Thomas Berry on Soul

Soul is fundamentally a biological concept, defined as the primary organizing, sustaining, and guiding principle of a living being. Soulcraft is the skill needed in shaping the human soul toward its fulfillment in its unity with the entire universe.

The universe and the human soul find their fulfillment in each other. Soul gives to the multitude of living forms wondrous powers of movement and reproduction, but even more wondrous powers of sensation and emotion. Soul, in all its diversity of expression, enables the flowers to bloom in the meadows. It enables  all manner of living forms, the birds, the fish, and other living beings to find their way through thousands of miles on their migration journeys back and forth across the continents and in the dark depths of the sea. The entire universe is shaped and sustained in all its vast interwoven patterns by the mysterious powers of soul.

Such was the understanding of soul in our western world until the sixteenth century when Rene Descartes (1596-1650) taught that the natural world was simply a mechanistic process to be known simply by scientific measurement.

Humans differ from other living beings in having a soul capable of reflecting on itself, thereby providing it with intellectual and moral capacities associated with spiritual beings. Once the existence of soul in the other-than-human world was rejected, it was difficult to sustain any acceptance of soul in the human world.

Such was the situation throughout the nineteenth century and throughout the industrial civilization in the twentieth century. Then, in our psychological studies, we began to realize that nothing made much sense without the presence of soul. Acceptance of the soul dimension of the natural world was begun in the studies of C. G. Jung. He saw the need for restoring the human soul in its integral presence with the vital powers of the earth.

Further, in our association with indigenous peoples, we began to appreciate the profound sense of realism they manifested in their ritual communion of the human soul with the deeper powers of the universe.

In these earlier cultures, the universe was experienced primarily as a presence to be communal with and instructed by, not a collection of natural resources to be used for utilitarian purposes. The winds, the mountains, the soaring birds, the wildlife roaming the forests, the stars  splashed across the heavens in the dark of night: these were all communicating the deepest experiences that humans would ever know. The inner life of humans, the joy  and exaltation we experience in celebrating our place in the great community of existence, these depended on our experience of a universe that provides us with both our physical and our spiritual nourishment. All this was recognized as the world of the soul.

Above all, this larger context of human existence was a caring world. It provided food and shelter, and healing in time of sickness. Beyond economic needs, the natural world in all its wonder provided inspiration for song and dance and poetry. Such we find with the Australian aborigines, who saw the visible World as the creation of a more profound reality known as the Dreamtime. Each aspect of the landscape was identified as related to its songlines.

Throughout this earlier world, life in its comprehensive extent was a meaningful and a fulfilling experience. The tragic dimension of existence could be dealt with by the assistance we received from this other world. The integrity of our psychic world was preserved.

Indigenous peoples attained the inner strength needed to deal with the challenges they confronted in the wild through their ritual communion with these powers present throughout the natural world. The Plains Indians of North America identified and sacralized their human presence at any moment by offering the sacred pipe to the four directions, then to heaven above and the earth below. In this manner they knew where they were.

They knew also that they were not alone.

They were at the center of the universe.

The powers present throughout the natural world were there to guide and support them in the hunt, in their endurance of the heat and cold of the seasons, in their confrontation with enemies.

Civilizations also found their validation in their ritual integration with the great cosmic liturgy of the seasons as well as with the celebration of the dawn and sunset. These transition moments were sacred. To know how to insert our human affairs into the larger functioning of the universe was the primary context of existence in all its forms. The integral functioning of the entire human order depended on this relationship.

Government found its authority and the efficacy of its functioning in its alliance with this larger design of the universe.

Education was based on initiation into this process.

The whole of life was thought of as a celebration of existence.

There were the anxieties concerning food and shelter, there was sickness and death. Yet so long as there was assistance from the powers of the universe, these could be accepted and dealt with creatively. Suffering and death could be endured without fear because they occurred in a meaningful context of interpretation.

Thomas Berry in the Forward to SoulCraft