Paradigm shifts: How fast do we change a worldview? Thomas Berry’s “Sacred Universe”


I remember three specific instances of gay people who came out to me at different times. The first time , in about 1970, was very risky for the person who could have lost his job and been ostracised by friends and family, if I had divulged his secret. At that time  I knew nothing about homosexuality and started to read – literature at first- in order to understand. My church was “against it”, whatever that meant. The second was our son in about 1980: he was worried about the reception he would get from his dad and me, and said later it was scary for him to tell us. By now, I knew more, but obviously hadn’t talked much about it. In fact we were amazed mostly that he was so worried about telling us and also amazed, looking back, that we hadn’t realised already. Then about 1990, another close friend told me there was something I needed to know about her – and again was worried what my response would be. As I remember, by then it was “Oh, is that all! You had me worried for a minute there!” My church, of course is still “against it” but by now 49% of US Catholics are in favour of gay marriage.

This is a fast change. I suspect my story mirrors that of many other people. This is a paradigm shift, though I am using the term in a way that has become common, but not strictly as Thomas Kuhn used it in the scientific field. (Bud insisted I mention Kuhn even those these meanderings are getting really long!)

It is encouraging to me that humans are so adaptable and can change so quickly. It is as if there is some way in which we pick up awareness unconsciously as well as learning from experiences, which I clearly did. This can be a danger, as it was in Germany in the 30s and 40s with the rise of the Nazis, and in the ease, for example in which people can passionately commit to a war. We are malleable and socialised not only as children but throughout our lives, by influences we know we are choosing, and even more by ones of which we are oblivious.

In the last couple of centuries we have been immersed in materialism and  individualism, we have accepted economic indicators of prosperity as real, and we are on the way to using up and trashing the whole planet. We need a change of worldview, not just a technological fix, though it will be nice if that comes along. Two rules for children are “Don’t use something up unless we get some more” and “If you make a mess, clean it up.” Doesn’t this apply to clear cutting redwoods when they are reduced to a fraction of their former range, or fighting for rights to fish a river already depleted of salmon? Or keeping a cooling pond of uranium rods, near an earthquake fault and a school? These are local issues where I have been living for 20+ years, but I have also seen the concern for jobs and the prospect of bringing up your children in poverty. Yet,”Without a vision, the people will perish”, if not now, then in a generation or two.

Thomas Berry, in his book “The Sacred Universe” stresses the importance of a worldview which recognises the interdependence of everything on this planet, and its beauty and value, its spiritual and awe inspiring reality. Only recently has it been possible for evolution to include a conscious  presence on the planet which can begin to see the whole, and to realise that we have reached a point where we make an enormous difference. He sees the difference as big enough that he says we are no longer in the Cenozoic age but the “Ecozoic”. My grandson is now entering his “dinosaur age” of fascination with such enormous creatures ( at least his favourites are enormous) who are not here any more. But he is growing up in another age of extinctions, wrought not by an asteroid collision but by our deforestation, extraction and use of fossil fuels and so on. How do we move from fascination and awe to a blasé acceptance that we have a right to use up whatever we want? The world doesn’t belong to us to use up. We are a part of God’s creation and need to protect and honour it, now that we are conscious of ourselves as part of it. At present, it seems unlikely that we will last as long as the dinosaurs did!

I have wanted to see a bigger picture, in a longer timeline, ever since I read Teilhard de Chardin fifty years ago. Berry owes a large debt to, and quotes Teilhard. Our little human history  is such a small part of the story of the universe. And yet, like Berry, I accept the anthropic principle that something in the universe wants to bring about life and consciousness, something I label as God, and I have always been fascinated though not wholly convinced by Teilhard’s melding of palaeontology and Christian theology. We do need (even if Berry says this in such a preacherly way and so often) a spiritual and holistic vision of the world we live in and an appreciation of the long timeline of life here. We can change. We will change. I would love to come back in a couple of centuries and see what happens next! Even with the threat of climate change.

This from a recent news article – I sometimes appreciate my church’s insistence on ethics in our common decisions-

“The Franciscans, who also seek to transform U.S. public policy, say one of the most serious challenges facing the nation is being ignored by both presidential candidates. They’re calling on President Obama and Mitt Romney to acknowledge that global climate change is “an extremely critical ecological and moral issue.” Obama and Romney should identify the actions they would take to address this “threat to life on earth,” they say.

“The most prestigious scientific bodies in the world agree that climate change is a reality, that it is primarily attributed to human actions, and that the emission of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced to avert devastating consequences,” the Franciscan Action Network wrote in a release this week. “Leaders of major faith communities also agree that global warming is a real and serious moral and ethical concern.”

The Franciscans note that even famed, self-professed climate-change skeptic Dr. Richard Muller, University of California, Berkeley physics professor, now acknowledges global warming is a fact — and so is humankind’s culpability.”

“The Sacred Universe” and creation care is so much more important than the denominational squabbles that wear me down. Love your mother! I do think that when enough people see a different way, then things can change very quickly.I am not an optimist. I do have hope.

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2 Responses to Paradigm shifts: How fast do we change a worldview? Thomas Berry’s “Sacred Universe”

  1. ahuntca says:

    great blog… I am not familiar with Berry’s book… And someday when I am reading such things need to back and read Teilhard. I read a bit of Teilhard in seminary, but was put off by his writing. From this perspective it seems like it would have been a natural for me, but wasn’t. I was reading quite a bit of process thought and perhaps just found others easier to read. I too would like to see Romney and Obama skillfully questioned on climate change, and other ecological challenges… But I am not expecting the debates to be very helpful or revealing. At this point I fear they make a difference only if one or the other noticibly stumbles… Blessings!


  2. readingmater says:

    I like Teilhard and never found him difficult to read. But I got a “like” on this blog entry from Isaac at ekostories referring to a Jim Henson episode which I then found on YouTube
    Ekostories likes stories as a way of gaining or changing perspective and I just enjoyed exploring his blog. Stories are so much lighter than treatises, but capture the imagination in a unique and multivalent way. And anyone who likes Ursula Le Guin and Miyazaki’s Totoro is home free for me!


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