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Thomas Berry’s Expansive, Quiet Presence Moves On

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On June 1, Thomas Berry died peacefully at his home in the Wellspring Community in Greensboro, NC.  While this may have no direct bearing on the issues covered by AEI, his writings and his inspiration have been central to my ever-developing sense of self and purpose on this planet in our time; this morning as I take in the news of his passing, I am both saddened to feel this earth without his presence, and immensely grateful for the huge generosity of spirit he shared, and which continues to live, grow, and find further articulation in so many environmental activists and thinkers.  I am heartened to hear that he completed two more books, both of which will be published on August: The Sacred Universe and The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth.

ThomasBerryThomas Berry inspired in me a dedication to infusing my (and our culture’s) emerging scientific understanding of life and the cosmos with the sense of primal wonder that has always been central to our human experience as part of the natural world.  The part of me that seeks transcendence and unity need not be at odds with my 21st-century scientific curiosity; indeed, they fuel each other at the deepest levels.  I was first dazzled by his writings with cosmologist Brian Swimme (The Universe is a Green Dragon and Universe Story), in which the grandness of our emerging understanding of cosmology, with wondrous visual expression by Hubble and other deep-space imagery, is given intimate evocations within the timeless tradition of creation stories.  His encouragement to take part in a modern recasting of our culture’s creation story inspired much of my early adulthood; EarthEar was a chance to let the creatures of the earth tell their own story, “the eternal story, in its original language.” In the past couple of decades, he’s written and spoken passionately about the need to put the earth’s needs at the center of human decision-making, and has inspired other eco-theologians and eco-ministries that are bringing the natural world back into the center of Christian practice.

At the end of this post, I’ll link to a few of the obituaries that are beginning to emerge.  Before that, I’ll share some of his reflections that appear in them:

At the age of 11, he says, his sense of “the natural world in its numinous presence” came to him when he discovered a new meadow on the outskirts of the town to which his family had just moved. “The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass,” he said. “A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.”

It was not only the lilies, he said. “It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in the clear sky. … This early experience has remained with me ever since as the basic determinant of my sense of reality and values. Whatever fosters this meadow is good. What does harm to this meadow is not good.” By extension, he said, “a good economic, or political, or educational system is one that would preserve that meadow and a good religion would reveal the deeper experience of that meadow and how it came into being.” Berry reflected, “It was a wonder world that I have carried in my unconscious and that has evolved all my thinking.”

“From here on, the primary judgment of all human institutions, professions, programs and activities will be determined by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore or foster a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.”

He said the transformation of humanity’s priorities would not come easily. It would require what he called “the great work” — the title of one of his most popular books — in four realms of endeavor: the political and legal order; the economic and industrial world; education; and religion.

And, some thoughts from those around him:

Colleagues and admirers speak of the imprint he left on fields ranging from childhood education to green architecture, not only in his writing but also through his persona.

“To spend time with him was like getting a soul transfusion,” said Richard Louv, an educator and author of Last Child in the Woods. “Thomas Berry was the earliest and most important voice to describe the profound importance of the disconnection between humans and the natural world, and what that could mean for the future of our species.”

Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu, author of Quantum Theology and Reclaiming Spirituality and popular lecturer, told the National Catholic Reporter: “For me, Thomas Berry was the single greatest disciple of Teilhard de Chardin, who initially awoke in me a profound sense of the sacredness of God’s creation.

“In Thomas’s own writings one almost feels the sense of an evolving spirituality, capturing the beauty on the one hand but also the birth pangs which beget the evolutionary process at every stage. Perhaps in his death, the wider Christian churches, and the Catholic church in particular, will wake up to this great prophetic figure of our time. His legacy will certainly endure, but as with Teilhard before him, more in the spiritual ferment of the 21st century rather than among either the scientists or theologians which his vision challenges so strongly.”

Holy Cross Br. Dave Andrews, former director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference who currently works with the Washington-based NGO Food and Water Watch, said:

“I came to ecological thinking via concerns of production agriculture and through Berry’s work came to see a new view of history, culture and religion that included agriculture in a whole new context. It was a breathtaking vision that encompassed so much richer a framework than I had previously.”

Announcement of Thomas’ death on the website
Detailed bio in the NY Times obituary
Reflections from locals in the Greenboro News and Record obituary
National Catholic Reporter obituary, courtesy of Common Dreams

Matthew Fox reflections about Thomas
An account of the funeral held at Green Mountain Monastery in Vermont
A collection of quotes from Thomas’ writings and talks

Thomas Berry’s invitation to participate in “the Great Work” or “the great story” has rippled into the work of many other writers and teachers, including  Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow.  A very related thread is expressed as the “great turning” by deep ecologist Joanna Macy, ecopsychologist Chris Johnstone, and economist David Korten in their own lectures and writing.

2 Responses to “Thomas Berry’s Expansive, Quiet Presence Moves On”

  1. RIP, Lynn Margulis | Bright Blue Ball (spinning spinning free) Says:

    […] right there with Gary Snyder and Thomas Berry in my pantheon of inspirations and guiding lights (see my memorial post for Thomas here).  Lynn’s fundamental insight was that evolution is driven at least as much by symbiosis as […]

  2. Ecology is our theology | Bright Blue Ball (spinning spinning free) Says:

    […] Thomas Berry is a lodestar for this story, as is Joanna Macy.  Many others have informed its heart and its many edges: Gary Snyder and bioregionalism;  E.O. Wilson, Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kaufmann, and other integrative scientists; poets of intimate and expansive embodiment like Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, and Jim Harrison; the list goes on, with multiple strands back in time to Whitman, Emerson, Goethe, Rilke, and so many more.  Each of us has our own litany of others, upon whose shoulders we dance, and reach, and dream.  To effectively and compassionately work together to face the daunting challenges we have created over the past several generations of human life on this planet, we’ll need to have some sort of globally shared picture of who we are, and what we’re doing here.  Such a picture need not replace our many local and tribal/cultural stories or established senses of purpose and meaning.  But it would serve us well to find a larger story that can hold all of humanity’s varied histories and cherished beliefs within it. […]