In honor of the 101st birthday of ecological and cosmological writer, thinker, and teacher, Thomas Berry (1914-2009), here’s a brief overview of some of his ideas. There is much to explore in his works, such as The Dream of the Earth (1988), The Great Work (1999), or The Sacred Universe (2009), on Twitter at @EssentialBerry, and on the web at ThomasBerry.org, but here are six insights from Berry to get you started: Thomas Berry 101, for Tom’s 101st birthday.
1. THE DEVASTATION OF THE PLANET
For decades Thomas Berry was a tireless teacher and prophetic voice addressing the ecological crisis, the mass extinction of species, and the future consequences of our unrelenting and often irreversible destruction of Earth’s biosphere. The Big News on the planet, as Berry saw it, was that humans were terminating the Cenozoic Period, unraveling the last 65 million years of Earth’s evolutionary flourishing. "We are working with what is perhaps the most precious reality in the universe–the Earth–and we are spoiling it," he said.
When Berry spoke about the grandeur of the Earth, and the significance of what was being lost, you felt it in your soul. At Prescott College in 1992, he brought listeners to tears as he described the industrial assault on the planet and nearly whispered in his wavering voice, "Earth is precious. Species are precious… Reverence will be total or it will not be at all."
"The twentieth century has created a serious problem for the twenty-first century," Thomas said. "The next ten generations are going to pay endlessly for what previous generations have done to the water supply, to the soils, to the seeds that grow the food."
In Berry’s view, to understand the destruction of the planet, and how to build a viable future, one had to understand the cultural story of Western society, and the power of worldview and cosmology.
Tom Berry’s favorite word was cosmology, and he was laser-focused on the significance of worldview, story, cultural narrative, and religious orientation in understanding the deep roots of the ecological crisis.
As early as 1978 Berry articulated the eco-social crisis of modern Western culture by saying, "It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story."
In Tom’s view, the cosmos story and the Earth story constitute our new revelation of the divine. "It’s enormously important for us to know the story of the universe, and it’s the only way in which we’re going to know who we are." "To tell the story of anything," he remarked, "you have to tell the story of everything."
For Berry, it was imperative that modern culture reinvent its cosmology, honor Indigenous wisdom, and ecofeminist wisdom, and transform the mechanistic, materialistic modern worldview that, with its anthropocentrism and radical split between humans and nature, is destroying the garden planet of the known universe.
Twenty-eight years after writing the essay, "The New Story," when I interviewed him in 2006, Berry was still grappling with the significance of cosmology and worldview. "It’s not easy to describe what cosmology is," he told me. "It’s neither religion nor is it science. It’s a mode of knowing."
"The only thing that will save the twenty-first century is cosmology," he said as we had lunch in North Carolina on a December day. "The only thing that will save anything is cosmology."
3. EVERY BEING IS A MODE OF THE EARTH / UNIVERSE
To inhabit Thomas Berry’s cosmological vision is to see the whole unfolding symphony of species as a unified bio-spiritual expression of the Earth and universe itself, blossoming into self-awareness and celebration through manifold forms. When the eyeball evolves, the Earth is seeing itself. When Jimi Hendrix, Mozart, and Nina Simone reach the heights of artistic genius, the planet is performing. This is a subtle but powerful perceptual shift from seeing the ‘parts’ to seeing the organic wholeness. Every phenomenon on the Earth is a manifestation of the Earth. The cascading panoply of forms in the universe is a single, seamless display of cosmic creativity. The Earth flies, swims, and loves when Earthlings do; the galaxies write sonnets in the hearts of poets.
4. HUMANS ARE THE EARTH / UNIVERSE REFLECTING ON AND CELEBRATING ITSELF
This cosmological context can renew our sense of the human and our role in the whole unfolding. Thomas Berry defines the human as, "that being in whom the universe reflects on and celebrates itself, and its numinous origin, in a special mode of conscious self-awareness."
Our job is celebration, not war, consuming, or drudgery, but to activate the capacities of the creativity-filled universe in human form.
5. THE UNIVERSE STORY CREATES A CONTEXT FOR EDUCATION
When Thomas Berry spoke at Prescott College in Arizona in 1992, he challenged universities to overcome the split between the sciences and the humanities by unifying their curriculum within the overarching context of the universe story. College "should be a place that celebrates the universe," he said, "that celebrates the deep mystery of things, in a meaningful way."
Presaging the current interest in "Big History," Berry stated, "Human history has to be put into Earth history, has to be put into universe history, into a cosmology."
In a 1991 dialogue, published as Befriending the Earth, Berry states, "What is education? Education is knowing the story of the universe, how it began, how it came to be as it is, and the human role in the story. There is nothing else. We need to know the story, the universe story, in all its resonances, in all its meanings. The universe story is the divine story, the human story, the story of the trees, the story of the rivers, of the stars, the planets, everything. It is as simple as a kindergarten tale, yet as complex as all cosmology and all knowledge and all history…. It gives a new context for education."
6. THE UNIVERSE IS A COMMUNION OF SUBJECTS & EVERY BEING HAS RIGHTS
Thomas Berry often taught that, "Ecology is functioning cosmology." Living responsibly in a connected, breathing cosmos requires that we recognize the sacred rights of every being, and embody reverence and respect as much as possible in our society. In this way, cosmology becomes the context and foundation for our work towards ecological healing and social and economic justice. "Every being has rights," Berry taught, because fundamentally, "the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects."
For more insights and ideas from Thomas Berry, follow ESSENTIAL BERRY (@EssentialBerry) on Twitter.