Progress, Purpose and Contingency: A Response to Thomas Berry's The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future

By Ursula GoodEnough

There is much to applaud in Berry's book The Great Work. However this response questions the framework of purposive, hierarchical progress of the universe which is outlined in Berry’s narrative. It suggests that an alternative view is to see cosmic change as non-progressive and contingent—and that this perspective encourages the affirmation of wonder at the universe.

Keywords: Thomas Berry, The Great Work, progress, contingency


Thomas Berry has again written a visionary book, full of insight, erudition, and cogency. Knowing that other commentators will lift up many of its wonderful qualities, I have elected to focus my remarks on aspects of Berry's perspective that diverge from my own. My hope is that in so doing we will find common ground.

Berry identifies a central facet of the global problematique as ‘the mysticism of progress.’ (p. 140) I fully agree that the mysticism of progress represents a root cause of our environmental dilemma. I will, however, disagree with some of his suggestions as to where this mysticism comes from, and will suggest a rather different path to counteract its allure.


Berry writes: “A central value word used by our society is that of progress&hdellip; But then we see that our human progress has been carried out by desolating the natural world, (by a) degradation of the Earth.” (p. 62) “The sense of progress as ‘control over nature’ attained by human talents is manifested in economic competition in a realm of free enterprise, an attitude derived from Darwinism that can be ‘considered the background of the industrial and corporate control of America,… of the continent, and of the planet itself.” (p. 127) ‘A rectification is needed in the term progress.” (p. 63)

So where does this mysticism of progress come from? As quoted above, Berry identifies one source as Darwinism. But more generally, he finds complicity in the scientific project itself, as in “the scientific tradition and the research laboratory (are) dedicated to discovering new ways of human dominance over the natural world.” (p. 144)

He also identifies a second source: greed. “Progress is being used as an excuse for imposing awesome destruction on the planet for the purpose of monetary profit.”’ (p. 63) Few would disagree that monetary profit is a robust proximate explanation for the mysticism of progress. However, I would argue that we need to look elsewhere than Darwinism or the scientific research laboratory to roust out its deeper justifications.

It is my view, and I am hardly the first person to point this out, that one of the deep justifications is embedded in the Jewish and Christian worldviews themselves, particularly in their fascination with hierarchy. This fascination, I believe, has everything to do with our fascination with progress. Although Berry's book, and his writings and teachings in general, are certainly not couched in overt Jewish and Christian language or motifs, his version of the universe story is rife with concepts of hierarchical progress. Here are a few examples:

  • The universe is ever coming into being through an irreversible sequence of transformations moving, in the larger arc of its development, from a lesser to a greater order of complexity and a lesser to a greater mode of consciousness. (p. 26)
  • It is clear that our special intellectual, emotional, and imaginative capacities have existed as dimensions of the universe from its beginning since the universe is ever integral throughout the sequence of its transformations. (p. 32)
  • The Cenozoic era (wherein multicellular lineages made their appearance) is the lyric period of life development on the Earth. (p. 49)
  • The later realms of being are dependent on the earlier for survival while the earlier are dependent on the later form their more elaborate manifestations. (p. 57)
  • The multicellular forms of life are more evolved. (p. 196)

Once hierarchy and progress are seen as important features of the universe story, then the notion that the universe has a purpose is not far beneath the surface. Sometime Berry refers to this directly, as in the final sentence of this book: “It is difficult to believe that the purposes of the universe or of the planet Earth will ultimately be thwarted (by our current human folly).” (p. 196) He also quotes approvingly the astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who writes of his awareness, after returning from outer space, that there is ‘a purposefulness of flow, of energy, of time, of space in the cosmos.’ (p. 26)


Now most of us are aware that there is a second way of looking at things, which is to see the unfolding of the universe as a profoundly contingent process, with what happens before setting the stage for what follows, but without the arrow, without the hierarchies, without the progress language. Berry clearly understands that this perspective is out there, and on several occasions he describes the unfolding of the universe as an emergent process, but then he suggests that this emergence has a progressive spin.

In fact, something can emerge from something else and be less complex. And only a small fraction of evolutionary ‘creativity’ has been bestowed upon the multicellular creatures of the Cenozoic. The emergence of new ideas, and the re-emergence of old ideas, has occurred, and continues to occur, on countless occasions with the unicellular creatures. It is these ‘simple’ organisms that provision our atmosphere with most of its oxygen, fix atmospheric nitrogen, and create the matrix of our soils. As they encounter new Earthly niches—niches created by geologic activity, changes in climate, and the presence/absence of other organisms—their biochemical pathways undergo continuous evolutionary fine-tuning. Sometimes they become more complex. Sometimes they simplify. It all depends on what has gone on before and what happens next. It is contingency all the way down and all the way out, governing as well the evolution of multicellular forms of life.

That Berry is uncomfortable with the contingency perspective is manifest in two passages.

  • ‘Scientists have insisted with ever greater vehemence until recently that the universe can only be understood as the random action of minute particles with neither direction or meaning. That we should have resisted such an interpretation given by scientists to their own discoveries is quite proper. That we should have permitted scientists to evoke in us a deep suspicion of the natural world is a matter of extreme regret.’ (p. 78)
  • ‘We lost the world of meaning in an evolutionary world governed by chance without direction or higher significance, a world of emergent process that would eventually be spoken of as the work of a ‘blind watchmaker.’… Yet a different interpretation the data of evolution is available. We need merely to understand that the evolutionary process is neither random nor determined but creative. It follows the general pattern of all creativity.’ And then he repeats an earlier passage: ‘We can appreciate the direction of evolution in its larger arc of development as moving from lesser to greater complexity in structure and from lesser to greater modes of consciousness. We can also understand the governing principles of evolution in terms of its three movements towards differentiation, inner spontaneity, and comprehensive bonding.’ (p. 169)

While I don't understand the last sentence, we are once again offered a hierarchical view of things, with ‘creativity’—that most exalted of human faculties—being not serendipitous, as Gordon Kaufman would say, but rather inherent in the order of things, having a direction and a higher significance. We are back to progress again.

I would like to introduce for discussion the following perspective.

  • I agree with Berry that the ‘progress’ concept is deeply toxic to our planetary concerns.
  • I would maintain that the rectification that is needed in the term ‘progress’ is not abetted by presenting the universe story as a story of progress. Rather, I would argue that this interpretation of the universe story only supports the notion—inherent in the Judeo/Christian ethos—that the desecration of the planet is a progressive act, it being carried out in the name of the human who is, of course, at the top of the Abrahamic earthly hierarchy.
  • I agree with those scientists who state that the particles of matter have no inherent meaning. I do not, however, hear scientists arguing that matter is ‘random.’ Rather, matter is governed by the laws of the universe, laws that include the gravitational attraction of matter and the ability of matter, under the right thermal circumstances, to form chemical bonds. Gravity is the basis for the formation of the galaxies, stars, and planets, and chemistry is the basis for life and all of its manifestations. Life is dependent on a chemistry that has memory, and memory introduces the Darwinian system we call mutation and natural selection. Natural selection is anything but random, and anything but directional. Instead, it is the manifestation of the countless ecosystems on this planet, now and throughout its 4.5 billion year history. That is, it is the Earth itself that calls the proximate shots, just as it is the laws of physics that call the ultimate shots. The Earth is not static. It is dynamic and it is contingent. As a mountain rises, so does the opportunity arise for a river valley, and so then the opportunity for valley-inhabiting creatures.
  • For me at least, the contingent nature of planetary and hence biological evolution is not a concept to be resisted or regretted or replaced by something more progressive and hierarchical, particularly if our immediate concern is to rescue the planet from its current human onslaught. Rather, I see an understanding of contingency as offering a particularly germinative foundation for our approach to ecology.

As I have argued earlier, the progress motif continues to mire us in the misunderstanding that the way we are proceeding is progressive, summarized by Berry's encapsulation of Julian Simon’s view that ‘all aspects of life and environment are constantly improving.’ Whereas to

see ourselves and other creatures and our planet and our glorious evolutionary story as being the result of plumb luck, totally improbable

serendipity, total WOW! is to accord them with a specialness, a sacredness, and a fragility that far surpasses anything we can come up with in terms of purpose or plan. An arranged marriage can sometimes be a ne thing. But when we meet the love of our life totally by chance—when we happen to sit next to one another on some bus that we almost missed in some far-oV country—the encounter calls us to that same kind of astonishment and commitment that we are called to give to our Earth. What is important, at least for the next few hundred years or so, is the here-and-now, the inherent immanent Is-ness of cosmos and not the progressive transcendent vision of cosmogenesis. This goal, which Berry articulates beautifully in his essay on geography and place (p. 92), does not in any way exclude a God. Rather, it challenges theists to reconceptualize God as deeply interested in, and perhaps deeply pleased by, creation by contingency.

Professor Ursula Goodenough, Department of Biology, Washington University, 1 Brookings, Campus Box 1137, St. Louis, Mo. 63130 USA

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