Steven Rockefeller, Ph.D. in philosophy of religion from Columbia University, and professor emeritus of Religion and former dean and chair of the religion department at Middlebury College; Co-chair of Earth Charter International Council; led the drafting of the Earth Charter. (October 3, 2012)
Your essay on “Religion, Science, and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time” presents a clear and compelling argument for a new cosmology that is based on the new science, the insights of the great mystics, and the wisdom of many ancient traditions. Your main argument is one with which I am in full agreement. Any questions or concerns I have with the argument have to do with the details. For example, some readers might conclude from your essay that you are embracing pantheism and identify God and the universe. I would steer clear of pantheism in favor of panentheism, which asserts that God is in the world and the world is in God but they are not one and the same. Panentheism affirms that God is both immanent and transcendent. The word “integral” has a number of meanings and it would be helpful to many readers to have a definition of what is meant by “an Integral Spirit.” Some will stumble over this terminology as I did when I first encountered it in Thomas Berry.
It is important for the new story to acknowledge the reality and mystery of evil and the terrible suffering that comes with existence for millions of people and other sentient beings. There is much in the world that is not of God or insofar as it is, we cannot understand it. One fundamental purpose of a guiding cosmology is to help people respond creatively to evil and suffering and find meaning in the face of it.
In reflecting on your essay, I have had the following further thoughts. Different cultures will have their own distinct ways of presenting the new cosmology. Putting the new cosmology in a theological framework and making theology the central theme, as you do with the title “The Cosmos is a Manifestation of an Integral Spirit,” will be more effective in some cultural contexts than in others. An alternative approach is to highlight and put the central focus on the sacredness of life, interdependence, and relationship, which are all important themes in your account. In this regard, the major theme of the new cosmology might be stated as follows: “Humanity is an interdependent part of an evolving universe in which all life is sacred.” Your approach to telling the story and this alternative are not mutually exclusive; they differ only on where the emphasis is placed. As you recognize, what is most critical is that the new story awakens a spiritual awareness and inspires right relationship and a way of living that opens people to the wonder, beauty, goodness, and ultimate meaning and value of life. Practical guidance in how to live well, not metaphysical theory, is of primary importance.
I fully support your statement that “we need an open self-critical public conversation about the foundational stories by which we understand our nature and purpose.” Thank you, David, for all you are doing to advance the conversation.