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Thomas Berry


A woman started it. Then a soft-spoken Catholic priest deepened its scope. The ecology movement began in earnest in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and her warning that our use of chemicals to enhance agriculture was poisoning both the earth’s life and our own. After Carson, the destruction of nature, so much a part of America’s expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, could no longer be justified as progress.

By the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, concern about our human effect on the earth’s life was growing by leaps and bounds. It was becoming apparent that an environmental crisis of staggering dimensions was not going to be solved by a quick fix or a techno solution, that indeed technology was part of the problem. We began to realize that the roots of our predicament went deep, all the way down to our hearts and souls.

Fr. Thomas Berry, described in Newsweek magazine in 1989 as “the most provocative figure among the new breed of eco-theologians,” was among the first to say the earth crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis.

Berry, 84, is one of today’s most probing thinkers on the human relationship with the natural world and its implications for religion. His diagnosis of our spiritual condition rings true for many who are willing and able to work for a cure. A conference held this summer at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky., showcased his legacy. It was called EarthSpirit Rising.

Scientists, spiritual leaders, artists, environmental activists, people working with the United Nations on the Earth Charter, and members of religious communities came from as far as Australia and from every U.S. state. One hundred ninety groups and individuals sponsored the conference, including Sisters of Earth, a growing group of religious women who are converting their motherhouse properties to eco-friendly, buildings and farming practices. Many who were there have created their own earth ministries, inspired by the work and life of Thomas Berry.

Raised in a large family with what he calls “healthy neglect,” William Nathan Berry (named after his father) spent his childhood roaming the woods and meadows around his home in Greensboro, N.C. At the age of 11, he says, his sense of “the natural world in its numinous presence” came to him when he discovered a new meadow on the outskirts of the town to which his family had just moved. “The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass. A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.”

It was not only the lilies, he says. “It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in the clear sky. … This early experience has remained with me ever since as the basic determinant of my sense of reality and values. Whatever fosters this meadow is good. What does harm to this meadow is not good.” By extension, he says, “a good economic, or political, or educational system is one that would preserve that meadow and a good religion would reveal the deeper experience of that meadow and how it came into being.”

Berry reflects, “It was a wonder world that I have carried in my unconscious and that has evolved all my thinking.”

He entered the novitiate of the Passionist order in 1934, taking the name Thomas after the great scholar Thomas Aquinas. “I recognized,” he told an interviewer in 1999, “that I couldn’t survive in the world the way it was becoming. I joined the monastery to escape from a world that was becoming crassly commercial, so that I could find meaning.” He was ordained to the priesthood on May 30, 1942.

Berry earned his doctoral degree in history from The Catholic University of America. His early interests expanded to include Asian history and religion as well as the culture and religious life of indigenous people. He studied Chinese language and culture in China in the late 1940s. He served as an army chaplain in Europe in the early 1950s. Berry then taught the cultural history of India and China at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and at Fordham in New York. He was director of Fordham’s graduate program in the history of religions from 1966 to 1979. In 1970 he founded the Riverdale Center of Religious Research in Riverdale, N.Y., and was its director until 1987.

It was during this period that he began to lecture widely on the intersection of cultural, spiritual and ecological issues. His first book, Dream of the Earth, was published in 1988 by Sierra Club Books. This was followed by a joint effort with physicist Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1992. His latest book, The Great Work, was published in 1999 by Crown Publishing, New York.

Diagnosing spiritual sickness

Berry went to a high school one day to talk to the students, wanting to convey to them a sense of our current spiritual predicament. The term autism came to mind, and he asked if anyone in the class could define what that meant, unsure if he would get a good answer. A student jumped up and explained clearly: “People being so locked up in themselves that no one and nothing else can get in.” Exactly, Berry thought. “That is what has happened to the human community in our times. We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual ‘autism.’ ”

Berry’s speculations begin with this pervasive spiritual sickness. At a deep level, he says, we no longer feel our kinship with the other life on the planet. We have lost that primordial sense of belonging to a whole web of life. Our challenge is to satisfy our essential human needs without destroying the biodiversity that makes our planet so nourishing and rich.

It is not a technological or social problem that hinders us, Berry says, but that pathology deep in the human soul influencing our way of seeing and naming what is within God’s realm. In everyday Catholic terms, think about our educated sense of what is “holy.” For the most part the sanctuary of the church was presented to us as a sacred place, he points out, whereas that grove of sycamore trees down in the park, full of the magic play of light, shadow, aromas and refreshing breezes was not, until recently, considered a place where God was especially present. The priest was on the inside track to “holiness,” while parents and neighbors were down the list. Thomas Berry has asked us to re-examine this fundamental view and others.

“The first thing a sailor should learn is about ships -- especially how his works -- and to have a reverence for that ship,” says Clarence Thomson, author and student of Berry. “On space-ship earth, we offer earth study as one option, along with the study of film history and bomb-making, and imply that all are equivalent in value.” When Tom Berry reminds us that the human is derivative, the earth is primary, he is literally standing our whole way of looking at things on its head, especially our root beliefs, our religious views.

“Change won’t come without religions because they are the touchstone of people’s deepest motivations,” says Lawrence Sullivan, director of the Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions. “Religious life and the Earth’s economy are organically related.” Berry’s life work has been to investigate this neglected relationship and proclaim his findings.

“Sadly,” Berry said some years ago, “the churches have been silent on this. They have failed yet to grasp the spiritual significance.”

In the summer of 1987 the first North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology was held in Indiana. The conference aimed to gather together for the first time religious leaders from the nation’s Christian denominations in order to begin to transform faith-based communities into forces for reshaping the human presence on the planet. The dream was to enlist the nation’s 155 million church and synagogue members in the struggle. Its speakers and presenters made up a who’s who of the ecology movement in America -- Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, David Haenke, Jesuit Fr. Al Fritsch, Calvin DeWitt, Srs. Miriam McGillis and Paula Gonzalez, and many more.

“Listen to these words carefully,” Berry announced from the sunlit stage that August at Indiana’s Lake Webster Center. “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. And listen to this: The human is derivative. The planet is primary.” He repeated his words slowly, knowing it takes time for these ideas to sink in.

In the 15 years since that first attempt to bring religious leaders from all over the nation together, there have been both progress and setbacks.

EarthSpirit Rising

Most mainstream Christian denominations now have a national office for environmental justice. The National Council of Churches has an eco-justice working group. Churches recycle, and church activists take on corporate mega-hog farms that threaten the livelihoods of small farmers. Church buildings are retooled to become energy efficient. Restoring creation and eco-justice have become areas of concern in theology schools across the spectrum. Greek Orthodox churches organize environmental conferences. The Catholic bishops of the Pacific Northwest issued a pastoral letter in January proclaiming the Columbia River bioregion sacred, calling for support of area family farms and sustainable timber harvests. Catholic bishops in Appalachia and in Canada have also issued pastoral letters on the environment.

The pope issued a call for environmental conversion, just after the first case of mad-cow disease was uncovered in Italy in January. Some evangelical Christians have made attempts to get their churches involved with the Evangelical Environmental Network. The Harvard World Religions Center has opened a Forum on Religion and Ecology, directed by Berry’s good friends Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim.

EarthSpirit Rising was an ideal place to witness firsthand the progress in linking the environmental crisis and Christian spirituality. The weekend -- designed not only to honor Berry but also to honor and immerse participants in his work -- was subtitled “A Conference on Ecology, Spirituality and the Great Work.” The words refer to the title of Berry’s latest book, reflecting his notion that the great work of our time is to establish a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship in all our endeavors and institutions.

Berry did not attend the conference, explaining to organizers he felt self-conscious about all the fuss being made over him.

As latecomers filed in, the image of a spiral galaxy, immense beyond imagining, yet delicately elegant, appeared on the auditorium screen accompanied by the dramatic trumpets and drumbeats of the music opening the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the fanfare reached its thundering crescendo, an image of the cloud-shrouded blue planet Earth flashed into focus to applause from 1,000 people.

Rap artist Drew Dellinger opened the conference with a hip-hop celebration of cosmology and creation spirituality. His Prescott, Ariz., organization, Center of the Universe, inspired by Berry’s thought, is dedicated to making this message readily understandable to everyone, using pop culture.

“Thirteen billion years ago, the universe began as hydrogen,” said physicist Brian Swimme next. “Left entirely to itself the hydrogen became rosebushes, giraffes and humans.” In the past, Swimme pointed out, our ancestors gathered around the fire and told their children the stories of creation. “We are depriving our children by not telling them this amazing story.” Instead, we gather around the television set where we learn that we are fallen, that if we want to reach paradise we need to buy products, he said. Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, has been a student of and collaborator with Berry.

Conference speakers highlighted the great strides forward since that first attempt to enlist the churches in the environmental movement. At the same time, speakers noted ominous trends that signal reversals for the environment.

According to Sierra Club president Carl Pope, the Bush administration early on has mounted an assault on the nation’s sound environmental policies. Other nations that have looked to the U.S. for leadership in solving problems like global warming register dismay. Many activists are saying that what is still lacking is the widespread religious commitment, moral imagination and ethical engagement to transform the environmental crisis from an issue on paper to one of effective policy and action.

A friend, a parishioner at a large suburban parish, recently said that she had not heard one word from a Catholic pulpit on the subject of the environment. There is still much work to be done. What Berry began, others are feeling an urgent need to continue, spending their lives just as Berry has.

It takes a universe

Berry has spent his life answering the basic religious questions: Where are we? How did we get here? What do we do about it? From his academic beginning as a cultural historian, Thomas Berry’s thought has evolved. His deep absorption in Asian religions and spiritualities, his study of the worldviews of indigenous peoples and his realization of the importance of the scientific story of creation, all have combined to link the sunlit, flowery meadow on the outskirts of town with distant galaxies.

Primary in his thinking is an understanding of the psychic-physical character of the unfolding universe. If there is consciousness in the human and if humans evolved from the earth, then from the beginning some form of consciousness or interiority is present in evolution. Matter is not simply inert or dead, says Berry, but a numinous reality with both a physical and spiritual dimension. As self-reflective creatures, we need to realize our responsibility for the continuation of the ancient and awesome evolutionary process.

Rather than a theologian, Berry considers himself a cosmologist and “geologian,” an Earth scholar. He believes the only way to effectively function as individuals and as a species is to understand the history and functioning of our planet and of the wide universe itself, like sailors learning about their ship and the vast ocean on which it sails. “It takes a universe to make a child,” he says, adding that he is “trying to establish a functional cosmology, not a theology.” The amazing, mind-boggling cosmological perspective, he feels, can resuscitate human meaning and direction. The most important spiritual qualities, for Berry, are amazement and enchantment. Awe is healing. A sense of wonder is the therapy for spiritual autism.

In other words, caring for our planet and ascertaining where we are in the universe goes to the heart of what it means to be a faithful Christian. Nothing is really itself without everything else. Christianity’s task, if it is going to survive, will be to place itself within the context of science’s new story of our human origins and the evolution of the universe.

The best hope for a renewed earth, many feel, is reawakened belief in the Spirit as the divine force within the cosmos who continually indwells everywhere and works in amazing ways to sustain all forms of life. This renewal is happening on many fronts today, thanks to advance work done by Berry, to his sweeping synthesis, realism, imaginative insights and courage to confront the narrowness of traditional theology. This priest with the tousled hair and sly grin raised the challenge; it will be the work of others to move churches and communities forward toward Tom Berry’s dream: all of us honoring the earth as the epiphany of God, making a prayerful event of every dawn and dusk.

“Whoever you are,” writes poet Mary Oliver, “the world offers itself to your imagination and calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

Retired from teaching and writing, Berry is back home in the green hills of North Carolina. His passion for cherishing a Carolina meadow, one that called to him like the wild geese when he was a child, has taken him across the world and deeply into the minds and hearts of many who also lovingly roamed forests, hills, seashores or desert valleys when we were kids.

Along with Berry, we all share Mary Oliver’s sentiment: “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/I was a bride married to amazement.”

Sharon Abercrombie of Oakland, Calif., reported on the conference in Louisville for this story.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001