As I write this, I can hear the wind-swept, white-capped waters of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay as they tumble upon the rocky shore of Ontario’s stunning Bruce Peninsula. It was to these crystalline waters roughly a quarter century ago that the cultural historian and Passionist priest Thomas Berry turned for direction before addressing a group of Native Canadians at the Cape Croker Native Reserve. After he asked the waters, “What can I tell them?” Berry once recounted, “the waters said, ‘Tell them the story’”—the story of what we are learning, scientifically and psychically, of our awe-inspiring, emerging universe and of our place within it. After his presentation, one of the elders remarked that Berry must have “native blood” coursing through his veins in order to have told such a story—a comment of solidarity across the scarred human and geographical landscape of colonization.
For Thomas Berry—who slipped from this life last June after 94 trips around the sun—water, plants, rocks, trees, stars and sky are not ancillary to his thought, but constitutive. It was in part for this reason that he dedicated his important work The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books) to the “great red oak” that shaded his study on the banks of the Hudson in Riverdale, N.Y., where he affirmed that the human species had to rediscover how to “listen” to the voices of nature if it hoped to escape a ravaged, soul-effaced ecological future.
The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality and Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia Univ. Press, $22.95) is carefully edited and constructively introduced by Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, based at Yale University. It contains many of the ruminations Berry crafted beneath the spreading oak at his Riverdale Center for Religious Research that he mimeographed and distributed to friends and members of the American Teilhard Association, which he served as president from 1975 to 1987.
The essays, 13 in all, represent the evolution in Berry’s thought as he grew from a scholar with a particular expertise in Asian thought and the history of religions (“Traditional Religion in the Modern World,” 1972) into a world-renowned interpreter of the spiritual dimensions of our current ecological morass (“The World of Wonder,” 2001.)
These essays, it is worth noting, were not written for peer-reviewed, academic journals. Thomas Berry creatively and deliberately described himself as a “geologian,” not a theologian. His intellectual arrows were not aimed directly at the doors of theological schools and seminaries. They sought a wider arc—the curve of the cosmos—to help engender a sense of awesome wonder at the unfolding of the universe, as was being dramatically manifested in recent discoveries of astronomy and physics. As this collection demonstrates, Berry tried to weave these scientific insights with the mystical and cosmological insights of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. His purpose in part was to help fashion a new wisdom tradition, uniting the empirical and the empyrean while skirting the chasm opened up during the modern period between scientific and religious imaginations, into which so many great minds—and great ecosystems—had tumbled.
In his penetrating essay “Alienation” (1974), Berry contextualizes both the Marxist alienation of labor and the religious understanding of human alienation from the divine in the vast cosmos, striking a theme that would vibrate through his subsequent writings—that we have culturally succumbed to a worldview of consumerism, in which the universe becomes not a “communion of subjects,” but a “collection of objects” to be bought, sold, used and discarded. He writes:
In becoming a commerce-dependent consumer society, we have ignored the essential elements and ideals necessary to sustain any viable human community. For example, by enclosing ourselves in automobiles, we have isolated people from one another and destroyed a certain sense of community. Moreover, we find that the distance between the affluent and the less well-off and from the impoverished is constantly increasing. We are isolated and alienated…held together mainly by...an industrial, commercial, consumer society.
For Berry, such a commercial worldview lacks the “psychic energy” needed to respond dynamically to our present environmental moment, which, he claims, is leading to the greatest species eclipse “since the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago.” While Berry’s work has been criticized for lacking a well-developed sense of political economy and a clear plan of social action, such reflections, linking corporate capitalism’s consumerist “wonderworld” to increasing fissures between rich and poor, reveal a sensitivity to social justice not always noted by his critics.
In some sense, Berry, like Gustavo Gutiérrez, is engaged in a critique of economic schemas that make broader religious and cosmological claims. For Gutiérrez, it was the first world “developmentalist” paradigm of the 1960s, with its promise of universal prosperity and top-down agenda to create “modern” persons, that prompted him in part to proffer a different term—liberation—as an alternative worldview. For Berry, seeing a rapacious neoliberal economy create a “Technozoic” era of ecological despoliation, offers the prospect of an “Ecozoic” era where humans learn to “befriend the Earth” and live within, rather than against, the life-systems of the planet.
At Home in the Cosmos
One of the benefits for readers of these selected cairns is to follow the intellectual journey of an extremely erudite and magnanimous Catholic scholar, from a bedrock theological grounding in patristic and Thomistic thought, through an expansion into Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist worldviews, to an embrace of the emerging ecological crisis and a deeply informed metaphysical critique of the “cosmology” of consumerism. For example, the essay “The Cosmology of Religions (1994, 1998),” in which Berry describes in detail the shift from the more parochial, scriptural focus of the world religions to a more cosmological focus, in many ways reflects his own story, leading to his assertion—and abiding belief—that the “universe is the primary sacred community.”
In the 1996 essay “An Ecologically Sensitive Spirituality,” one of the most evocative and compelling of the collection, Berry surveys the arrogance and violence with which Europeans approached the North American continent, a posture that he claims leads to spiritual death. Just as Bartolomé de las Casas, the 16th-century “defender of the Indians” claimed the European conquistadors were losing their souls in the enslavement of the new world’s aboriginal peoples, Berry argues that the destruction of the outer world leads to a razing of our inner world:
For the stars in the night sky over our cities to be blocked from view by particle and light pollution is not simply the loss of a passing visual experience, it is a loss of soul. This is especially a loss for children, for it is from the stars, the planets, and the moon in the heavens as well as from the flowers, birds, forests and woodland creatures that some of their most profound inner experiences originate. To devastate…the natural world is to distort the sublime experiences that provide fulfillment.
The Sacred Universe is an important, inspiring compendium of the thought of a great soul and spiritually profound seeker, who cogently and consistently reminds us, even after his death, that we must learn to feel at home in the universe.