Saturday, 20 June 2009

RIP Thomas Berry, geologian: 1914-2009

Thomas Berry: courtesy

He called himself a geologian: “a historian of the Earth and its evolutionary processes”. The only way to fulfil our role as individuals and as species is to understand it within the history and functioning of our planet in the universe, like sailors learning about their ship and the vast ocean on which it sails. "It takes a universe to make a child," he said, adding that he was "trying to establish a functional cosmology, not a theology."

Summary of Berry's The New Story (1978) - by Dover

Berry first published the "New Story" in 1978 as the initial booklet of the Teilhard Studies series in 1978. It was published nearly a decade later by Cross Currents. It was revised slightly for its publication in the Dream of the Earth in 1988. Berry originally subtitled the work "Comments on the Origin, Identification and Transmission of Values." The story, then, is intended to be a new orientation and perspective which would provide a moral basis for action. In other words, it is seen as a comprehensive basis for nurturing reciprocity between humans and for fostering reverence between humans and the earth.

Berry opens his essay by observing: "We are in between stories." He notes how the old story was functional because: "It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purpose, energized action. It consecrated suffering, integrated knowledge, guided education." This context of meaning provided by the old story is no longer operative. People are turning to new age novelties or to religious fundamentalism for orientation and direction. However, neither of these directions will ultimately be satisfying. We are confronted with dysfunctionalism in both religious communities and in secular societies. Berry proposes a new story of how things came to be, where we are now, and how the our human future can be given some meaningful direction. In losing our direction we have lost our values and orientation for human action. This is what the New Story can provide.

Secondly, as this reality of developmental time begins to dawn on the human community (although still fiercely resisted by creationists) a realization of the subjective communion of the human with the earth likewise begins to be felt. As Berry expresses it: "The human emerges not only as an earthling, but also as a worldling. We bear the universe in our beings as the universe bears us in its being. The two have a total presence to each other and to that deeper mystery out of which both the universe and ourselves have emerged." This subjective presence of things to one another is one of the most distinctive features of Berry's thought. In The Divine Milieu Teilhard writes of this interior attraction of things in the following passage: "In the Divine Milieu all the elements of the universe touch each other by that which is most inward and ultimate in them." Berry has suggested that the importance of the awareness of the subjective dimension of the universe story cannot be underestimated. Indeed, he writes: "...the reality and value of the interior subjective numinous aspect of the entire cosmic order is being appreciated as the basic condition in which the story makes any sense at all."

Berry states, then, that to communicate values within this new frame of reference of the earth story we need to identify the basic principles of the universe process itself. These are the primordial intentions of the universe towards differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. Differentiation refers to the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe. No two things are completely alike. Subjectivity is the interior numinous component present in all reality also called consciousness. Communion is the ability to relate to other people and things due to the presence of subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of to the presence of subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of things for one another. These are principles which can become the basis of a more comprehensive ecological and social ethics that sees the human community as dependent upon and interactive with the earth community. only such a perspective can result in the survival of both humans and the earth. As Berry has stated humans and the earth will go into the future as one single multiform event or we will not go into the future at all.

Berry closes his essay on "The New Story" with a powerful passage evoking a confidence in the future despite the tragedies of the present. He writes:

"If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture."(28)

This then is Berry's New Story, born out of his own intellectual formation as a cultural historian of the West, turning toward Asian religions, examining indigenous traditions, and finally culminating in the study of the scientific story of the universe itself. It is a story of personal evolution against the background of cosmic evolution. It is the story of one person's intellectual history in relation to earth history. It is the story of all of our histories in conjunction with planetary history. It is a story awaiting new tellings, new chapters, and ever deeper confidence in the beauty and mystery of its unfolding.


See biographies of Berry by Wikipedia and by Mary Evelyn Tucker; autobiographical notes by Berry himself; Rich Heffern, Four key ideas from the work of Fr. Thomas Berry. He died 1 June 09, at the age of 94 and returns to earth in the meadow at Green Mountain Monastery in Vermont (report by Angela Manno).

Podcasts: Thomas Berry reads excerpts from The Great Work (2000). "Awakening people to something inside them", interviews with Thomas Berry by NCR editor Tom Fox (2006); Youtube videos by and about Berry; new film Journey of the Universe about his thought.

Criticism of Berry by traditional Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists. It is regrettable that such critics do not see how Berry's insights can deepen and broaden our concept of the Divine presence and human purpose. One example is the multifaith exploration of eco-theology in Yale University's Forum of Religion and Ecology

Seedsong: An Elegy for Thomas Berry, 1914-2009 - by Elizabeth Ayres

The day we said goodbye to you, a loon sang on a blue lake as clouds separated into white islands dotting a blue lake of sky. Shovels bristled in the mound of black earth heaped beside your open grave, and mountains leaned into each other like sorrowing friends. In the garden, seedlings bristled in their own black earth. Then a long line of friends filed past a fragrant stand of balsam pines into the meadow. Then it was done, and we all went home.

It takes time to hear the voice of a place. I think you might have said that, although they could be my words, or this woodsy fringe of the Chesapeake Bay swelling into thought – sometimes the connections blur the distinctions, and I can’t tell the difference. This place speaks in the creaking wings of an unseen gull, its gray body blending into the gray mist as a dream blends into sleep. As Earth’s dream winged its way into your sleep and, waking, you woke us all. There are no words on the boulder that is your headstone, but it’s been calling to you since you were a child, that meadow, in its mother tongue of lilies and crickets, its alphabet of white clouds dotting a blue sky.

White mushrooms dot the wet green grass here. I stand on a sodden carpet of pine needles. A network of exposed roots meanders, like the ropey veins on an old man’s hands. That one time I met you, we read to each other. From your work, from my work, from the work of a host of friends, all those words, thoughts, visions, dreams, all falling like droplets of rain, mingling, overflowing, seeping into the ground, absorbed, transformed, and look, Thomas, look! How the pine trees have flung their seed-laden cones with such reckless generosity.

Look, Thomas. In the sweet salt wind, storm clouds roil and boil, seethe and churn. White as lilies, black as crickets, every shade of gray in between. The bright light and the dim light, the shine and the shade, borne in each other’s arms, waltzing across the sky. I do not know what happens after we die, but I do know there is some mysterious exchange between creation and annihilation, between possibility and the extinction thereof. I know this mystery is choreographed into the structure of galaxies and grains of wheat, and that we are all partners in the dance, and that the single yellow dandelion blooming near my foot will soon become a gossamer white globe. Then the gust of wind, and a thousand seeds flying on a thousand gossamer wings.

It takes time to hear the voice of a place. From north and south and east and west, a thousand gossamer stories, borne on the wind like seeds. Sun and moon, mountains and meadows, lilies and crickets and stars – you taught us to listen, Thomas, and to speak the truth of our own story in the vocabulary of our mother tongue. A language with no word for ‘goodbye.’

Elizabeth Ayres is the author of Know the Way (poetry, Infinity, 2005) and Writing the Wave (how-to, Perigee, 2000), and is completing Land of Our Belonging: Encounters with the Wonder of Earth, Sea and Sky, a collection which includes this reflection. She runs Creative Writing Center retreats in Chesapeake Bay country. She performs her essays on Internet radio Monday evenings at 8:30 p.m. eastern time, and you can catch more of her reflections at Encounters with Wonder.

1 comment:

Ann Jarnet said...

Thomas Berry was one of my favourite people on this planet. His collaboration with Brian Swimme, The Universe Story, as well as his own Great Work are two books I always keep close by. I've used the ideas in both in teaching history and philosophy, and somehow this works well, even with students who have never heard of him.

Because of Father Berry, I have developed a deep affection for the region where I live as rocks here are very ancient, perhaps as old as 3 billion years. I feel as if I am closer to the beginnings of activity on this planet, and that pleases me.