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Life of a 'geologian'

Thomas BerryThe first time I visited Thomas Berry I was hopelessly late. The reason was a massive traffic jam on the Henry Hudson Parkway going north from Manhattan. As a naive Australian, inexperienced in the ways of New York traffic, I blithely thought that I would drive straight to my appointment with no impediments.

But I had forgotten something that Berry has often argued. We are in the dying phase of industrial society, and many roads — like the Henry Hudson — are falling apart. Traffic was banked up for miles and I was close to apoplectic by the time I reached Berry's Riverside Center. He was very forgiving.

Thomas Berry died on 1 June aged 94. He was Catholicism's most significant thinker in ecological theology, the Teilhard de Chardin of our time. Berry's thought didn't span mere centuries, but millennia and aeons.

A cultural historian and anthropologist of vast erudition and vision, he was a polymath in the truest sense. Much of his early writing is to be found in the periodical, Cross Currents. His first major work on ecology was The Dream of the Earth (1988), followed by The Universe Story (1992). In 1999 he published his most comprehensive book, The Great Work.

He was born into a Catholic family of 13 in 1914 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He said that the great determining element of his early life was his experience of the natural world. He joined the Passionist order at 20.

As a student he read the Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist classics. Much later he learned to read classical Chinese and Sanskrit. He was ordained a priest in 1942. He never did much ministerial work in the conventional sense. He went to China as a missionary in 1947, but had to leave with the advent of the Communist regime.

Acquainted with the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin since his student days, Berry realised that a Christian need not be alienated from the natural world. By the 1970s his study and reading had given him an extraordinary historical and cultural context for understanding what was happening to the world.

'I started off as a student of cultural history. I am primarily an historian. What I have to say are the probings of an historian into human affairs in a somewhat comprehensive context ... The more I gave to the study of the human venture, the more clearly I saw the need to go back to the dynamics of life itself. I was progressively led back to the study of the earth community, including its geological and biological as well as its human components. I call myself a geologian.'

Religion, he argued, was meant to provide an interpretative pattern, a way of making sense of ourselves and the cosmos. But it has failed. 'The greatest failure of Christianity in the total course of its history is its inability to deal with the devastation of the planet.' Christians have sensitivity to suicide, homicide and genocide, 'but we commit biocide (the killing of the life systems of the planet) and geocide (the killing of the planet itself) and we have no morality to deal with it'.

'Religion', he concludes, 'is absorbed with the pathos of the human.'

Our theological view of God is incomplete if we do not take seriously the fact that it was God who made the world and is therefore profoundly related to it. 'If we lose the splendour of the natural world, we lose our true sense of the divine.' The only solution is to shift Christian faith out of its sin-redemption myopia into a whole new ecological context.

He considers that science has also failed in helping us interpret the significance and meaning of the natural world.

'The supreme irony is that just at this moment when such expansive horizons of past, present and future have opened up, humankind is suddenly precipitated into an inner anxiety and even into a foreboding about themselves and the meaning of it all. Unable to bear such awesome meaning, men reject themselves as part of the world around them, the past as well as the future ... We are beset by a sense of confusion and alienation ... Contemporary men have no spiritual vision adequate for these new magnitudes of existence ... To create such a skill, to teach such a discipline, are the primary tasks of contemporary spirituality.'

Eventually Berry returned to rural North Carolina. It was there that he died last week, one of the most significant Catholic thinkers of the 20th century.

Paul CollinsPaul Collins is a former head of religious broadcasting at ABC Radio. 

Topic tags: Thomas Berry, Riverside Center, Dream of the Earth, Universe Story, Great Work



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Existing comments

From at least the time that Zoroastrians developed its Saoshyant theology, Western faiths have conceived of End Times, with Messiahs and Hidden Imams; I even understand that certain nuclear-armed Christians hold to the view that the Kingdom of God is such an End Time.

I suggest that such theologies developed with the environmental degradation that inevitably followed the characteristic deforestation and overpopulation of settled Neolithic agriculture in the non-resilient lands of the Middle East and Mesopotamia; I doubt that nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures ever developed cosmologies of finite duration, and the settled lands of India and China did not experience the large-scale environmental degradation that engenders End Time thinking until this last century or so.

In Genesis, the people are enjoined to go forth and multiply until they have filled the ends of the earth; what then?

The ends of the earth are now full of people; perhaps it's time we re-discovered some cyclic cosmologies.

David Arthur | 10 June 2009  

Many thanks Paul for this tribute to an inspirational and saintly man. My own geological and archaeological journey has been illuminated by insightful expositions of both Thomas Berry and Teilhard de Chardin. I suspect there is now a growing band who would share the very sentiments you have expressed. How do we contribute to focus those energies such that the next generation at least may be much more aware of that earth-divinity synthesis which remains always within our reach....but all too rarely nourished.

A special occasion in Thomas Berry's honour?

Jim Bowler | 10 June 2009  

Thanks Paul,

I am saddened by the passing of one of the greatest of my theological heroes. I have been teaching from Tom Berry's work for almost 20 years and it has never failed to engage my students and no doubt has led many to ecological responsibility well ahead of the pack. But official church speak is still very slow in taking up his challenges. There are small moves and hope in a number of quarters. But Frances perhaps said it best: Praise be to You, my Lord, for our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and keeps us. She brings forth divers fruits, the many-hued flowers and grass.
Canticle of Creation

Tony Haintz | 10 June 2009  

Thanks Paul for the insights conveyed so clearly.

Joe Castley | 10 June 2009  

What a wonderful article.

James | 11 June 2009  

I met Thomas Berry in 1998 when I did a course 'Pilgrims to the Earth' in Canada. He was with us for a week. Brillant mind and a very gracious man.

Sheila Quonoey | 11 June 2009  

“Too often contemning the external order as unspiritual, the Puritans made it – and ultimately themselves – less spiritual by reason of their contempt.” [R.H.Tawney 1922] Pierre Teilhard SJ (1881-1955) prayed for a “New Nicaea” – to affirm not only Christ’s human nature and divine nature but also the cosmic nature of his incarnation. In Vatican Council II (1962-65) the Church affirmed the cosmic nature, dimensions and implications of OUR incarnation [Gaudium et Spes, n.14]. But it was left to Pope John Paul II to extend that doctrine to Jesus. In the first words of “Redemptor Hominis” [1979] he identified the Redeemer of Man – Jesus Christ – as the on-going and ascending centre-point of the universe and of its history. But although Thomas Berry was promoted as an expert in Teilhard’s “Cosmic Christology” and “Christic Cosmology” – even President of the American Teilhard Association during 1975-87 – he “progressively” focused on the “external order” or world “out there” and blinded himself and his followers to the real presence of Christ “in here” as the One through whom, in whom and for whom the basic stuff or substance of all creation was made in the first place – the Primacy of Christ.

Grahame Fallon | 11 June 2009  

This week we have heard news of the discovery of another element, the name of which is yet to be decided upon.
Years ago, I was taught that such a possibility was denial of intelligence itself.

While many people may judge our Christian faith as lacking in empathy for the environment, might it not be premature for anyone to limit the sin-redemption paradigm as being myopic, only because some words and phrases have yet to be formulated to birth something that is yet hidden from our limited understanding?
Such 'short-sightedness' is often a passing appeal to populist appeal and the marketing of passing trends.

The 'myopia' is often in us, not in the cosmic reality that was, is and ever shall be.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 11 June 2009  

A memorial event for Thomas Berry is planned for 2 pm Aug.9 at the Passionist Monastery Templestowe in Melbourne. EarthSong is helping to organise it. (www.earthsong.org.au)

Trevor Parton | 11 June 2009  

Why does Paul Collins imagine that, until Thomas Barry came along, no one had realised that a Christian need not be alienated from the natural world? Did Christians actually feel alienated from the natural world?

For the greater part of its long history Christanity has not addressed the devastation of the planet because the planet was not then being devastated. The devastation is a phenomenon of the last couple of centuries or so, caused by the scientific, industral and technical revolutions inspired by the Enlightenment, from which we have all benefited.

Christianity does have a morality to deal with the current ecological crises. God created the universe for the sake of his glory and for the sake the sustenance, enjoyment and flourishing of man. To disrupt and degrade the environment so that it is no longer capable of fulfilling the purposes given to it by the Creator is wrong. It is against the will of God. It is immoral.

God is related to the world as cause to effect but Berry has little, if any place, for God as radically distinct from the world. Berry's shift from 'theo'logian to 'geo'theologian is revealing. The universe is substituted for God which tends towards pantheism - making the universe God - which, in turn, is atheism in all but name.

Sylvester | 12 June 2009  

Congratulations to Paul and Eureka Street on a timely and valuable short tribute to Thomas Berry.

Val Noone | 14 June 2009  

Thank the Holy Spirit for Grahame Fallon, who can see what any Christian should see as obvious. There are many forms of atheism and Earth Fetishism must be high on the list. August Comte, the inventor of scientism, wanted it to replace Catholicism. Judging from Paul Collins article, and some of the responses, he has damn near succeeded. There was only one figure in the entire nineteenth century who had the answer to the awesome mess that atheistic idealism has given us. For Dostoevsky, the entire demise of the West is due entirely to the fact that the West has lost Jesus the Christ. The scriptural vision of him is the sure path to the restoration of creation as Jesus' playground and the true earthy figure of man.

Alex Reichel | 04 July 2009  

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