Stories help us survive. They offer resonance, motivation, and sometimes redemption. Thomas Berry, the late Passionist priest and cultural historian who died in June at the age of ninety-four, believed that no story was more important to our universal human heritage than the “universe story,” which, he said, “is now needed as our sacred story.”
Berry’s philosophical reflections on human life and culture were oriented by the conviction that “the universe itself is the comprehensive mode of existence—everything exists in relationship to the universe.” Influenced by the work of Teilhard de Chardin, Berry believed not only that science and religion are compatible, but that the insights of the former expand the horizons of the latter. Instead of the title “theologian,” he preferred “geologian” or “Earth scholar.”
Berry was an early proponent of the view that the environmental crisis is also, fundamentally, a spiritual crisis. He held humans—and our value systems—responsible for the degradation of the environment as well as its potential remediation. He insisted on the profound interdependence of members of the “earth community” and believed that the “restoration of [a] sense of the natural world as a divine manifestation has special urgency because of the devastation that we are presently causing to the natural world.”
The Sacred Universe collects essays and talks Berry wrote between 1972 and 2001. Although it suffers at points from repetition, the volume is a fair encapsulation of the intellectual concerns for which Berry is best known. In chapter 6, titled “Religion in the Twenty-first Century,” Berry develops his argument for “a transition into an Ecozoic Era, when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually enhancing manner.” Religion will be integral to this transition, he maintains, because religious sensibilities are “born out of the sense of wonder and awe of the majesty and fearsomeness of the universe itself.” Some readers may disagree with Berry’s historical and psychological interpretations of world religions—especially with his insistence on an emergent universal religiosity. And sometimes the cosmic scope and historical sweep of his vision lead to questionable generalizations.
Nonetheless, many contemporary theologians and ethicists would agree with Berry’s claim that “we need to establish a rapport among the divine, the natural, and the human.” In the past, Berry has been accused of pantheism, or panentheism, but he avoids both in his premise that “the locus of the meeting of the human and the divine is in the natural world.” This idea has an august pedigree—Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin made similar claims.
When Berry writes that “the universe is the primary referent in all human understanding,” one may wonder whether the magnificence and ultimacy of the universe is being proposed as a substitute for God. But Berry doesn’t address that metaphysical issue. His concern is rather with establishing a “new creation narrative” that “enables us to enter into the deep mystery of creation with a new depth of understanding.” Still, the influence of classical thinkers like Thomas Aquinas is evident in Berry’s strong universalism, as well as in his teleological view of human nature. Although it would be inaccurate to classify Berry’s thinking as conventionally Thomistic, it is no accident that, at his ordination, the man born William Nathan Berry took the name of the saint who gave us the Summa Theologiae.
The story of Berry’s intellectual development could be told in three parts. When he entered the priesthood as a young man, he was already wary of certain aspects of modern industrial life. He studied European intellectual history at the Catholic University of America. Later, he expanded his studies to include Asian religions and cultures. He became more and more interested in the similarities and differences among global religions—especially with what can be translated between them. Finally, Berry turned to the natural sciences and cosmology for help in understanding the fundamental human quest for meaning. He believed that modern cosmology could help us refine and reformulate our religious conceptions: “Our problem...is to convert religion to the world rather than convert the world to religion.” He hoped that such a shift would help humans live more responsibly within the “earth community.”
Berry will be remembered as a religious thinker who, following Teilhard, kept concern for the natural world at the center of his theological reflection. What he envisioned was a “new story” that could bring all sacred stories together. In his 1992 book The Universe Story, Berry and mathematical cosmologist Brian Schwimme tried to tell that tale. Berry went on to publish The Dream of the Earth (1998), The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (1999), and Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred (2002), as well as another posthumous volume, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth (2009).
In addition to the legacy of his written work, Berry directly inspired a generation of students. Many saw him as a wisdom teacher or even a kind of guru. In the foreword to this volume, Mary Evelyn Tucker (a devoted friend and former student of Berry’s) writes that people “came to hear him speak because he was a wellspring of probing questions, fresh angles of vision, and provocative ideas. Most of all, one could sense he was finding a way forward out of the alienation of modern industrialized life and beyond the stale forms of religious life, out of the fragmentation of social communities and into a more integrating and comprehensive framework.”
Testifying to Berry’s influence on a generation of theologians and environmentalists, nearly a thousand people attended a recent memorial service for him at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. At the service, Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on reforestation in Africa, said that she represented thousands more who could not make the trip: “I stand here as one of many people who was encouraged by his courage, who was encouraged by his work.”
Wonder and awe, Berry maintained, are the origin of all religious expression. Like most scientists, he was fascinated by the material universe’s complexity. Like Teilhard, he was open to how this might expand our religious consciousness. Like Aquinas, he believed that one could see in the order of the created world something of its uncreated source. As Berry himself put it, “Not to hear the natural world is not to hear the divine.”
Related: An Added Dimension, by the Editors