Introduction to the Special Edition on Thomas Berry's The Great Work

By Heather Eaton

History is governed by those overarching movements that give shape and meaning to life by relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe. Creating such a movement might be called the Great Work of a people.
Opening sentence of The Great Work

In The Great Work Thomas Berry invites a deep reflection on our current ecological and cultural predicament. The move through this era of enormous cultural transition, from a period of human devastation of the Earth to—potentially—a period of benign presence, is the ‘great work’ that we must undertake if we are to fulfil the historical exigencies of our time.

Thomas Berry, cultural historian, is a remarkable and influential thinker on the complexities of this era and the requirements of a viable future. Berry, a Catholic priest, trained in the classical traditions of theology, immersed himself in a comprehensive investigation of the phenomenon of religion, and in particular Eastern religions. He taught Eastern religions at several U.S. universities prior to founding the PhD program in The Histories of Religions at Fordham, from 1966-1979. Berry has written several books on Eastern Religions, such as Buddhism and The Religions of India,1 and during the past few decades has addressed his work to the magnitude of the crisis facing Western civilization.

To situate the essays within The Great Work as well as the responses to the book, it may be beneficial to know some of the key influences that have shaped Berry’s perspectives. Over the course of a lifetime, Berry has developed a deep appreciation for the intense and specific human experiences that give rise to distinct religious traditions and expressions. He could see that particular and penetrating experiences became religious foundations, such as those based on an awareness of divine being (Hinduism), of the changing and sorrowful nature of reality (Buddhism), of an all-embracing harmony of the cosmic and human orders (Confucianism), of dynamic forces immanent in the universe (Taoism), and the divine presence within history manifested within the rich symbolism of the monotheistic traditions.2 What is unique about Berry’s religious view is his knowledge of the historical process of many religions, his profound appreciation for the particularity of religious/spiritual experiences that form the world's religions, an understanding of similar patterns of meaning and symbolism, and a reverence for deep spiritual impulses within humans out of which these movements arise. Berry believes that we are entering a new religious moment based in a unique religious experience, that of the presence and process of the universe penetrating human consciousness.

Berry has reflected extensively on the direction of Western civilisations, as well as gleaning an in-depth awareness of several eastern civilisations. He has examined how societies make the necessary transitions when confronted with challenges requiring decisive changes in orientation. Berry studied the grand narratives and worldviews—cosmologies—within which societies develop, find meaning, and orient themselves towards the future. Within Berry’s notion of cosmology reside constellations of ideas gleaned over a lifetime of reflection. Berry is one of a very few who has recognised the ultimate and concrete/material significance of the role of cosmology in cultural vitality, transformation and survival.

Since the early 1970’s, Berry’s work has been motivated by a deep understanding of the ecological crisis and by suggesting directions for a potential recovery. He summarises his work in the following way:

I studied history and philosophy to find out and test how people found meaning. I wanted to go back through the whole human tradition and test the whole process, because it was obvious from the beginning, going into religious life, that the process was not working… Our modern world is not working. Christianity in this sense is not working… Religion is assuming no responsibility for the state of the earth or the fate of the earth… Somehow, when I was quite young, I saw the beginnings of biocide and geocide. (Dunn and Lonergan 1991: 143-144)

There are also some notable thinkers who have shaped Berry's worldview. Of several possibilities, the works of Giambattista Vico,3 Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Loren Eiseley have enormously influenced the matrix of ideas from which Berry makes his proposal.

Like Vico, Berry is seeking a unifying framework in which to understand prevailing and difficult problems. He is critical of the formidable aspirations and seductions of a "wonderworld," which actually are creating a "wasteworld".4 He speaks of Eurowestern cultures as being in the grips of a cultural pathology which is manifested by an autism towards the earth and its travail.5 In Dream of the Earth we read, "this pathology is manifest in the arrogance with which we reject our role as an integral member of the earth community in favor of a radical anthropocentric life attitude."6 Berry claims that it is the fallacious perceptions of ultimate reality, that is the cosmology or the macro-phase aspect of the culture(s), which are causal to at least some of the dilemmas.

In general it is the mythic aspects of cultural narratives which concern Berry, with a further interest in those stories which carry a cosmology; a story of the universe and the human place within the scheme of things. Berry alleges that all societies live within some form of salvation narrative; that is, it provides, guides and shapes our personal and collective life purposes, actions and interactions, and it offers ethical orientations. Outside the story, there is no context in which human life can function in meaningful ways.7

Berry acknowledges that his thoughts about the function of cultural narrative have been influenced by the work of C.G. Jung and the understanding of archetypical structures which form the bases of psychic development.8 In addition, Berry is inclined to interpretations of the role of mythology in cultural constructs in a similar vein as was Mircea Eliade. Eliade suggested that a desacralised cosmos is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit and that this desacralisation pervades the entire experience of the now nonreligious people in modern cultures. Thus many people are incapable presently of experiencing the sacred in the very structure of the world and the cosmic phenomenon. It is because humans no longer experience a pervasive numinous presence that the modern period is filled with angst and alienation from the earth, and a basic disenchantment with the world.

Berry connected the primal awakening to an awesome universe permeated with numinous energy to the primordial experience of human consciousness, and considers this era to be the archetypical period of human history. Although the modern techno-progress myth presides over Eurowestern human consciousness, there are fragments of the primal sensitivities that still reside in the deeper realms of the unconscious. It is this recovery or reintegration of the primal numinous experiences of the universe, genetically encoded within the human psyche, which needs to be retrieved into consciousness. This can be accomplished best through myth, which connects the paradigmatic structure of the depth of the human psyche to the human context of cultural narrative. Berry wrote:

The mythic dimension of the ecological age is neither romanticism nor an idealism. It is rather a depth insight into the structure and functioning of the entire earth process. … The revelatory aspect of the ecological age finds expression in the ecological archetype which finds its most effective expression in the great story of the universe. … These archetypical symbols are the main instruments for the evocation of the energies needed for our future renewal of the earth.9

In order to reform a culture in decline, Berry agreed with Vico's belief that the most adequate approach would be to consider the larger context of the historical/cultural emergence of humanity to be in stages of consciousness. Thus to discern the stage of one's time and place, which is the task of intellectuals, one must know the evolutionary challenge of the era.

Berry is persuaded that the larger world context is in profound transition, with a world culture emerging but without a macro-phase myth to sustain and guide this unique phase of human development. World religions, of necessity having to develop the richness and particularity of expression of their revelatory experiences in isolation —a micro-phase period—now can either assist in the further development of each in a world context wherein "the full tapestry of revelatory experience can be observed," or could collapse into tribalism.10 Berry perceives the need, in light of the ecological crisis, to foster "a sense of the New Story of the universe as the context for understanding the diversity and unity of religions."11 Such an era would become the macrophase period of development of most religious traditions, where the traditions would be dimensions of each other. Further, the traditions themselves must move into this larger context of interpretation in order to maintain their ultimate orientation towards reality and value in a process of a transformation of their deep spiritual insights which "originate in an interior depth,… as revelatory of the ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being."12

Berry, stimulated by Teilhard de Chardin, also considers the discoveries of science to be of the order of a revelatory experience.13 He would concur with the thoughts of Einstein, that is; "Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame."14 For example Berry writes:

This commitment to the order and intelligibility of the universe has been the basis of the past five hundred years of scientific inquiry. The idea that this intelligibility could be identified in the experiential order was the new sensitivity leading on through the transition phase to our present understanding of the universe.… for only in this way can we appreciate the events that are taking place in these later times.… Only now can we see with clarity that we live not so much in a cosmos as in a cosmogenesis, a cosmogenesis best presented in narrative; scientific in its data, mythic in its form.15

For Berry, science is a cultural venture with spiritual dimensions and he is drawn to writers such as Eiseley who gracefully express this deeper dimension of science. Berry returns to the necessity of the larger context, the emergent universe, as the primary reality— this macro-phase context of cosmology—as a requirement for reflecting on any viable future. His work is a coalescing of myriad influences, perceptions, scholarship, experiences and a tuning his mind a spirit to levels for reality that are not immediately apparent.

Berry’s work continues to be presented in an unconventional genre, especially for academics. Berry, while well-informed in the discourses of several disciplines, including science, religion, anthropology, economics, history and ecology, rarely cites references. Although he publishes abundantly, these are generally in the forms of speeches and presentations. The material is offered in a style meant to evoke a cluster of responses from the listener or reader. Berry describes his writing genre as being that of interpretative historical essays intending to rouse a composite of emotional and cognitive responses.16 His use of language is not utilitarian or mundane in an ordinary way, and it is aimed at a level of communication akin to that of poetry, art, myth or story-telling. Rather than being solely explanatory, or precisely analytic of the crisis and its network of causes, his work is meant to awaken hope and arouse the energy to envision a viable future.

In November of 1999, the American Academy of Religion hosted a panel discussion on Thomas Berry’s book, The Great Work, organized by Mary Evelyn Tucker, professor of religion at Bucknell University. In general the orientation of comments was in honour of the work of Berry and the influence he has had on a multitude of religious perspectives and cultural agendas. The collection of articles in this volume is similar to this orientation, meaning predominantly an appreciation of Berry's work, although not without critical questions. This edition of Worldviews contains a range of comments from several disciplines. The authors are all known in their fields, and the collection includes the presentations of the AAR panel.

The Great Work explores a plethora of themes, from geology to extractive economics, from patriarchy to the globalization of the corporate world, from political engagements and ethics to the manifestation of the sacred woven into the depths of life and its processes. Although the topics are all vast and complex, Berry's genius is his ability to see these realities in terms of their meaning, in both the historical manifestation as well as how they are shaping the ‘spirit of the world’. Berry’s primary interest, he says, is in the ‘soul of the future’. His vision and foremost concern is the shaping spirit, in inner spirit and outer form that are needed "if we are to make the intellectual, social, economics and religious adjustments required for a viable future" (115). It is this thread that connects the entire book, and permits him to touch on such a extensive array of subjects.

The first three chapters of The Great Work address the large horizon in which we will need to situate the work of ‘all of the people. No one is exempt’ (10). Each of us needs to align our efforts with the ‘great work’, that of realigning human earth relations within what Berry calls the ‘new or earth story’. This story is the story of the universe, of the earth, and of ourselves within the drama of cosmogenesis. The rst of the responses in this collection is by Larry Rasmussen, a Christian social ethicist. He describes a specific manifestation of the ‘great work’ in his account of the Maryknoll Ecological Sanctuary near the Cordillera mountains. He portrays an example of what is possible if small groups could orient, even one small centre, to the insights promoted by Berry.

From a panoramic horizon and a Buddhist environmental perspective, Stephanie Kaza affirms Berry’s historical acumen and his fresh interpretations of authentic responses to the ecological crisis. She appreciates two particular elements: that is a profound respect for the wildness of the earth and the need for political engagement. Kaza draws from many themes within chapter five of The Great Work, "The Wild and the Sacred." Here, Berry explores the juxtaposition of the wild and the civilized, and the deeper meaning of each.

The next three contributors deal with specific elements within the book, related to their disciplinary expertise. Robert Cummings Neville, a former student of Berry in Eastern religions, follows a trajectory of the emphasis Berry places on inter and multi-disciplinary thought, the need for the western rational mind to genuinely encounter the eastern insights, and concludes by posing questions for Berry for future reflection. Ursula Goodenough, from the perspective of a scientist, engages and challenges Berry on the necessity and role of contingency within the universe. David Korten, economist, offers a millennium reflection of the significance of Berry’s foundational culturally orientating insight within The Great Work.

The remaining four contributors are addressing the move from the macro horizon to the micro, and the dialectic between the two. Each, in different ways, is concerned with the patterns of injustice that are entrenched in ideological and material systems of oppression. The challenge, often posed to Berry, is how to move from the enticing vision that he articulates to a world wherein this spirit or soul of the future is actualized.

Heather Eaton, an ecofeminist theologian, addresses Berry's position that we are ethically destitute without a macro-horizon, and the meaning of a division of macro and micro horizons. The discussion is primarily about ethics and cosmology. Rosemary Radford Ruether, also an ecofeminist theologian, while appreciative of much of Berry's approach, considers that the work of consciousness changing will be ineffectual unless tied to changing the patterns of material resources, economic systems and gendered relations. Aruna Gnanadason, Coordinator of the Peace Justice and Creation Team of the World Council of Churches, reflects on the significance of Berry's book from the perspective of small and poor communities in India. Such communities are deeply affected, often against their desire and to their detriment, by the hegemonic economic and development agenda. Gnanadason engages in a critical assessment of Berry’s perspective from this vantage point. Finally, Stephen Bede Scharper, a professor of religion and ecology, reflects on and challenges Berry's thought concerning democracy and the benefits of the global corporation movement.

Each of these articles examines, tackles or criticises elements of The Great Work. All are moved by elements of Berry’s contribution. Some have questions they pose to his viewpoints. The collection concludes with Berry’s own responses to these reflections. Whether we agree or not with Berry’s constellations of insights and suggestions, The Great Work is a cogent thesis of the problematics of our time. Berry’s work provides a perspective, of increasing importance, that is being translated into several languages and is being taken into numerous disciplines, activist organizations, political initiatives and even to the United Nations. It is hoped that this affirmation and exploration of Berry’s work, in The Great Work, will be helpful in the engagement of the necessary analysis and reflections which can benefit our collaborative efforts to respond to the exigencies of our times. As such we are all engaging with the ‘great work’, that which will preserve life for future generations.

Professor Heather Eaton, St. Paul’s University, 223 Main St., Ottawa, Ont. K1S 1C4, Canada


  1. Berry. 1967. Buddhism. New York: Hawthorn Books; 1971. Religions of India: Hinduism, Yoga, Buddhism. New York: Bruce.
  2. Berry. 1968. "Five Oriental Philosophies," Overview Studies 1 pp. 5-55.
  3. Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) was Berry's dissertation subject. Vico is most known for his controversial work The New Science, translation of the Third Edition (1744) by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968). Berry's thesis was published as The Historical Theory of Giambattista Vico, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1949).
  4. Berry. 1990. "The Seduction of Wonderworld," Edges 3 June. pp. 9-14.
  5. Berry. 1988. "The Dream of the Earth: Our Way Into the Future," Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. pp. 205-216.
  6. Ibid., p. 208.
  7. Berry. 1970. "The New Story," Riverdale Papers V.
  8. Berry often refers to Jung's work in passing, and uses Jung’s notions of archetypical psychic structures to support his position that the human psyche has been structured from ancient primal experiences of the awesome powers of the universe, prior to the differentiation between unconscious and conscious. The role of dreams and spontaneous images, the integration of the material and natural worlds and the coexistence of matter and spirit within the psychic-physical universe all reinforced Berry's search for the deepest human expressions of the cosmic forces out of which the human emerges in psychic and physical form. See Berry, 1982. "Alchemy and Spiritual Transformation in C.G. Jung," Riverdale Papers IX.
  9. Ibid., pp. 4-5.
  10. Berry. 1985. "The Catholic Church and the Religions of the World," Riverdale Papers X. p. 5.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry. 1992. "The Modern Revelation," The Universe Story. San Francisco: Harper. pp. 223-240.
  14. Albert Einstein, "Ideas and Opinions", quoted in Polkinghorne, John. 1989. Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding. Boston: Shambhala. p. 97.
  15. Swimme and Berry. 1992. pp. 228-229.
  16. He also considers his work to be a novel historical explanation, in an expository style. Conversation at Holy Cross Centre: Port Burwell, Ontario, July, 1995.


  • Berry, Thomas. 1967. Buddhism. New York: Hawthorn Books.
    • 1968. "Five Oriental Philosophies," Overview Studies 1 pp. 5-55.
    • 1970. "The New Story," Riverdale Papers V.
    • 1971. Religions of India: Hinduism, Yoga, Buddhism. New York: Bruce.
    • 1988. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
    • 1990. "The Seduction of Wonderworld," Edges 3, June pp. 9-14.
    • 1985. "The Catholic Church and the Religions of the World," Riverdale Papers X.
  • Dunn and Lonergan. eds. 1991. Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation Between Humans and the Earth: Thomas Berry and Thomas Clark. Mystic: Twenty-Third Publications.
  • Polkinghorne, John. 1989. Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding. Boston: Shambhala.
  • Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas. 1992. The Universe Story. San Francisco: Harper.

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