Thomas Berry as Scholar and Mentor
Thomas began his teaching career at Seton Hall University in New Jersey from 1956 to 1961 and then taught from 1961 to 1965 at St. John’s University on Long Island. In 1966, the Jesuit, Christopher Mooney, invited him to come to Fordham University to teach in the Theology Department. There he founded and, for more than a dozen years, directed the History of Religions program before retiring from teaching in 1979. This was the only program of its kind at any Catholic university in North America. During his tenure, he trained more than twenty doctoral students, many of whom taught at major colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Regrettably, however, the History of Religion program is no longer available at Fordham University.
Thomas was an anomaly in Fordham’s Theology Department. He was neither a Jesuit, nor a theologian. Instead, he was trained in Western history and in the world’s religions. However, since he was such a charismatic figure and an engaging speaker, the History of Religions program drew more students than any other section in the Theology department. Students came from around the country, some turning down admission to Religious Studies programs at Columbia or Yale to study with him. And what lively, dedicated students they were!
This is where we met in 1975—John coming from North Dakota and exploring Native American religions; Mary Evelyn recently returning from Japan and immersed in the Asian religious traditions. It was an exhilarating time for us as we gathered with other graduate students to study with this brilliant thinker and incomparable mentor. Having read widely in the world’s religions and learned the languages needed to appreciate their ancient texts and commentaries, Thomas set a high bar for his students. We thrived on the challenges he presented to us: learn the textual language of at least one tradition, know the history of many, feel the bass notes of the spiritual wisdom of each tradition, and read widely in an interdisciplinary fashion so that the living context of a tradition might open up.