Prophets challenge, and the courage to give voice
to that challenge is rooted in a relationship with God
that pushes one to “see” or “hear” differently.
– Rita Cammack, OSF
We are members of the great universe community.
In and through this community we enter into communion
with that numinous mystery on which all things
depend for their existence and activity.
– Thomas Berry
Some years back during my graduate studies, I took a class on the early Christian prophets. I am fascinated by the experience in history of the “prophetic voice,” its origins, and its purpose. From a traditional Christian perspective, prophets are men and women commanded by the voice of God to speak aloud about injustices in the society.
I nearly flunked the class, over a dispute with the professor. For the final assignment, we were required to write a paper offering a cross-cultural perspective on prophecy. I chose to focus my essay on the life and prophetic message of Thomas Berry, the Passionist priest, co-author of The Universe Story, and author of The Great Work. I chose Berry for two reasons. One, I definitely felt that Berry, who died in 2011, was a modern-day prophet. But in addition, I was interested in exploring prophecy not only across cultures, but also across time.
It seemed to me from my readings on the origins of prophecy in different cultures that its appearance arose in and through the development of cultural consciousness and God consciousness among our human species at some point in history. In other words, it evolved as human societies evolved and human consciousness evolved. In fact, a few scholars I read are convinced that a prophet’s teachings derive from more than his or her own individual spiritual experience (i.e., hearing the “voice” of God) and are very much connected to their cultural and theological milieu (Von Rad, 1965, pp. 4-5).
I also found it fascinating that whenever and wherever a prophet appears in history, it always seems connected to the need for cultural transformation. My question, then, was: “What is the purpose of prophecy in an evolving Universe?”
Evolution and Transformation
Our Universe, scientists tell us now, came to be in its present form through a series of irreversible transformations in its physical (and Berry also claims psychic) dimensions. On the physical level, over billions of years, basic elements transformed into stars, galaxies, solar systems, planets, plants, mammals, and humans. These transformations at certain moments were marked by the sudden emergence of entirely new, unexpected phenomena, like the moment hydrogen and oxygen came together to form water. As Ken Wilber notes, “Evolution is a wildly self-transcending process, it has the amazing capacity to go beyond what went before.” (Marx Hubbard, 2001, p. 16).
Looking at how this process of transformation has happened within the realm of humans, we note historically that human society has changed, and not always for the better. We moved from our early tribal existence, through the creation of small villages, even larger towns, then huge cities, and eventually on to today’s nation-states. The early prophets often noted that one of the major results of this growth and transformation was a change in the people’s relationship to the land. Our view of land went from seeing it as belonging to everyone and contributing to everyone’s sustenance to being “owned” by some and worked by others. The prophets often claimed that their God was angry about how this situation impacted the poor, who previously had had access to the food of the land in ways from which they were now being excluded. Today, this issue has evolved into a global catastrophe, with thousands starving every day.
Berry’s Prophetic Origins
This brings me back to Berry. My instructor unfortunately did not agree with my approach to holding up Thomas Berry as a modern-day prophet. First of all, he argued, Berry could not be classified as a prophet because he never made a direct claim to be speaking a message delivered to him by God. I never had an opportunity to ask Berry how he felt about this, but I wanted to argue at the time that Berry would never do that, because it was not how he imaged the Divine. Berry, I suspected, would not have envisioned the anthropomorphic God of the Biblical stories of prophecy; that is, the one who visits in the night and speaks words like, “Get up and go tell my people….”
Berry’s prophetic voice, I imagine, emerged from his deep relationship with the God revealed to him in all of creation, as Rita Cammack suggests in the quote above. Berry tells the story of the foundational re-ordering of his own consciousness in this way:
I was a young person then, some twelve years old. My family was moving from a more settled part of a Southern town out to the edge of town where the new house was still being built. The house, not yet finished, was situated on a slight incline. Down below was a small creek and there across the creek was a meadow. It was an early afternoon in May when I first looked down over the scene and saw the meadow. The field was covered with lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something, I know not what, that seems to explain my life at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember. (http://www.thomasberry.org/Essays/MeadowAcrossCreek.html).
Reflecting back on that experience that “gave to my life something, I know not what,” Berry adds:
[W]henever I think about my basic life attitude and the whole trend of my mind and the causes that I have given my efforts to, I seem to come back to this moment and the impact it has had on my feeling for what is real and worthwhile in life. (http://www.thomasberry.org/Essays/MeadowAcrossCreek.html).
To me, it seems that from that moment overlooking the meadow, Berry began to “see” and “hear” differently, as Cammack suggests. Cammack goes on to describe the prophetic experience of knowing reality in a different way from most of people:
The prophet responds to something – a still, small voice; a pain so deep one can’t breathe, or maybe even an anger that threatens to consume life itself. And that response, which may be soft or passionately loud, is always about the kindom….It’s always about the challenge to live in love, with compassion, in collaboration, and for communion (p.13).
Prophecy and the New Cosmology
At times, I have wondered about the source of my own dissonance and anger. Studying the New Cosmology has helped me to understand Cammack’s words and my own experience in a way that I do not think I could manage without the New Cosmology as a lens. We are learning through the New Cosmology that our Universe is indeed a kindom – we all are sons and daughters of the stars, an interwoven tapestry of energy, thought and matter. We are one by our very birthright, called “to live in love.” For me, knowing our Universe is one, and that as humans we have evolved from within that oneness, it makes sense to me that the prophetic voice emerges in us whenever we experience the opposite of love, compassion, collaboration, and communion.
The challenge, often made vocal by prophets, is to live in love intentionally, to overcome that aspect of ourselves – whether it be ego or woundedness or fear – that seeks to drive us to isolate ourselves from the communion in which we are embedded and to which we belong; or, worse yet, to act against that communion.
Barbara Marx Hubbard suggests that persons like Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, and others who transformed cultures did so because they “broke through the limits of self-consciousness into a cosmic universal level of awareness” (2001, p. 16).
Wilber agrees, saying, “I think the sages are the growing up of the secret impulse of evolution….the leading edge of the self-transcending drive that always goes beyond what went before” (Marx Hubbard, 2001, p. 16).
The teachings of the great religious prophets seem to me to be consistent with a contemporary view of our Universe as profoundly interconnected. As Marx Hubbard notes, “In every tradition, these teachings included the concepts of loving one another and doing unto others as we would have it done unto ourselves, as well as the central revelation that we are more than separated physical beings dying in the night” (2001, p. 16).
Marx Hubbard suggests that though it became the role of the formal religions to preserve the teachings of the early prophets, people in charge of that process of institutionalization “rarely experienced unitive, cosmic consciousness themselves.” As a result, the religions down through time have more often displayed the same ego-tendencies toward violence, separation, and domination they were meant to overcome (2001, p. 17).
When I was studying the prophets, I asked myself, what is the role of the prophet? The answer that came to me in the quiet was, “To call the people back to Life.” Thomas Berry certainly did that. He challenged us as a human species to end the destructive behaviors stemming from our sense of alienation and isolation from the community of life on Earth, and to return to our proper place within the communion. In 1994, he wrote, “We are bringing about the greatest devastation that the planet Earth has ever experienced in the four-and-a-half-billion years of its formation” (Resurgence, p. 16).
Perhaps Berry’s voice and the voice of all prophets throughout human history has been indeed the voice of the Divine, coming through the Cosmos itself, and spoken aloud in time of crisis and possibility by those few among us who come to see and hear differently.
Berry, T. 1994. Religion and Cosmology. In Resurgence. No. 164, May/June.
Berry, T. The Cosmology of Religions. Previously published in Pluralism and Oppression: Theology in a World Perspective. Kittner, P. (Ed.). Annual Volume #34, College Theology Society, pp. 99-113. http://home.cogeco.ca/~drheault/ee_readings/Ethical_Perspectives/Berry.pdf
Marx Hubbard, B. (2001). Emergence: The shift from ego to essence. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads.
Cammack, R., OSF, (2013) Navigating the shifts: A reflective journal. Sanders, A. (Ed.). Silver Spring, MD: Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
Von Rad, G. 1965. Old Testament Theology, Vol. II. NY: Harper and Row.