Democracy, Cosmology, and The Great Work of Thomas Berry

By Stephen Bede Scharper


In this review essay, Thomas Berry's The Great Work is contextualized within Berry's overarching cosmological project. Special attention is paid to Berry's critique of economic corporations, as well as his interpretation of globalization and his assessment of an alleged decline of the nation state, claims that run counter to certain contemporary social scientific research offering more complex depictions of such phenomena. The critique of democracy in Berry's work, and its potential implications, is also critically addressed.

Keywords: Thomas Berry, The Great Work, democracy, globalization

As an eleven-year-old boy, Thomas Berry, probing the red hills of his home in North Carolina, skipped across a creek and found himself in a meadow. Seeing the white lilies cresting above the dense grass, he listened to the crickets' song drift toward the distant woods and the wisps of cloud in the azure sky. This "magic moment," Berry claims, "gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember." (p. 12)

Thomas Berry, a cultural historian by training and an ecological visionary by calling, has continued to listen to and be transfixed by the natural world some 70 years later. While a feeling of absolute dependence animated the thought of ground-breaking German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), and a ubiquitous, unrelenting sense of grace informed the path-finding work of Karl Rahner, S.J. (1904-1984) a profound sense of awe, mystery, and sacredness of creation infuses the writings of Thomas Berry. Berry combines erudition, compassion, and an affective sensibility in a highly winsome and engaging summons to place ecology and cosmology at the centre of our personal and institutional lives.

Having founded the History of Religions Program at Fordham University in New York, Berry, in 1970, established the Riverdale Center for Religious Research. Here, beneath the graceful limbs of a 300-year-old oak tree overlooking the Hudson River, he began a unique cosmological quest. Influenced by the thought of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, Berry has been attempting to rethink the human-nonhuman relationship in search of what he terms "a new cosmology". This quest combines recent scientific discoveries concerning the provenance and progression of the universe with world religious insights into the nature of creation. The result is a type of hybrid "wisdom tradition," blending empirical and spiritual elements into a cosmological narrative, most comprehensively unfurled by Berry in The Universe Story (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992), co-written with mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme. (Sadly, and perhaps tellingly, neither the Fordham program nor the oak tree has survived Berry's followers.)

In this essay, I shall strive to highlight some salient aspects of Berry's thought as expressed in The Great Work, paying particular attention to his critique of both democracy and the global corporation, which, I shall argue, could benefit from a wider net of social scientific analysis.

The Universe, as contemporary science shows, is in a process of development, and, for Berry, represents the primary source of revelation. It is only when we embrace this "story" of the unfolding cosmos that we can begin to discern our proper role within the cosmos. We are, he concludes, the "self-consciousness" of the universe, and all of our social, ecological, religious and political action must stem from this insight, or, alas, we may slide into the same type of ecologically and socially destructive fault lines currently cross-cutting our existence.

Once described by Kenneth Woodward in a Newsweek profile as a "lone voice for the wilderness" among religious leaders, Berry's thought has influenced a wide swath of politicians, policy-makers, scientists, environmentalists, naturalists, and religious. Twice invited to the Clinton White House to advise on environmental matters, Berry is quoted with favor in Al Gore's Earth in the Balance, and Harvard University, sensing significance, recently procured Berry's papers for their archives. What began as a series of mimeographed "Riverdale Papers" shared among colleagues has become a powerful river of books, articles, cassettes and addresses forming the dance floor for a new human-nonhuman cotillion.

Noting the pathological nature of our reigning global economy, which is based on fouling the clean air, water, and soil necessary for life, Berry claims that his generation has been "autistic" when it comes to the natural world. Our progress as a civilization has been in direct proportion to our diminishment of the planet's lifesystems, a process echoing Andre Gunder Frank's economic core and periphery model—development for one part of the globe which leads to the underdevelopment (and exploitation) of another part.

For the first time in history, the human is in the driver's seat, not only of cultural, but also of geological evolution. From biogenetic engineering through massive species extinction, ozone depletion, and climate change, the humans are proving their reckless prowess over the unfolding of the planet.

Tragically, for Berry, our ethics have not kept pace with our power. While we have codes and penalties concerning suicide, homicide, and genocide, we have no proscriptions against geocide. Unless we see the earth as our primary ethical touchstone, we will be as water skeeters on the surface of the deepest—and most deeply troubled—ethical ponds. In examining our present era, Berry combines an expertise in eastern religions with an abiding interest in the physical sciences. He notes that our reigning cosmology is not framed by recent awe-inspiring discoveries of the unfolding of the universe— a "communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects"—but rather by consumerism, where our principal role is to amass not wisdom, but "stuV," and whose chief docents are not spiritual or familial elders, but advertisers whose primary aim is to sell product. This motif has also been accented in Brian Swimme's The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996).

This crimped, commercial cosmology, in tandem with massive ecological destruction, is contributing, in contemporary North America, to a "soul-loss." As condominium complexes displace farmland, as strip malls spread across wetlands, and glare and smog obscure the skies, we lose touch with creation, our primordial source of revelation. For Berry, this is a horror, a spiritual catastrophe whose consequences we cannot even begin to forecast. Berry tersely sums up both the process and goal of the consumer society:

The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress—even though the immense accumulation of junk is overwhelming the landscape, saturating the skies, and filling the oceans. (p. 76)

"What happens to the outer world happens to the inner world," Berry avers. "If the outer world is diminished in its grandeur than the emotional, imaginative, intellectual, and spiritual life of the human is diminished or extinguished" (p. 200). Our inner being will die if we continue to transform natural beauty into the soul-deadening, concrete-laden, box-store landscapes of a consumer society. "Our quest for wonderworld," Berry tersely observes, "is creating a waste-world" (p. 68). "Without the soaring birds, the great forests, the sounds and coloration of the insects, the free-flowing streams, the flowering fields, the sight of the clouds by day and the stars at night, we become impoverished in all that makes us human" (p. 200).

For Berry, authentic progress rests in what he terms "the Great Work," through which we as a species move from being the planet's plunderers to its benefactors, and become "present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner". The great work is ultimately the reinvention of the human. For those familiar with Berry's work, much of his terminology will be commonplace; for newcomers, however, many terms may prove bewildering. As he explains the thesis of his book: "The historical mission of our times is to reinvent the human— at the species level, with critical reflection, within the community of life-systems, in time development context, by means of story and shared dream experience" (p. 159).

For the uninitiated, such terminology, such as "species-level," "time development context," etc., may be more head-scratching than thought-provoking, and may, sadly, preclude a broader, more popular audience from moving to the rhythm of Berry's otherwise compelling message. For Berry, "the Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transitions from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner" (p. 3). This task will require a major reorientation of the four basic pillars of society—government, religion, the university, and corporations—which must embrace the earth and the universe as their primary educators.

Here, for the first time in print, is Berry's unique and sustained critique of the multinational corporation, a critique imbued with passion and luminous insight. He notes that the corporation has taken possession of human consciousness "in order to evoke the deepest of psychic compulsions toward limitless consumption". Writing from a cosmological, rather than a sociological, perspective, Berry adroitly observes that "this invasion of human consciousness has brought about deleterious effects throughout the moral and cultural life of the society as well as the impoverishment of the Earth. Yet the corporations are so basic to contemporary life that a central purpose of contemporary education from high school through college, and even through professional training, is to prepare younger persons for jobs within the corporation context" (p. 120).

A grand thinker, Berry at times takes a roller brush to history, and consequently misses a few spots, it seems, on the historical canvas. Claiming that the nation-state has been eclipsed by transnational corporations, Berry paints a rather profit-driven global landscape:

The nation-states have become subservient to the economic corporations. The corporations now function on a scale beyond any national boundaries. They have drawn the entire Earth into their control. The globalization of the human project as well as the globalization of the Earth economy is now reaching limits that will define the future in a new and decisive manner, for beyond the Earth no further expansion is possible in any effective manner. (p. 132)

One senses here a somewhat unnuanced interpretation of both globalization and the power of the nation-state. In Berry's sweeping gaze, there seems to be little distinction drawn between ways in which totalitarian governments such as China, and democratic states, such as the United States, interface with the rise of corporate power. One could possibly argue, through Berry's analysis, that the ballgame between the nation-state and the global corporation is at last over, with the corporation having won with a grand-slam in the bottom of the ninth, and the citizens slowly filing out of the grandstands.

Further, such analysis could lead to a type of lethargic cynicism toward both government and democracy, implying that it doesn't really matter after all what form of government exists, dictatorship or democracy, since they are all caught in the same corporate vise-grip. Such thinking also posits that it is inconsequential who is President of the United States or Prime Minister of Canada; politicians' power, after all, has been usurped by the global corporate agenda, and the common good has been sacrificed worldwide on the altar of corporate greed.

While Berry is correct to identify this important and disturbing trend of corporate ascendancy, the lack of historical and contextual distinctions in his analysis are limiting. One wonders, for example, if a Bush or Reagan Administration would have pursued the prosecution of Microsoft or the corporate purveyors of cigarettes to children. While Berry of course would rather see an Al Gore as President than a George W. Bush (once remarking that Bill Clinton is the "delivery system" for Al Gore), his analysis could lead to a type of "plague on all your political houses" syndrome which would run counter perhaps to his overall agenda.

In summoning the culture to "the great work" of building a new human relationship with creation, one must be careful not to sidestep the great moral achievements of the modern era, which include representative democracy, religious toleration, the rights and freedoms of individuals, the development of feminist analysis, and, indeed, the environmental movement itself. (I remember teaching an undergraduate class several years ago on religion and ecology. I asked the students to imagine that they were introduced to an extraterrestrial and had to describe the achievements of their modern Western culture. There was uncharacteristic silence. After at time, one of the students said, "We have been so exposed to the lousy aspects of our culture—oppression of Native peoples, patriarchy, destruction of nature—that it's very hard to think of any positive things to say.")

In calling this generation to the momentous task of "reinventing the human", it's important that Berry and all of us not lose sight of the positive, transformative, and heroic accomplishments of the post-Renaissance era. One does not have to be Pollyannaish or untruthful in analyzing events of the modern period, yet one has to be comprehensive and even-handed. If we do not, in our historical analysis, show the peaks as well as the valleys of this modern human sojourn, we will leave future generations bereft of both trail-guides—and hope.

As humans, our cosmology must entail a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the universe, but it must also be anchored in a democratic spirit, a quest for personal integrity, and a passion for social justice. While it must entail a critical incorporation of new scientific discovery and traditional religious insight, a new "wisdom tradition" as Berry suggests, must include more. It must be imbued with a strong place for family, children, lovers and friends as well as politicians and entrepreneurs. These too, must blend into the reexamination of how the human both touches and tethers the non-human world, and how the non-human world contours and frames our lives as well. Our cosmology must recognize that we are involved in a human/non-human dance that is reciprocal and mutually constitutive. The human and non-human twirl around the dance floor of dialectical contingency. This cosmology reveals that we, as humans, are not only the consciousness, but also the conscience of the universe (Scharper 1997).

Berry's claim that all nation states have become subservient to economic corporations, for example, might be interesting to test in nations such as post-revolutionary Iran and post-genocide Rwanda. Moreover, as some social scientists have claimed, economic globalization is leading to increased rather than diminished state power in certain areas, such as national borders. A group of scholars, including British sociologist Anthony Giddens, have argued that we are not seeing a twilight of the nation state, but rather a transformation in its form and influence. University of Chicago sociologist Saski Sassen, for example, has persuasively demonstrated how states are inserting themselves into global processes, and shaping trends within the global political economy (2000). They are not simply being eclipsed by the rise of global corporations. Moreover, research such as that of anthropologist Marc Edelman at the City University of New York on transnational peasant movements in Costa Rica has also revealed that states support some forms of globalization while resisting others (1999). In other words the role of the state in the globalized arena is a mixed one. This point is further argued by University of Toronto anthropologist Hilary Cunningham, whose work along the increasingly state-fortified US-Mexico border has led to her claim that globalization does not entail an inevitable decline in the nation state, but rather evolving forms of sovereignty. There are "evolving sovereignties" in the globalizing arena, not simply a displacement of the state in light of corporate potency.

In such cases, cosmological analysis might be enhanced by political and economic analysis. Such social scientific examinations of globalization, for example, might help provide depth and nuance to Berry's cosmological critique, raising the possibility that a "false" cosmology—a cosmology of consumerism—is entwining itself with the goals and visions of the nation-state in novel ways. A blending of these streams of analysis—cosmological and social scientific—might lead to an innovative approach not only to studies of globalization and the respective roles of governments and corporations, but also to Berry's focal and crucial project, the human vocation in the cosmos. In short, such a conjoining of approaches may more accurately and constructively delineate the "great work" to which Berry compellingly calls us.

Moreover, one wonders if intimacy with the natural world, as advocated by Berry, will necessarily lead to defense of the natural world. There is a sense in Berry's work that the closer we become to the natural world, the more we will respect and nurture it. One wonders, however, if intimacy necessarily leads to benevolence. As domestic violence manifests, for example, sometimes where an intimacy exists, such as in families, a cruel violence can often follow. Just because a husband and wife are intimate, for example, does not preclude the husband from physically abusing his wife. Poverty also is a major factor in family violence. To what extent does global poverty obscure not only an intimacy with the natural world, but our exploitation of it? These questions seem to go unexplored.

A sense of awe, reverence, mystery and intimacy with the created world, one senses, unless rooted in a particular, enlightened political and social perspective, could be channeled in ways deleterious to both the human and biotic communities. New cosmological analysis can perhaps thus benefit from constructive social analysis which probes the thorns as well as the flowers of human intimacy, the wellsprings of violence, and the effect of poverty and oppression on our ability to perform "the great work."

Berry here, as in other works, is hard on US democracy. He takes special aim at the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees individual rights and freedoms to humans and corporations, Berry asserts, but not to the nonhuman world. In delineating the rise of big corporations during the mid-nineteenth century, Berry writes:

Government, concerned with ‘establishing justice,’ insuring ‘domestic tranquility,’ and ‘promoting the general welfare’ as announced in the preamble of the Constitution, and the corporations, dedicated to the limitless increased in personal profit, have seldom related to one another effectively except by sacrificing ‘establishing justice’ and the ‘general welfare’ for the appearances of ‘domestic tranquility.’ When the government was challenged in its role of keeping public order in those years of struggle between the workers and the owners, the government consistently sided with the corporations in preserving the existing order against the workers whose energies were exploited." (p. 120)

Utilizing David Korten's study, When Corporations Rule the World (West Hartford, Conn.: Kumarian Press, 1994), Berry observes that the post-World War II phase of corporate development has accentuated corporate welfare, in which funds for the common good are redirected to corporate profit, a process enhanced since the early 1970s. Yet one wonders if it is an accident that U.S. democracy resembles consensus models of government inherent in many Native American tribes, which had an alternative relationship with nature. Some Native Americans have talked about the impact of their forms of government on both the U.S. Constitution and the spirit of U.S. democracy, framed, as they were, by founding architects, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who had some exposure to the lifeways of America's autochthonous inhabitants.

In addition, putative products of the U.S. democratic system— Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson—have become leaders and visionaries of environmentalism, using their democratic system to preserve wild spaces, ban pesticides, and create national parks. Could this have been done outside a democratic system? To what extent is the shared nationhood of these eco-seers an integral part of their environmentalism?

Yet, as the 32-page annotated bibliography attests, Berry's vantage and visionary voice have been enriched by remarkable reading, and his scholarship, blended with a type of wisdom, lends a much-needed depth to any socio-economic analysis of our contemporary ecological situation. As Berry demonstrates, any social analysis that locates ecology as a subset of economic, political, or social concerns is deeply flawed, and eschews "the great work" of renewing our spirits and, with them, our graced home. Berry reminds us that, we, as a generation, are not unlike prophets of old who were summoned by the divine to go forth with a message. Often, the prophets would respond, "Not me, not now" and the divine response would be "Yes, you, get going." Berry's adroit naming of both this crucial moment and great calling to which we are summoned is a watershed challenge that we ignore at great peril. Recalling the adage of Catholic publisher and essayist Philip Scharper, "it is only when we see the invisible that we can attempt the impossible," Berry graciously awakens us to the possibility of collectively building what eyes have not yet seen.

Stephen Bede Scharper, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department for the Study of Religion, St. Michael's College, 81 St. Mary Street, Toronto, ON M5S 1J4


  • Edelman, Marc. 1999. Peasants against Globalization. Stanford University Press.
  • Sassen, Sakia. 2000. "The State and the New Geography of Power," in Don Kalb et al., eds., The Ends of Globalization: Bringing Society Back In (New York: Rowan & Lilltefield). pp. 49-65.
  • Scharper, Stephen Bede. 1997. Redeeming the Time: A Political Theology of the Environment. New York: Continuum.

Republished with permission from Worldviews: Environment, Culture, Religion, Volume 5 no 11/111 2001, published by Brill