An Historical Moment by Thomas Berry, 2001


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An Historical Moment
by Thomas Berry

EarthLight Magazine Online Essay,  December 2001
( click here for )



With the destruction of the Trade Towers in New York in the opening year of the 21st century, the American people enter a new Age of Anxiety. We might have hoped for a more serene century after all the anxious period of the 20th century. The century just ending seems to have been an unending sequence of anxious moments: World War I lasted from 1914 till 1918; the Economic Depression from 1929 throughout the 1930s; World War II in the 1940s, the Korean War of the 1950s, the Existentialist angst of mind in the 1950s and 1960s; the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the Cold War with the Soviet Empire from the 1950s until 1991. These were mostly periods of military conflict. Yet they were also periods of economic, political and intellectual tension.

In the opening year of the 21st century we entered a new all-pervasive anxiety originating in the terrorist destruction of the twin Towers of the World Trade Center – a building that, at least symbolically, might be considered as the central expression of western economic dominance over the nations, the peoples, and the natural resources of the Earth. It might even symbolize American arrogance as its supermarkets spread throughout the nations of the world. To some, these towers might even symbolize the oppression of the impoverished nations by the most affluent nations of the world.

While here in America we have taken an attitude of violated innocence with a flaming assertion of vengeance against the perpetrators of the assault on the Towers, we might reflect somewhat on the larger context of what is happening. We might be under extensive illusions as regards our efforts to "help" the less developed nations. While we are indeed a "good-hearted" people we must begin to recognize that "doing good" is not the simplistic thing we sometimes think it to be. We seem not to realize that, of the industrialized nations of the world, we give the least percentage of our national income to assist these nations in need. We have consistently refused to join with the other nations of the world in bringing about a greater harmony of peoples and more equitable distribution of wealth.

Then there is the question of industrial "development" of the more land-based peoples. To disturb the village life of a people living in harmony with the ever-renewing sequence of the seasons by teaching them a non-renewing commercial-industrial way of life, is to impoverish rather than to enrich them. When we loan money to the politically competent commercial-entrepreneurial members of a society entering its modern phase by developing their natural resources, we open the way not only to an oppressive class in the local society but also to the accumulation of the enormous debt owed to the industrialized nation by the so-called "third world."

We might reflect on the damage that we can do to ourselves by our present wrath against those already known as terrorists or suspected of being terrorists. However justified the punishments that might be imposed on those who brought about this sudden slaughter of innocent people, these punishments may have long lasting consequences, for example, in a growing suspicion of each other within and among nations. The ease with which we have traveled and communicated with each other may change significantly.

I would simply note that the event with which we are dealing could very well precipitate ourselves and the larger community of peoples into a prolonged and all-pervasive state of anxiety. The questions of "whom can we trust" takes over our consciousness. Now more than ever we need, not simply to create peace, but to create the basis on which an enduring confidence can exist within nations and between nations.

As the human population of the world increases the natural resources of the Earth are proportionately diminished. They will surely become ever more precious. The strife over who will possess, who will control these resources, will most certainly increase. Meanwhile the spiritual resources needed for a true bonding within nations and between nations have been diminishing as emphasis on political power and money values has increased.

We had thought and hoped that a great peace might pervade the world when we looked out over the 50 million persons who died during World War II. At our first meeting in San Francisco at the end of the war, we set up the United Nations. Among its great achievements was the transition from colonial status to independence for almost a hundred different peoples. Yet peace within nations and between nations remained beyond immediate attainment.

We also had utopian expectations from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; then later from the World Trade Organization. Yet these programs only increased the control of a few nations, the Group of Seven, now the Group of Eight, over the economic future of the world. At the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle and at other consequent meetings a rising protest has been shown against the globalization of the economic affairs of the nations. The pathos of the situation is that along with the exploitation taking place there is a sincere dedicated effort to alleviate the deprivation of needy peoples.

The difficulty is that the advanced nations simply do not know how to achieve what is at times a noble effort. We have hardly begun to appreciate that the human project throughout the world requires something more than money can buy. The planet Earth is something more than "natural resource" to be used by humans.

Here we might propose that a viable future for the human community rests largely upon a new relationship between the human communities and the planet on which we dwell. We need to appreciate that both our physical and our spiritual survival depend on the visible world about us. We would have no inner life of mind, imagination or emotion without the wonder, the beauty and the intimacy offered us by the dawn and sunset, the singing birds and the cry of the wolf, by the meadows and all their flowers, by the grandeur of the mountains and the vastness of the sea.

To preserve all this in its integrity is the common task before us. For this is a world that cannot be bought with money, cannot be manufactured with technology, cannot be listed on the stock market, cannot be made in any chemical laboratory, cannot be reproduced with all our genetic engineering, cannot be sent by email.

Here we find not only the wonders we see with our eyes, but also that more mysterious world beyond, the world that is not diminished by sharing but is rather increased the more it is shared by others, as the music of a Beethoven symphony is more meaningful when heard not alone but with others. So too with the peace of the city. We need to be with others. So now we need to experience together the stars in the heavens as well as the wonders of Earth.

In this context we need to live together not in a world of aggression and counter-aggression, not in a world of mutual exploitation but in a universe that is the deeper self of each of us. As we recover from the sorrows inflicted upon us by the recent destruction of the Trade Towers, as we ease the antagonisms that surround us, we need to go further into that deeper identity that we have with each other in the Great Self. Somewhere, somehow, mercy and justice must kiss in the all-embracing numinous presence wherein peace descends upon us all in the dawn of a new day.

Thomas Berry is a cultural historian and the author of The Great Work, The Dream of the Earth, and The Universe Story, with Brian Swimme. He currently resides in his boyhood bioregion of North Carolina. 

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