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Discussion Questions for 
"The Great Work"

(Note: the Sacred Activism group at St. Paul's United Methodist Church, 1615 Ogden St. in Denver, is sponsoring a discussion of "The Great Work" on Oct. 28, 2008, 6:30 - 8:00 p. m.  All are welcome.  These are the discussion questions I came up with.)

The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Thomas Berry. New York: Bell Tower, 1999.

General questions:

1. Much of what Berry says sounds familiar to us (we’ve messed up the environment, indigenous people are good, corporations are bad, etc.) but much of it is really new and different. What ideas in the book have you heard before, in what context, and what ideas seem to be really new and different that you haven’t heard before?

2. Berry’s book is filled with calmly stated apocalyptic predictions on the environmental crisis. For example: "Never before has the human community been confronted with a situation that required such a sudden and radical change in lifestyle under the threat of a comprehensive degradation of the planet and its major life systems" (p. 110). And: we are in an "extinction spasm" which is the "greatest single setback to life’s abundance and diversity" in earth’s history (p. 164). Is it really this bad? What does the seriousness of the situation imply about our work as a church and our work as individuals?

Questions about science:

3. Why can’t scientific materialism lead us out of our ecological problems? Isn’t it science (not religion) that tells us about global warming, soil erosion, and the rest?

4. "We need merely understand that the evolutionary process is neither random nor determined but creative" (p. 169). Berry seems to be determined to take a middle path on the question of whether God is responsible for life (e. g. creationism), or whether it’s a random process (as some atheists have argued). Why does he do this, and what do you think? What’s wrong with a straightforward scientific explanation?

5. If secularism and technology got us into our current mess, then why does Berry identify our great epic story — what corresponds to (say) Genesis among ancient peoples — as a scientific one, as the "big bang," galaxies forming, and evolution?

6. Berry says (p. 82) that elements have "self-organizing capacities" and the capacity for intimate relationships . . . these reveal astounding psychic abilities." Which elements is he talking about? Hydrogen, helium, carbon, or what? And what is he talking about? How can carbon organize itself? Is consciousness inherent in matter, or what?

Questions about our relationship to the earth:

7. "Every being has rights to be respected and revered" (p. 5). Berry elsewhere speaks of the "rights of living species" (p. 111). In what ways does our food system deny a sacred dimension to animals (whether we eat them or not). What would a food system that respected this dimension look like?

8. Groups such as the Sierra Club encourage enjoyment of natural environments, as a vehicle to preserve the environment. How is this appreciation of the environment similar to (and different from) the primitive understanding of the environment and forces of nature?

Questions about religion:

9. Why is environmental degradation linked to degradation of our inner world? (P. 110). Is the converse also true — that degradation of our inner world is linked to environmental degradation? How could we improve our inner world and would this really help the environment?

10. Berry states that ". . . a new revelatory experience is needed" (p. 165). "Perhaps a new revelatory experience is taking place, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the earth process" (p. 106). What kind of experience is he talking about? When, where, and how could we as individuals or as a church facilitate this?

Questions about the economy:

11. "An extractive economy is by its nature a terminal economy." (P. 138) What does this imply about the car, our housing system, and the suburbs? What does this imply about our jobs, for that matter? What is the future of transportation in a non-extractive economy? Since our entire economy is based on oil and other fossil fuels, how do we get out of this way of being?

12. "The petroleum interval is coming to its termination within the lifetime of persons living in the present" (p. 158). What are the implications of the decline of oil supplies for our transportation, our agriculture, our standard of living, the economy, and the hopes of developing nations?

Questions about culture:

13. Why does Berry emphasize the university rather than government, religion, or corporations, as the most important vehicle to do the Great Work? Does this make sense? How does he see it working, or how could it work?

14. "Our Western culture long ago abandoned its integral relation with the planet on which we live." (P. 147) What would a culture that accepted its integral relation with the planet look like?

15. "After considering the wisdom of indigenous peoples, the wisdom of women, the wisdom of the traditions, and the wisdom of science, it seems quite clear that these all agree in the intimacy of humans with the natural world" (p. 193). But since we already have these four wisdoms, why do we need to transform our culture? What’s the problem?