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Thursday June 18, 2009

'Geologian' saw beyond a human-centric view

He believed in a cosmology in which man was merely one part of a sacred and evolving universe

mvalpy@globeandmail.com

What Thomas Berry called his great work as a cultural and religious historian was to rid Western society of its man-centred notion of creation and replace it with the story of a new cosmology in which humankind was an integrated yet subservient part of a sacred, living and evolving universe.

He was a public scholar who broke ground in the field of ecological theology by bringing together the discoveries of physics and astronomy with the insights of religion, and weaving them into a new mythological narrative of creation that would inspire human beings to cherish their planet as sacred.

His prolific writing and lectures inspired a generation of eco-philosophers and activists and became a major influence in religious studies departments in Canadian and U.S. universities.

"I've managed to make a decent amount of noise," he said in an interview shortly before his death.

He was ordained in the Passionist order of the Roman Catholic Church but preferred to call himself a "geologian" - a scholar of the Earth - rather than a priest.

He was critical of Christianity for focusing too much on the revelation of God through redemption and the saving of souls and not enough on what he called God's "primary revelation" - the intricate, and still unfolding, mystery and majesty of the universe and the divine balance between Earth and man. In response, some evangelical Protestant theologians labelled him pantheistic and pagan.

Dr. Berry wrote that Western culture has been rendered "autistic" by its "technological trance," by its failure to see the universe as a community of subjects rather than a collection of objects to be used by humans at their pleasure, and by its failure to hear the voices of the universe in everything that lives.

He criticized his church for not taking a stronger stand on human population control.

At the same time, his teaching inspired the 2006 construction of the environmentally award-winning parish church of St. Gabriel in Toronto's North York suburb.

Indeed, he was not - at least not overwhelmingly - a pessimist.

One of the world's leading scholars on the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Dr. Berry believed that humankind, and everything else in the universe, was witnessing the end of the 65-million-year Cenozoic Era with its explosive diversification of life forms, and the beginning of what he termed the Ecozoic Era, in which it will be humanity's task to manage as a participating member of the Earth community, not as the controller of Earth's destiny.

He wrote: "Now, in the foreseeable future, almost nothing will happen that we will not be involved in. We cannot make a blade of grass, but there is liable not to be a blade of grass unless we accept it, protect it, and foster it."

Dr. Berry died on June 1 in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., and was buried in Vermont's Green Mountain Monastery, which he co-founded.

One of 13 children, he was born William Nathan Berry - named for his father, owner of a home-heating fuel company.

The formative moment of his life occurred when he was 11 and one day roaming the red hills near his home on the edge of town when he skipped across a creek and found a meadow.

He later wrote: "The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass. 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. It was the singing of the crickets and the woodlands in the distance and the clouds in a clear sky. ... This early experience, it seems, has become normative for me throughout the entire range of my thinking. Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple ... that pervasive. It applies in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion."

The meadow has since been torn up for development, but its original radiance pointed the boy on his journey.

In 1933, he entered the Passionist religious order, adopting the name Thomas after the 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas, who was the foremost proponent of natural theology - the branch of theology based on reason and ordinary experience rather than Biblical scripture.

Dr. Berry was ordained in 1942.

He was awarded a doctorate from Catholic University of America for a dissertation on the 17th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico. He subsequently studied Chinese and South Asian language and culture, believing the wisdom of Asia to be indispensable to learning, taught briefly at Beijing's Fu Jen University, served in the U.S. Army for three years as a chaplain in Germany and then began a teaching career that eventually took him to Fordham University in New York.

In 1970, he inaugurated the Riverdale Center for Religious Research in Riverdale, N.Y., which attracted scholars from all over the world to explore human relationships with Earth, ecology and technology. From 1975 to 1987, he was president of the American Teilhard Society.

For 21 years, he spent each summer at the Canadian Passionist retreat centre on Lake Erie conducting colloquia for teachers, ecologists and environmental activists. He also made television documentaries, collaborated with the David Suzuki Foundation and wrote treatises on Buddhism and the religions of India.

His best-known books are Dream of the Earth (1988), The Universe Story (with mathematician and cosmologist Brian Swinne, 1994); The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (1999) and Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (2006).

He did not see his work as theological.

"It's not intended by itself to be a theology; it's a horizon under which to do theology," said Anne Marie Dalton, a religious studies professor at St. Mary's University in Halifax.

Dennis O'Hara, director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at University of St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, said Dr. Berry understood the horizon of mythology and its purpose, and used it to present Western society with an inspiring story that would transform its thinking about Earth.

The Big Bang theory of an ever-expanding universe - 13.7 billion years in the making and still evolving - provided him with the narrative model he wanted.

A narrative having God as the original mover, with the universe as the primary form and all of its constituent parts being secondary, being derivative, formed from the same stardust of that exploding primordial atom.

It was the narrative of a mysterious evolution that has created every leaf, rock and creature, and every law governing co-existence, economics and sustainability of the cosmos, an evolution that took 13.7 billion years to create apples and an individual ingenious enough to make them into pies.

THOMAS BERRY

William Nathan Berry was born on Nov. 9, 1914, and died on June 1, 2009, in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C. He was 94.

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In his words

"What happens to the outer world happens to the inner world. 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."

"A new religious or spiritual sensitivity has to awaken. None of the old, traditional formulae will work. Our new-found faith must be in the revelation present in the world around us."

"The universe is a collection of subjects, not objects. Everything has a voice, it speaks - a tree, a bird, whatever, it has a voice. We need a greater interpretive power in our television. Our sense of the natural world has deteriorated into Disney characters and plastic figures of the various animals. I suppose in 50 years children will never see a live wild animal. And it's devastating to the whole psychic structure of people because we depend on this rapport, this intercommunion with the whole of the universe for our psychic balance, our emotional balance, any capacity for imaginative process."

"Buddhism, to my mind, lives more lightly on the planet than most of the other religious traditions. In that sense Buddhism has a lot to offer, and the Buddhist sense of compassion extends to the natural world. One of the finest aspects of Buddhism is that the primary virtue, which is compassion, is not limited to the human. Westerners don't understand compassion in this broad sense, compassion toward all living beings."

"Now, in the foreseeable future, almost nothing will happen that we will not be involved in. We cannot make a blade of grass, but there is liable not to be a blade of grass unless we accept it, protect it, and foster it."

"I've managed to make a decent amount of noise."

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A philosophy embodied

The Toronto Roman Catholic church of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin, completed two years ago, was designed to reflect the theology of Thomas Berry and his belief in a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship.

Instead of being an inward-focused space using stained glass to create an otherworldly liturgical environment, St. Gabriel's entire south facade is glazed with clear glass, harmonizing the sacred worship space inside with the sacred world outside.

Variations of the sun's intensity and inclination together with changes in weather ensure that no two services will experience an identical light.

Pedestrians approaching the church pass "stations of our cosmic Earth" depicting significant moments in the evolutionary story of the universe, from the Big Bang to the atomic bomb's mushroom cloud.

The narthex, or entrance area, has a "living wall" of tropical plant material designed to purify the air.

The water running over the roots provides natural humidification in winter and de-humidification in summer.

An outside container harvests rainwater, which in turn supports plant life in a wetland. Potable water usage is reduced by a drip irrigation system for the garden, waterless urinals, low-flush toilets and low-flow fittings on sinks.

The church incorporates maximum insulation, supplemental solar heating and carpets made with beet and corn-stalk fibres. Parking is underground.

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