Renewing the Earth

Thomas Berry (Photo by Caroline Webb/ Wikimedia)

The Great Workby Thomas BerryBell Tower. 256p $23

As an 11-year-old boy, Thomas Berry, probing the red hills of his home in North Carolina, skipped across a creek and found himself in a meadow. Seeing the white lilies cresting above the dense grass, he listened to the crickets’ song drift toward the distant woods and the wisps of cloud in the azure sky. This "magic moment," Berry claims, "gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember."


Berry, a cultural historian and former president of the American Teilhard Association, is an epochal thinker, i.e., he is able to examine large tracts of human and geological history and comment on both their sweep and telos. His lodestars in framing these periods are their respective cosmologieshow they collectively perceive the wider universe and the human role within it.

In examining our present era, Berry, a Passionist priest who combines expertise in Eastern religions with an abiding interest in the physical sciences, notes that our reigning cosmology is not framed by recent awe-inspiring discoveries of the unfolding universea "communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects"but rather by consumerism, in which our principal role is to amass not wisdom but "stuff," and whose chief docents are not spiritual or familial elders but advertisers, whose primary aim is to sell product.

Berry tersely sums up both the process and goal of the consumer society: "The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progresseven though the immense accumulation of junk is overwhelming the landscape, saturating the skies, and filling the oceans."

This crimped, commercial cosmology, in tandem with massive ecological destruction, is contributing, in contemporary North America, to a "soul-loss." As condominium complexes displace farmland, as strip malls spread across wetlands, and glare and smog obscure the skies, we lose touch with creation, our primordial source of revelation. For Berry, this is a horror, a spiritual catastrophe whose consequences we cannot even begin to forecast.

"What happens to the outer world happens to the inner world," Berry avers. "If the outer world is diminished in its grandeur, then the emotional, imaginative, intellectual, and spiritual life of the human is diminished or extinguished. Without the soaring birds, the great forests, the sounds and coloration of the insects, the free-flowing streams, the flowering fields, the sight of the clouds by day and the stars at night, we become impoverished in all that makes us human."

For Berry, authentic progress rests in what he terms "the Great Work," through which we as a species move from being the planet’s plunderers to its benefactors, and become "present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner." This entails a move from "wasteworld"the result of our industrial exploitation of the planetto a "wonderworld," where the beauty and grace of creation is allowed to flourish. This task will require a major reorientation of the four basic pillars of societygovernment, religion, the university and corporationsthat must embrace the earth and the universe as their primary educators.

Those familiar with Berry’s work will note here, for the first time in print, a unique and sustained critique of the multinational corporation, a critique imbued with passion and luminous insight. He notes that the corporation has taken possession of human consciousness "in order to evoke the deepest of psychic compulsions toward limitless consumption." Writing from a cosmological rather than a sociological perspective, Berry adroitly observes that "this invasion of human consciousness has brought about deleterious effects throughout the moral and cultural life of the society as well as the impoverishment of the Earth. Yet the corporations are so basic to contemporary life that a central purpose of contemporary education from high school through college, and even through professional training, is to prepare younger persons for jobs within the corporation context."

A grand thinker, Berry at times takes a roller brush to history and consequently misses a few spots, it seems, on the historical canvas. His claim that all nation states have become subservient to economic corporations, for example, might be interesting to test in nations such as post-revolution Iran and post-genocide Rwanda. Moreover, as the cultural anthropologist Hilary Cunningham has claimed, economic globalization is leading to increased rather than diminished state power in certain areas, such as national borders. In such cases, cosmological analysis might be enhanced by political and economic analysis.

Yet, as the 32-page annotated bibliography attests, Berry’s analysis and visionary voice have been enriched by remarkable reading, and his scholarship, blended with wisdom, lends a much-needed depth and vantage to any socio-economic analysis of our contemporary ecological situation. As Berry demonstrates, any social analysis that locates ecology as a subset of economic, political or social concerns is deeply flawed and eschews the great work of renewing our spirits and, with them, our graced home.

We are all indeed fortunate that Thomas Berry paused to imbibe the stillness of the meadow across the creek.

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