Realism, Idealism, and the New Universe Story

Image result for thomas berry new story old story

The Modern Story of Realism

Dear Students,

If I ask are you a realist or an idealist, you will probably consider your basic approach to life. The realists live more cautiously or even pessimistically, while the idealists see the bright side, spotting silver linings in every cloud.

Philosophically, however, I’m trying to get at a bigger question: Image result for dean radinwhat is the fundamental nature of reality? Put most simply, what came first, God or the atom? Dean Radin, chief scientist of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, addresses this question by contrasting two philosophical positions taken throughout Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 4.37.27 PMhistory, realism and idealism. The realists believe that the basic building blocks of reality are physical bits that we call atoms and molecules. Billions of years of random mixing of material elements resulted in the lucky strike of not only a habitable planet, but an increasingly complex evolutionary ladder that has culminated in the miracle of human personality and reflectivity that we call mind, awareness or consciousness. This is the current cosmological story underpinning modern civilization.

The Traditional Story of IdealismScreen Shot 2017-04-02 at 4.51.21 PM.png

Historically, however, there has always been a strong voice opposing the realists that we might call the idealists. This group believes that awareness (or mind or consciousness) is more fundamental to the universe than matter. Before the physical universe appeared there was some God, some First Cause or Power or Logos or Intention, that called all matter into existence.

One of the corollary concepts associated with the idealists is the Great Chain of Being, the linking of all matter – everything from protons to planets – in a journey of return to Source. In this story, there was nothing in the beginning but Spirit, which then gave birth to all the matter in the universe. Entry into physical form separated all material objects from their original home in the unity of God, thus, all things, including human beings, are on a journey of return to Spirit. Whether it’s heaven, moksha, or nirvana, the goal of life is to escape material existence to rejoin our essential oneness in the spiritual domain.

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In weighing the traditional and modern stories, most HKIS students opt for the realism of science, dismissing the idealism of traditional religion as an attractive, but ultimately unbelievable series of myths and fairy tales. Yet still, the majority of students wish that they could find a way to believe in the idealist’s dream. Many sympathize with Albert Einstein’s famous statement, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Each seems incomplete without the other.

Image result for einstein religion science

The New Universe Story

Is there a way out? The good news, dear students, is that a new story is emerging from the ashes of both compromised belief systems. The remnants of this two tiered cosmology, whether in its traditional religious form or its extreme agnostic materialism of 20th century science, is being called into question by a growing chorus of modern mystics and avant garde scientists who are advocating for a new story of the universe.

This new story seeks to combine the Image result for integral spiral wholebest of both previous narratives by synthesizing spirit and matter into an integral spiral. In terms of traditional religion, rather than the Great Chain of Being which sought to escape this material plane in hope of the eternal, the new paradigm literally brings heaven down to earth. On the other hand, modern science’s declaration that materiality cannot be dismissed as temporary or unreal has been given new stature by these cosmologists.

Image result for walter wink worldviews

According to these third way mystics and scientists, Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 4.34.48 PMevery level of material reality contains some form of knowing or intention, collectively known as awareness or consciousness. Atoms and molecules cohere and follow laws, plants and animals participate in the circle of life, and stars and planets move in their orbits: all actively participate, in accordance with their potential, in the pursuit of cosmic wholeness.

Image result for consciousnessSo, what about humans? Consciousness, present as differing capacities of yearning for harmony at every level of the cosmos, comes full flower in the human ability to reflect on and seek out the meaning of the whole. Instead of returning to God as Spirit as in the traditional story, humans in this new narrative combine their raw physicality with divine energy, creating people who participate in this world (rather than live for the next) with aImage result for if a thing loves it is infinite vibrant body-mind consciousness that lives in sympathetic resonance with the universe. The Romantic poet William Blake heralded this new way of thinking, writing that “heaven is in love with the productions of time . . . To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palms of your hands, and eternity in an hour.”

For Blake and other modern idealists, the original animating energy of the universe has always been love consciousness. Only in the last several decades has this grand integral love story of spirit-matter fusion known as the New Universe Story been shared with the world at large. In this new story the collective purpose of the universe is to make love manifest in our everyday lived experience, the daily outpouring of divine love through the particularity of our lives into time and space. This is the newly understood journey of the universe manifesting itself in us, the new story emerging in our times.


Related Articles of Interest

  1. A website dedicated to Thomas Berry’s understanding of the New Story.
  2. A free, online course, “The Journey of the Universe: A Story for Our Times” by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale.”
  3. Is the Modern Psyche Undergoing a Rite of Passage?” by Richard Tarnas
  4. Rupert Sheldrake and Charles Eisenstein have a wide-ranging conversation about the new story.

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The Great Chain of Being
Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Francis called all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of brother and sister; because he knew they had the same source as himself. —Saint Bonaventure (1217-1274) [1]

We must rebuild from the very bottom up, and that means restoring the inherent sacrality of all things—no exceptions. We can no longer leave it to individuals to decide what is sacred and what is not sacred. Most people are excluded when we create small circles of sacredness around church boundaries, holy days, totems, and members of our group. Did it ever strike you that Jesus, a good Jew, did most of his work on the Sabbath to show that Saturday was not really any more holy than Tuesday or Thursday? It was just a good social tradition that kept the group together—which is why we Christians felt completely free to move it to Sunday. But then, darn it, we did the same thing with Sunday!

By the image of the great chain of being, Scholastic theologians tried to communicate a linked and coherent world. The essential and unbreakable seven links in the chain included the Divine Creator, the angelic/heavenly, the human, the animal, the world of plants and vegetation, the waters upon the earth, and the earth itself with its minerals. In themselves and even more in their union together, the links proclaimed the glory of God (Psalm 104) and the inherent dignity of all things. If we eliminated even one link, the whole chain would fall apart—which is exactly what happened. Now many doubt all seven of the links as sacred!

What some now call creation spirituality, deep ecology, or holistic Gospel found a much earlier voice in the spirituality of the ancient Celts, the Rhineland mystics, and most especially Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Scholars like Bonaventure created an entire world view based on Francis’ spiritual seeing: “In the soul’s journey to God we must present to ourselves the whole material world as the first mirror through which we may pass over to the Supreme [Artisan].” [2] The Dominican Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) said the same: “If humankind could have known God without the world, God would never have created the world.” [3]

The “Catholic synthesis” of the early Middle Ages saw one coherent world. It was a positive intellectual vision not defined by being against something but by the clarity and beauty of form and the relationship between those forms. God is One. I am whole and so is everything else. How different from the postmodern morass we now live in.

Sadly, we seldom saw the Catholic synthesis move beyond philosophers’ books and mystics’ prayers. The rest of us Catholics remained in a fragmented and dualistic world, usually looking for the contaminating/heretical element to punish or the unworthy member to expel. Once the great chain of being was broken, we were soon unable to see the Divine Image even in our own species, except the few folks who were just like us. Then it was only a short time before the Enlightenment and modern secularism denied the whole heavenly sphere, and finally doubted Divinity itself and “God was dead.” Many now live in such an un-enchanted universe, and the results are not pretty.

Either we acknowledge that God is in all things, or we have lost the basis for seeing God in anything.

A New Cosmology by Richard Rohr

Sunday, October 29, 2017

 When I was growing up, the common perception was that science and religion were at odds. Now that we are coming to understand the magnificent nature of the cosmos, we’re finding that many of the intuitions of mystics of all religions are paralleled by scientific theories and explanations. All disciplines are just approaching truth from different angles and levels and questions.

It’s easy to imagine the delight Francis of Assisi found by turning skyward. I can picture him filled with wonder at God’s goodness on display: “he often overflowed with amazing, unspeakable joy as he looked at the sun, gazed at the moon, or observed the stars in the sky.” [1] Thomas Aquinas also intuited this deep connection when he wrote, “Any mistake we make about creation will also be a mistake about God.” [2] Inner and outer realities mirror one another.

Ilia Delio, a Franciscan sister and scientist, shares how our view of the universe and God has been evolving. [3] During the Middle Ages, when most Christian theology was developed, the universe was thought to be centered around humans and the Earth. Scientists saw the universe as anthropocentric, unchanging, mechanistic, orderly, predictable, and hierarchical. Christians viewed God, the “Prime Mover,” in much the same way, with the same static and predictable characteristics—omnipotent and omniscient, but not really loving. God was “out there” somewhere, separate from us and the universe. The unique and central message of the Christian religion—incarnation—was not really taken seriously by most Christians. In fact, our whole salvation plan was largely about getting away from this earth!

Today, we know that the universe is old, large, dynamic, and interconnected. It is about 13.7 billion years old, and some scientists think it could still exist for 100 trillion years. The universe has been expanding since its birth. Our home planet, Earth, far from being the center of the universe, revolves around the Sun, a medium-sized star near the edge of a medium-sized galaxy, the Milky Way, which contains about 200 billion stars. The Milky Way is about 100,000 light years in diameter. Furthermore, it is one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe. We do not appear to be the center of anything. And yet, by faith we trust that we are.

Delio writes:

We’re reaching a fork in the road; two paths are diverging on planet Earth, and the one we choose will make all the difference for the life of the planet. Shall we continue our medieval religious practices in a medieval paradigm and mechanistic culture and undergo extinction? Or shall we wake up to this dynamic, evolutionary universe and the rise of consciousness toward an integral wholeness? [4]

We are called to make the paradigm shift to a new cosmology.

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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