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Life of a 'geologian'

  • 11 June 2009
The 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