Berry, a Passionist priest, cultural historian and self-described geologian, has for almost four decades been writing and reflecting on the place of the human within an awe-inspiring, unfolding and increasingly mysterious cosmos. His speculations are fueled not simply by intellectual curiosity, but by a deep concern about the baleful plundering of the planet.
Formerly director of the Riverdale Center of Religious Research and founder of the history of religions program at Fordham University, Berry served as environmental advisor to the Clinton administration; and through his numerous lectures, media appearances and writings, like The Dream of the Earth (1988) and The Great Work (2000), proved an inspiration to countless environmental scholars and activists, especially among religious communities.
Unlike other environmental approaches, Berry’s is rooted squarely and deeply within the universe itself, the only text without a context. For Berry, the universe is primary; we as a species are derivative. As he avers, There is ultimately only a single community. No communitycan survive that is not founded in the unity of the universe.
In our hubris, aided by both modern technologies and religious and cultural heritages, we as a species have considered ourselves masters over, rather than, as Aldo Leopold noted, just plain citizens of the life community on the planet. Such a stance has contributed to a most radical moment of destruction of the world’s ecosystems, one that is, according to Berry, jeopardizing the last 65 million years of earth development, and through global climate change, altering the very foundations upon which life has evolved and flourished. (The fact that even George W. Bush, after steadfastly denying the human role in climate change and refusing to sign the Kyoto treaty, begrudgingly conceded in his 2007 State of the Union address that humans are contributing to global warming, is a measure of just how grave the situation has become.)
Evening Thoughts, a collection edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker, a former student of Berry and co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology, is, in a sense, a type of pure Berry extract, a powerful concentration of his major themes distilled into a dozen essays, along with a laconic and illustrative biographical sketch provided by Tucker.
By placing our ecological story within the larger context of an unfolding cosmos, or cosmogenesis, Berry is attempting to weave a new wisdom tradition out of the discoveries of contemporary sciences and the insights of traditional religious cosmologiesneither of which, on their own, can adequately deal with our contemporary challenges, but, intertwined, may, Berry hopes, provide a lifeline for both the human species and the life systems of the planet.
As past president of the American Teilhard Association, Berry has been deeply touched by the pioneering Jesuit geologist cum theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), especially his notion that the universe has a psychic-spiritual dimension as well as a material one. This, for Berry, ranks Teilhard as the greatest Christian theologian since St. Paul, who also discerned that the universe itself was intimately involved in the salvation story and the Christ event. For Berry,
if the human has a psychic spiritual mode of being, then the universe must be a psychic-spirit- inducing process. Indeed, since the universe is a singular reality, consciousness must, from its beginning, be a dimension of reality, even a dimension of the primordial atom that carries within itself the total destiny of the universe.Yet Berry is doing more than attempting to fashion a new wisdom tradition. By ascribing consciousness and agency to the universe, his project is ultimately a metaphysical one, rooted in what he terms the universe story. Whereas the architects of post-structuralism, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, disparage the universalist claims of modernity and focus on language, tending to view nature and the universe through the lens of discourse. Berry is grappling with the question of how do we relate to a metaphysical reality, such as the universe, that transcends both human consciousness and human discourse. For Berry, the universe is not merely an object of representation, but a primordial agent, a Thou. As Berry cogently asserts, the universe is not a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects. This insight is not only a forceful antidote to a consumer culture of commodification, but a novel alternative to a postmodern focus on language that ultimately shies away from such a grand metaphysical project.
Evening Thoughts provides a pithy, concentrated overview of Thomas Berry’s provocative and prodigious trajectory, and represents a welcome invitation to the entire human family to befriend rather than betray the earth.