The Critique of Modernity and the Environmental Crisis

Thomas Berry
Photo by Gretchen McHugh

As early as 1971 Berry reflected on our contemporary predicament:

Modern humans have become increasingly conscious of the agonies inherent in the human condition. Intellectual and mechanical progress has not cured them of the inner limitations to which they are subject. . . . Other peoples, knowing that they could do little to alter the human condition externally, built up a spiritual capacity to sustain themselves as they worked toward final triumph over this condition. Modern humans seek to remove the painful elements of their condition by the control exercised over the natural world and over the inner functioning of their own physical and psychic organism. But in neither case have they eliminated the personal agonies or the larger terrors inherent in their historical situation. In many ways the human has only aggravated life's tension while lowering the spiritual capacity to absorb the afflictions inseparable from existence as a human mammal.6

For Berry interior reflection brings a person to the limits and pathos of the human condition. A historical reading of the modern period also confronts one with the facile efforts of the human to transcend those limitations by means of applied science and technology. His recurring concern was to clarify the relationships of religions with the natural world as the place in which human communities encounter the divine. This commitment, he felt, was often blurred and confused by attempts to transcend the limits of the human condition, as well as by locating ultimate salvation beyond our lived existence. Understanding these historical expressions of transcendence in their relationships with cosmology was a cardinal feature of his investigations. Yet the ways in which clusters of ideologies affirmed civilizational drives away from the natural world increasingly disturbed him. For example, during the sixteenth-century age of exploration, politics, religion, and economics became aligned. The rising authoritarian nation-states joined with a Christian missionary zeal for redemption out of this world and with a commercial drive toward resource extraction. These ideologies have continued into the contemporary period in the forms of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and economic exploitation that extends the subversion of nature's economy.

Thomas’ critique of modern culture targets its fixation on technologies and techniques of physical and psychological control as solutions for the anguish of the human condition. His historical search led him to rethink the nodes of connections between cultural imagination and the world of matter. His basic insights regarding human-Earth relations were often framed by readings in the cosmological texts of the world's religions. Over time, he drew increasingly from a range of religious scriptures, commentaries, and ethnographies of Eurasia, the Americas, and the peoples of the Pacific.

In addition, Berry noted the size and scale of the challenges we are facing as a species and as a planet. The urgency of the global environmental crisis is now well-documented, even if its many manifestations are not yet fully understood. Berry showed awareness of a variety of environmental problems: from climate change to pollution of air, soil, and water; from population growth and unbridled consumption to biodiversity loss. What is particularly remarkable is how early Berry understood the magnitude and complexity of these issues. While many ignored his warnings over thirty years ago, now, his insights about the religious character of the environmental crisis are considered prescient. His writings have a special relevance at this stage of our search for new and sustaining human-Earth relations. Indeed, in a tribute to Berry, noted theologian John Cobb observed, “No other writer in the ecological movement has had analogous effectiveness” in helping us realize the “radical uniqueness of this crisis.”7


6. Thomas Berry, Religions of India (Beverly Hills, CA: Benziger, 1971; New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 5.

7. John Cobb, preface to The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth, by Thomas Berry, eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), xi.

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Berry’s Call for Engagement of the World Religions