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Thomas Berry: a Prophetic Visionary Voice for our Times of Crisis
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2010-09-22 07:19:06
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“The Universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects”

The above statement by the late Thomas Berry (1914-2009) conveys in a nutshell, to those who have never heard of him, the humanistic personalistic philosophy of the late Thomas Berry, a visionary voice that deserves to be better known and appreciated in our times of ecological, economic and moral crisis. Indeed, his is a voice that can provide us with the vision and the hope that is so sorely missing in our bankrupt political milieu, if we would only harken.

I personally met Thomas Berry at a New York convention of contributors to the philosophical-theological journal Cross Currents in 1976. At the time he was still in his early 60s and was the director of the Riverdale Center of Religious Research and was teaching at Fordham University. I was immediately struck by the gentleness, intelligence and kindness of his face and his low-key demeanor. I must have talked to him for no more than twenty minutes but enough to leave me astonished at his deep erudition.  In the short span of that conversation it also transpired that we had a common passionate interest in the philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Thomas Berry had in fact written his doctoral dissertation way back in 1949 at The Catholic University of America on Giambattista Vico titled: “The Historical Theory of Giambattista Vico,” barely a year after the first authoritative and very good translation of Vico by Fish and Bergin had come out in the US as published by Cornell University Press.  After that providential encounter, I would stay abreast of Berry’s intellectual development and would pick up any book that he wrote.  I remember reading with fascination a special edition of Cross Currents which prominently displayed Berry’s research into native American spirituality. Eventually, I too ended up writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Vico at Yale University in the early 80s. Some of those books will be briefly described below. I have always considered him as an intellectual giant of our times often underrated, as a kindred spirit to Teilhard de Chardin with whom he shared many theological-philosophical concerns on the fate of the Earth.                                                                                        

But before commenting on some of those books let me first offer some biographical notes: Thomas Berry was born in Greensboro, North Carolina where he spent his early childhood and where he returned when he was 80. It was there that he died peacefully on June 1, 2009 at the ripe old age of 94. Named William Nathan after his father he was the third child of thirteen. He entered the Passionist Order in high school and upon ordination he took the name Thomas after Thomas Aquinas whose Summa Theologica he admired. As already mentioned, he received his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America in European intellectual history with a thesis on Giambattista Vico.  Thereupon he also spent many years studying and teaching the cultures and religions of Asia. He lived in China in 1948 where he met the Asian scholar and Confucian specialist, Ted de Bary. Their collaboration led to the founding of the Asian Thought and Religion Seminar at Columbia. Thomas Berry has authored two books on Asian religions, Buddhism and Religions of India, both of which are distributed by Columbia University Press. From 1975-1987 he was President of the American Teilhard Association, and it was in fact from Teilhard de Chardin that he was inspired to develop his idea of a universe story. With Brian Swimme he wrote The Universe Story (Harper San Francisco, 1992), which arose from a decade of collaborative research. The brief list below of some of his publications will give the reader an idea of why Thomas Berry is considered a great advocate of the Earth while at the same time being a noted cultural historian whose roots are to be found in Vico’s philosophy of history, and why moreover  his teaching and writings have inspired a generation of eminent scholars thinking about humankind's place in the Earth community and the universe, thus engendering widespread critical acclaim and a documentary film on his life and work.

His major contributions to the discussions on the environment are in his books The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 1998), The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (Random House/Bell Towers, 1999), and Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (Sierra Club/University of California Press, 2006). His final two books focusing on world religions and on Christianity were published in September 2009: The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century by Columbia University Press and The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth by Orbis Books. The Great Story is a 50 minute documentary film for educational venues and public broadcast portraying the life and work of  Berry. The film displays the beauty of the natural world as Berry tells the story of the universe emergence and highlights the critical environmental crisis we are currently facing. Journey of the Universe, a Feature Length Documentary Film Coming in 2011 and to which many are looking forward. And here are sundry commentaries on some of those books, listed in chronological order:

Dream of the Earth, published by: Sierra Club, September 1988. This is a landmark work which has by now established itself as a foundational volume in the ecological canon. In it Berry provides nothing less than a new intellectual-ethical framework for the human community by positing planetary well-being as the measure of all human activity. Drawing on the wisdom of Western philosophy, Asian thought, and Native American traditions, as well as contemporary physics and evolutionary biology, Berry offers a new perspective that recasts our understanding of science, technology, politics, religion, ecology, and education. He shows us why it is important for us to respond to the Earth's need for planetary renewal, and what we must do to break free of the "technological trance" that drives a misguided dream of progress. Only then, he suggests, can we foster mutually enhancing human-Earth relationships that can heal our traumatized global bio-system.

The Universe Story (with Brian Swimme) Published by: Harper San Francisco, March 1994. Physicist Brian Swimme together with Thomas Berry fashion a new cosmology from the "Primordial Flaring Forth" at the beginning of time through the successive stages of the universe culminating with the emergence of consciousness.

The Great Work
Published by: Harmony/Bell Tower, November 2000. Here Berry explains that the future can exist only if humans understand how to commune with the natural world rather than exploit it. Says he that "Already the planet is so damaged and the future is so challenged by its rising human population that the terms of survival will be severe beyond anything we have known in the past."

Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. Edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker. Published by: Sierra Club with The University of California Press, October 2006. This  collection of essays, from various years and occasions, expands and deepens ideas articulated in his earlier writings and also breaks new ground. Here Berry opens our eyes to the full dimensions of the ecological crisis, framing it as a crisis of spiritual vision. Applying his formidable erudition in cultural history, science, and comparative religions, he forges a compelling narrative of creation and communion that reconciles modern evolutionary thinking and traditional religious insights concerning our integral role in Earth's society. While sounding an urgent alarm at our current dilemma, Berry inspires us to reclaim our role as the consciousness of the universe and thereby begin to create a true partnership with the Earth community.

The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the 21st Century. Edited and with a foreword by Mary Evelyn Tucker. Published by: Columbia University Press, September 2009. This series of essays represents a powerful commentary on some of the key issues facing religions in the 21st century. Ranging from the enduring problem of human alienation to future forms of religious experience the book covers a wide spectrum of religious issues. Here Berry, as a leading scholar of the world’s religions, reveals his immense erudition. Composed over some four decades, the essays illustrate Berry’s early understanding of the need for interreligious dialogue and the study of other religions. In addition, Berry’s prophetic insight regarding the rampant destruction of Earth’s ecosystems and extinction of species is evident. These essays illustrate his passionate concern for the fate of Earth and of future generations. They are a timely and urgent call for the world’s religions to respond to this growing ecological crisis. His special insight into the need for a new story of universe and Earth emergence is one of his unique contributions to situating the role of the human in the 21st century.

The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth.
Edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim
Published by: Orbis Books, September 2009. Here Berry’s prophetic voice on the environmental crisis, calls on Christians to respond to this global crisis with utmost urgency and with a unified sense of the sacred community of life. These essays represent his most comprehensive reflections  on the role of Christianity in our times. Berry challenges Christians to respond to the growing environmental crisis. He asks boldly why Christians have not been more consistently concerned about the destruction of ecosystems, the loss of species, and the fate of future generations. In powerful and poetic language he presents a compelling vision of the sacredness of the universe and the interrelatedness of the Earth community. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas and Teilhard de Chardin and Vico he brings the Christian tradition into a cosmology of care for the whole of creation. Indeed, few other Christian thinkers in the present century have raised such a prophetic voice regarding Earth’s destruction and the urgent need for human response. These essays are Berry’s signature statement on the interconnectedness of both Earth’s future and the Christian future. Berry calls for both Christian theology and liturgy to open up for reflection on this issue. He makes important correlations between some of his key ecological insights and Christian doctrine, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Christology. He observes that some ecological movements are emerging within Christian communities, especially among religious women. The epilogue is his signature statement on the comprehensive new role of the human in responding to the environmental challenge.

The Awakening Universe. Based on Berry’s and Swimme’s  book The Universe Story, this inspiring 15 minute film takes one on a journey, from the birth of the Universe, through the arising of galaxies, the formation of the Earth, the emergence of life and finally to the development of human consciousness. It includes a 40 minute interview with Brian Swimme.

In conclusion, I invite all perceptive readers who are aware of the ominous implications of the ecological crisis for our civilization, and indeed for our mother Earth, to explore this fascinating spiritual prophetic and visionary voice of our times, for Thomas Berry is the beacon light that can guide us home.

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Thanos2010-09-22 19:36:53
Once more you had me checking bookshops!!! :))

P.S. even though the book I'm really waiting is Hawking's latest.

Emanuel L. Paparella2010-09-22 20:00:24
Thanos, the one I'd reccomend is the by now classical Dream of the Earth. Hawking is of course a good complement since it presents the other side of the coin, so to speak, the pessimistic side that has already given up on the Earth is now recommending that we get our bags ready for another planet. Not so Berry.

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