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Thomas Berry and a New Creation Story

by Majorie Hope and James Young

Marjorie Hope and James Young are associate professors of sociology at Wilmington College in Ohio. Their books include The South African Churches in a Revolutionary Situation and The Faces of Homelessness. This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 16-23, 1989, p. 750. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Yet despite all these developments a Yale study has found that in America, the more a person participates in religious services, the less concern he or she is likely to have for nature. Many people of faith are calling religious groups to confront the attitudes that have fostered a progressive devastation of our planet, and to fulfill the biblical mandate to assume stewardship over the natural world.

Is stewardship enough? Do we need a more profound identity with the natural world, one that sees human and other earthly beings as members of a single community? This is the view of Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest who calls himself a geologian, a prominent spokesperson of what is often termed the eco-spiritual movement.

Christians need a new cosmology, a new creation story, says Berry. We must understand the universe as something both psychic-spiritual and material-physical. Human beings are integral to it -- indeed, the human is "that being in whom the universe reflects upon and celebrates itself in a special mode of conscious self-awareness."

"We have lost our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants, our sense of gratitude, our willingness to recognize the sacred character of habitat, our capacity for the awesome, for the numinous quality of every earthly reality," he writes. Berry believes that the capacity for intensive sharing with the natural world lies within us, but has become repressed by an addiction to "progress." We have arrogantly assumed control over other creatures, deluding ourselves with the notion that we know best what is good for the earth and ourselves. Ultimately, custody of the earth belongs to the entire earth community.

Such ideas do not always sit well with traditional Christians, nor with the followers of the other two principal Semitic religions, Islam and Judaism. Yet Father Berry does not fit the common image of a radical nonconformist. He is a soft-spoken, retiring person with a gentle smile, bright eyes and disheveled, whitening hair. Those who sit in his plant-filled sun veranda overlooking the Hudson find their eyes drawn to the majestic red oak outside the window. This great tree has endured more than 400 years of nature’s buffets, and has withstood even human-made disasters, like the massive tremors from a gas tank explosion that uprooted a neighbor oak several years ago. To Berry it stands as a symbol of hope. Indeed, he chose to dedicate his book The Dream of the Earth to "the Great Red Oak beneath whose sheltering branches this book was written."

The Riverdale Center for Religious Research, which Berry founded in 1970, is his present home. He calls it a place for "studying the dynamics of the planet earth and the role fulfilled by humans within the functioning of the universe." Situated across from the Palisades, it is a fitting place to contemplate the fate of the earth, and to meet with scientists, educators, environmentalists and people of many faiths from all over the world. He speaks often at conferences, and although he sometimes looks frail, he finds it difficult to say No. He seems, at age 74, to be propelled by a sense of urgency.

Berry has always felt an affinity with fellow earth-creatures. Throughout his boyhood years in Greensboro, North Carolina, he often roamed the hills, delighting in the flowing streams, the singing birds and the meadows. "Even at the age of eight," he recalls, "I saw that development was damaging nature."

Early on he decided that monastery life would provide the best environment for contemplation and writing. He spent ten years in various Passionist monasteries, pursued his doctorate in history at Catholic University, then spent a year studying Chinese in Peking. Later he became chaplain with NATO in Germany, traveled in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and went to England to meet Christopher Dawson, the distinguished historian of cultures. Berry taught Japanese and Chinese history at Seton Hall University, helped found an interuniversity faculty seminar on Oriental thought and religion at Columbia University and an Asian Institute at St. John’s, established Fordham’s history of religions program, became an adviser to Global Education Associates and served as president of the American Teilhard Association. Throughout these years he has furthered his studies of the American Indian world. His knowledge of Sanskrit and Chinese has enabled him to delve even deeper into the classics of the Eastern religious traditions.

As the ecological crisis deepened, Berry became convinced that it is not enough to seek technological solutions. An effective response requires a more profound change in our vision, developed in a religious context. Western religious traditions, however, are too distant from this new sense of the universe, he says. Indeed, Christianity has encouraged our alienation from the natural world. The Bible’s emphasis on a transcendent, personal, monotheistic deity has diminished our sense of divinity in nature. Especially since the 16th century,, Christianity has focused on redemption and paid relatively little attention to creation experience. Although a general sensitivity to the natural world persisted in Christian consciousness up through the Middle Ages (witness the medieval bestiaries) , gradually nature slipped out of that consciousness. Classica1 Christian theology stressed the spiritual nature of humans as against the physical nature of other beings. It considered the natural world to be an object, without subjectivity or rights, and certainly not as participating with humans in a single earth community. Other factors inhibiting the church from developing a new understanding of creation are the patriarchal nature of the ecclesiastical establishment and the expectation of a millennial period in which human strife will be overcome and superseded by a reign of peace and justice.

Berry began to recognize how powerfully religion shapes cultures when he read Dawson’s Religion and Progress. Eric Voegelin’s writings deepened his understanding of how the Bible generated a sense of direction and purpose in Western history. This sense of direction has its creative side, says Berry, but it has also helped erode spontaneous sharing with the natural world, entranced people with the idea of progress, and given them a compulsion to control natural processes. Now we regard scientific technology with the same reverence that classical culture had for religious worldviews. We are consumed by a mystique of management.

Other important Western philosophers who influenced Berry include Thomas Aquinas and Giambattista Vico. From Aquinas he learned that God from the beginning intended integrity and harmony for the total cosmic order. Berry’s idea that we need a planetary socialism -- indeed, an ultimate universal socialism -- is based on Aquinas’s statement that because the divine goodness "could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, he [God] produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine might be supplied by another." Vico’s view of history as a developmental process, involving the age of the gods, the age of the heroes and the age of humans, each age characterized by a distinctive type of consciousness, excited Berry. From this he proposed that humans have moved through five stages of cultural development: the tribal-shamanic, neolithic, classical, scientific-technological, and now the emerging ecological period.

The works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a professional paleontologist as well as Jesuit philosopher, also exerted a formative influence. Teilhard’s importance, Berry believes, lies in his comprehensive vision of the universe as a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical-material process, his perception of the human as the consciousness of the universe, and his shifting of the focus of Western religious concern from redemption to creation. Fundamental to Teilbard’s cosmic perspective is his appreciation of the mystical quality of the scientific venture.

But Berry finds Teilhard’s framework limited for an ecological outlook. Teilhard, he says, fails to comprehend the destructive impact of modem civilization. Fascinated with "progress," he inherited an imperialistic attitude toward human-earth relations. That the most advanced Christian thinker of the century with a scientific background could not see the conflict in those relations is another sign of the inadequacies of our spiritual traditions, says Berry. The challenge now is to illuminate the way into the great age of the Earth community.

Berry’s conception of that community is sweeping. He is influenced by philosophers ranging from Confucius to Thoreau, Whitehead and Bergson, by poet-visionaries extending from Dante to Blake and Chief Seattle, by ecologists from Rachel Carson and Norman Myers to Anne and Paul Erlich, and by scientists from Ilya Prigogine to James Lovelock and Brian Swimme. And he is entranced with the mystery of the universe, the "impulse whereby the primordial fireball flared forth in its enormous energy, a fireball that contained in itself all that would ever emerge into being, a fireball that was the present in its primordial form, as the present is the fireball in its explicated form."

Berry points out that today, many scientists have also become enchanted with that mystery. He quotes physicist Brian Swimme: "The universe shivers with wonder in the depths of the human," and points out that this sense of an emergent universe identical with ourselves gives new meaning to the Chinese sense of forming one body with all things. Physicists, contrasting this view with an anthropocentric worldview, express it in terms of the anthropic principle -- the human is seen as a mode of being of the universe as well as a distinctive being in the universe.

Scientific inquiries have produced a certain atrophy in our responses, Berry says. Even when we recognize our family relations with all beings, we have forgotten the language needed to speak to them. "We find ourselves in an autistic situation." Berry describes a dream of the earth in which "we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe."

He suggests that the earth dreams itself into existence in the immense variety of its manifestations. This variety is established by genetic codings. Our bonding with the universe, like that of other creatures, is primarily determined through our genetic coding. But humans also need cultural coding, conducted by education, by which we insert ourselves consciously into the renewing processes of the natural world -- and in a sense invent ourselves. The enormous power accrued through our cultural coding spells danger -- and also opportunity.

In the beginning Was the dream, says Berry. The new cultural coding that we need will emerge from the revelatory vh sion that comes in the special moments we describe as "dream."

What changes in our institutions will we need if we are to get from here to there? Berry’s essays on economics, technology, bioregionalism, education and planetary socialism, many of which are incorporated in The Dream of the Earth, provide significant insights on this point. For Berry, the economics of our technological society "is dedicated to the role of moving the greatest amount of natural resources, with the greatest possible efficiency, through the consumer society, to the waste heap that is not the source of new life by way of fertilizing the fields and farms, but a waste heap that is dead-end at best and often enough a toxic source of further death. To increase the speed and volume of this activity is the basic norm of ‘progress.’ " But economics should be seen not simply as a study of marketing, gross national product, trade deficits, budgetary deficits and the like. It is also a religious issue, because both economics and religion are threatened by the disruption of the natural world. "If the water is polluted, it can neither be drunk nor used for baptism. Both in its physical reality and in its psychic symbolism, it is a source not of life, but of death." Hence the ethical imperative to go beyond questioning the industrial economy itself. As it stands today, that economy is not sustainable.

Berry’s ideas for a more functional economy are strongly influenced by those of naturalist Aldo Leopold, who outlined in his essay "A Land Ethic" principles that should guide human-earth relationships. British economist E. F. Schumacher, especially his essay praising Buddhist economics, has also influenced Berry. Schumacher’s vision of an economics devoted not to consumption but to attaining given ends with the minimum means, and his promotion of what he calls appropriate technologies (such as implements that local farmers and manufacturers can fashion and/or maintain themselves) , are fundamental, to Berry’s vision of a context for re-inhabiting the earth.

His proposal calls for local patterns of production, distribution and technologies appropriate to our habitat, appropriate lifestyles and appropriate human-earth relations. A model of this is the concept of bio-regions, which Berry defines as "identifiable geographical regions with mutually supporting life-systems that are relatively self-sustaining." Bio-regionalism is based on an ecological vision; it is more than environmentalism, which remains an anthropocentric attempt to repair humans’ surroundings. Natural communities should form a context for. every aspect of life say bio-regionalists. Their economies should be labor intensive rather than energy intensive; produce more durable goods to reduce waste; use local materials in building; consume locally grown foods; engage in organic farming; utilize organic garbage; depend on perennial polyculture, aqua-culture and permaculture; favor trains as well as human-powered machines such as bicycles; employ solar power and other on-site modes of producing energy; and in various ways operate on self-nourishing, self-healing, self-governing principles. No bioregion, of course, can be fully self-sustaining. There will be a growing need for global cooperation. But breaking nations down into appropriate bioregional communities could promote peace.

In moving toward this paradigm, we need not forego all our technological advances, says Berry. On the contrary, we shall need science and technology more than ever. However, our new technologies must harmonize with nature, which is not always benign, but is consistently creative in the larger patterns of its actions.

As for education, Berry observes that today colleges rarely offer a program for understanding the marvelous story of the universe in its numinous and psychic as well as scientific dimensions, together with our role in creating the next phases of the story. Even humanistic studies in a core curriculum fail to kindle the energies needed for a more vital human mode of being. Berry proposes his own set of six courses, created on the premise that the earth community itself is the primary educator. They range from study of the evolutionary phases of a functional cosmology to the various phases of human cultural development, the emerging ecological age, and the identification of values. These courses should provide students in professional, general and business education an appreciation for the dynamics of the planet -- an appreciation which is desperately needed today.

Berry sees hope in the outcropping of movements and modes of perception that suggest an awakening. He points to the growth of bio-regionalism, "green" political organizations, and confrontations by activist ecological groups such as Greenpeace and Earth First! He talks about shifts of consciousness revealed in New Age thinkers, countercultural writers and feminist, antipatriarchal movements. On the international level he is encouraged by shifts within the World Bank (such as the hiring of Herman Daly) toward more ecologically viable programs; the spread of vital information through organizations like the World Resources Institute and the Worldwatch Institute and through various United Nations programs; world conferences on the future of the living species; and even stirrings among national and multinational business corporations.

A number of theologians and other intellectuals have criticized Berry’s thought. Some say he exaggerates the extent to which the Bible justifies an exploitative approach toward the natural world. Others claim that college students would find’ his proposed curriculum too distant from their own experience, or that the challenges we face are more complex than rediscovering an integral relationship with the earth, and inevitably involve specific personal and political questions about our own communities. Berry does not repudiate all such criticisms. He listens, sometimes adapts, sometimes replies. But even many of his critics admire his realism, sweeping synthesis, imaginative insights and courage in confronting the narrowness of traditional theology. This prophetic writer challenges all of us. Is the human species viable, or are we careening toward self-destruction, carrying with us our fellow earthlings? Can we move from an anthropocentric to a biocentric vision? How can we help activate the intercommunion of all living and nonliving members of the earth community in the emerging ecological period?

Biologist Paul Ehrlich has declared that to look simply to technology for a solution would be a "lethal mistake," and that "scientific analysis points, curiously, toward a need for a quasi-religious transformation of contemporary cultures." But Berry goes further. It is not enough to attempt to transform contemporary culture, he says. We must move beyond the humanistic ideals that have shaped our cultural traditions and invent, or reinvent, a sustainable human culture by descending into our instinctive resources. There we shall find again the guidance and the energy for renewing the primordial community of all beings


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