Berry’s Call for Engagement of the World Religions

Thomas Berry at Riverdale,
Photo by Gretchen McHugh

Consistent with this spirit, Berry strongly challenged the world's religions to respond appropriately to this complex situation. First he raised penetrating questions regarding the lateness and laxity of the response from the major establishments of our time—educational, political, religious, and commercial. Above all he focused his critique on the religious establishments as the transmitters of ancient wisdom traditions that had been shaped by cosmological concerns that were embedded in human-nature interactions. Why have the religions been blind to the fate of the Earth? Is this because the desire for personal salvation from a flawed material world into a heavenly realm supersedes all other concerns? In other words, does the search for otherworldly rewards override commitment to this world? Has the material order of nature been devalued by religious transcendence? Have human-centered ethics been so all consuming that we now do not have an ethics which addresses such impending collective acts as ecocide and biocide? Did religions surrender their interest in natural theology and cosmology to science? These questions require further reflection, he suggested, before an adequate response to our situation can be formulated from out of any one religious tradition.

Indeed, Berry reopens a gateway for the religions to reform their traditions by drawing on the metaphor of "exodus" proposed by the historian, Eric Vogelin. Berry realized that the world's religions were being called to make an exodus passage from their traditional worldviews into the modern world. Like the first Exodus experience of the Jews out of Egypt, Berry called for a transition into modernity that religions have found so challenging. In critiquing the ineffectual response of religious institutions and seminaries to the environmental crisis, he also suggested that it is not too late. It is more important than ever that these institutions reflect on their cosmological depth and their past interactions with local bioregions as they become involved in current environmental issues. Having prepared themselves, religious practitioners and leaders alike can make their contributions—in universities, in seminaries, in religious settings, and in grassroots movements. This was part of the inspiration for the Harvard conference series on world religions and ecology as well as the ongoing work of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. (See fore.yale.edu for details.)

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