centre and the underworld for those who are not saved.
We now know that the universe isn’t like this. Cosmology teaches us about the flaring forth of energy that we call the Big Bang, about the evolution of the stars, the planets, including our own, about the evolution of life on earth of which we humans are a part. We humans are for the moment the high point of evolution, but evolution will go on beyond us. We are the expression of life, given form at this moment but constrained by the moment and the time in which we live both physically and intellectually.
So, what do we do with the religious story? Many people, of course, just dismiss it and reject it. Others cling to it and try to reconcile it with what we know of modern science, and often believers will debate with scientists or atheists, trying to prove that belief in a creator God is rational. These discussions are nearly always confrontational and polarised. But there is another approach which is growing within my own church – that of listening to/ reading the story of the universe and reflecting on what it means for our Christian faith. Over the years the Catholic church has dialogued with prevailing philosophies and current, knowledge as it has tried to articulate its teaching and make it relevant, something known as the development of doctrine. Now that dialogue is taking place with cosmology and ecology. There’s a recognition that we need to heed the story of the universe. We are part of an evolutionary process, on a journey – perhaps to die out like the Neanderthals to give life to some beings more evolved than we are, perhaps to learn how to live well together as a global community.
Where does this leave religion? I’ve come to believe that religion, all religions, have an intuition into the Reality of existence which they’ve expressed in beliefs or doctrines that have, over time, become ossified and divorced from their initial insights. It’s the old image of the finger pointing at the moon – look at the finger and you miss the moon. So much of religious teaching obscures rather than reveals the Reality it has encountered. Eastern religions do this better than western ones, even Christianity. But now instead of looking at religious teaching to help us understand the universe, we now look at the story of the universe to help us understand the insights of religion. For example, it’s a tradition to have ashes put on the forehead on Ash Wednesday accompanied by the words “remember you are dust and into dust you shall return”. This was taken as a sign of our need for repentance but it could also be a reminder that we are earthlings, worldlings who come from a common source – the dust of the earth – or as we now know the very dust of the stars.
One of the challenges in considering the universe story is having to rethink our understanding of God and eternal life. Often God is depicted as what you might call a Sky God, somewhere in heaven, emerging from his isolation and silence to create the world and reveal something of himself. And at the end of life, if we have been good, God or maybe Jesus, will take us to live happily with him in heaven. In the Acts of Apostles Paul, in a conversation with Greek philosophers on the Areopagus, speaks of God as the One in whom we live and move and have our very being. In the letter of John, chapter 4, it says God is love and whoever lives in love, lives in God – perhaps better insights into Reality than a interventionist God. Even the Trinity which seems so incomprehensible when theologians try to explain it could be an insight that relationships are at the heart of life – a reality we know from the Universe story.
Christianity is at an interesting stage. The story of the universe has the potential to transform it and make it more relevant to the modern age. It also has the potential to transform us and our relationships with nature and one another. We are at a critical point in our evolutionary journey and perhaps the very future of our race and, of religion, depends on the story we tell ourselves – a story that must be relevant to the modern age and not belong to a medieval one.