Response to Thomas Berry's The Great Work

By Robert Cummings Neville

This paper salutes four contributions of Berry's book: its return to creation rather than redemption as the central doctrine of Christianity, its expanded paideia beyond the male West, its focus on ecological problems as the agenda for all world religions, and its redefinition of the self in terms of orientations to nature and institutions. The paper then poses two questions. Why emphasize the Earth's ecology, with an emphasis of preservation and stability, rather than cosmic process which is entropic and a matter of trajectories? Why emphasize symmetry at the basis of the cosmos, with the emphasis on unity and order, rather than the asymmetry of unique creation with an emphasis on particularity and change?

Keywords: Thomas Berry, The Great Work, creation, pedagogy

The Great Work is an extraordinary book, but no more extraordinary than its author. Thirty-two years ago, when we both were on the faculty at Fordham University, he asked me in passing what I was teaching. “History of philosophy,” I told him. “What texts do you use for Indian and Chinese philosophy?” he asked. I was struck dumb, since it had never occurred to me that those traditions were included in the history of philosophy, at least not in the Philosophy Department. Before I could recover he signed me up to teach courses in Indian and Chinese philosophy, which I have continued to do in one form or another ever since, and my career has been transformed. So have my students. Perhaps chagrined at his hastiness he arranged for me to study Chinese at Manhattanville College; later, when I discovered that I had to offer a course in Sanskrit, I asked him to teach me, which he did, keeping me at least two weeks ahead of the undergraduates. Tuition in ancient India, I knew, was paid in firewood, and so I gave him my sets of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ostensibly for the library at his Riverdale Center. Judging from the present book, however, he might well have burned them in the Agni Fire.

My first comment on The Great Work, therefore, is to applaud its point that in Christian theology, the doctrine of creation ought to be accorded far greater importance than the doctrine of redemption with which those church fathers were preoccupied. In Christianity's early days the doctrine of creation was presupposed far more often than it was lifted up. From Justin Martyr to Origen to Augustine the doctrine took the strong form of asserting that absolutely everything is created, matter as well as form, space and time themselves. There were different models of creation, including Neo-Platonic emanation and creation ex nihilo. But because some form of world-creation was presupposed by Christianity and also its Near Eastern competitors, that theme never was developed to the point of seeing that the redemption of human beings on Earth is a small blip in the grand reality of divine manifestation. Then, when modern science dissolved the assumptions about world-creation, just about all that was left at the center of Christian attention was redemption. From the Reformation on in Western Christianity, the biblicism of the redemptive focus positively distorted the understanding of creation. Even Karl Barth, who wrote more than enough volumes about creation, treats it as the mode of revelation of God to human beings, not as the foundation of the cosmos. Twentieth century theologians have been preoccupied with salvation history as seriously revelatory of God, when at best that can be of only local and passing interest. Even if the story many Christian theologians want to sell as salvation history were true, it is far too small a sample of divinity to make many inferences about God and creation cosmically considered. To be sure, redemption is of interest to me and my house. But what Thomas Berry has shown is that the interest of my and my house is not of great importance. Or rather, that the interest ought to be as large as the cosmos.

My second comment also follows from my initial story about his influence on my pedagogy. The reason people's approach to life, society, and nature is narrow is that their connections with things are narrow. How stupid of me not to be as interested in Indian and Chinese philosophy as Western! Whereas Berry's early books aimed to make those traditions in philosophy and religion accessible to parochial Westerners such as myself, his later books have expanded his ambitions about making connections. One of the major conclusions of The Great Work is that even moderately educated people should be cognitively and emotionally connected with the cultures of indigenous or native peoples, with women when they are set free to speak their various minds by the feminist movements, with all the classical cultural traditions and religions, and with all the branches of science. This is a daunting new conception of world paideia.

Part of its novelty is that it urges us to connect with modes of life and thought that are usually not prized in Western pedagogy. This is the least of its novelty, however, because nearly every educational reform movement nudges people to take something seriously that they had not valued before. A more important part of its novelty is its stress on connection. Perhaps the central thesis of the book is that we need to be in touch with everything that is real upon which our actions might bear. The negative part of the thesis is that by virtue of focusing on the human so much we have blinded ourselves to causal processes and things of value that are more important and real than the things that dominate the human scale. Hence human beings have unwittingly become a scourge that destroys the great rhythms of nature within which the human scale fits. If the Earth is to survive into what he calls the ecozoic era, a new paideiaof connection is required.

We should note in passing that Berry's vision is not hostile to the science that has provided the tools for wreaking such devastation as we have upon the Earth. To the contrary, natural sciences need to be provoked to faster, more sensitive, and more far-reaching study. Ordinary people ought to be scientifically literate rather than accept second-hand some selfish instrumental value of technology. Indeed, for all the deference he sees in indigenous peoples, the transvaluation of values that comes from the feminist movement, and the articulation of determinate aesthetic identity that comes from the classical traditions, only science can tell us what we need to know in order properly to be connected with the Earth. That knowledge is not obvious, but comes from research into causes hidden from the naked eye and prejudiced common sense.

My third main point follows from this. Science, as well as the expansion of our cultural, class, and gender perspectives, is now a religious duty. One of the main themes of this book is that the central religious problem of our time is how to be at home in the universe. The traditional religions are supposed to know about that. The East Asian quest for harmony, the South Asian for a proper distinction between reality and appearance, and the West Asian for righteousness before God, are all attempts to define what it means to be at home. Although Berry in this book limits his tough talk to Christianity, possibly because it is the dominant religion of North America, his critical point applies to all the great religions: none of them knows how to be at home in a world whose ecological interdependence has suddenly become apparent. Chinese grooving on the Dao, Hindus seeking union with Brahman, Buddhists preoccupied with sentient beings, Muslims seeking the law in things, have managed to devastate their lands about as much as materialistic American Christians and without the benefit of fancy technology until recently. The great religious traditions need to seek into their roots for wisdom but even more imagine ahead in order to develop conceptions of how to be at home in this fragile ecosystem. Even the wisdom of indigenous peoples requires a very small population relative to the land, and Berry has not been forward in advocating a return to clan and tribal warfare as a means of population control. Ours is a desperately important time for religious creativity.

My fourth point is that Berry's call for a new and subtle connection with the Earth suggests a new conception of the human, though it is not developed here in these terms. On a superficial level he calls for new connections with neglected cultures and with elements and processes of nature that we had neglected, to the peril of the Earth. On a more profound level he calls for a new orientation to the things with which we are connected. The connections themselves can be viewed as particular relations. But the difference those connections make to the self consists in the general habits they form, the new ways by which the self configures itself with respect to the things into which it should come into cognitive and emotional connection. Moreover, there are many different kinds of orientation involved. How one relates to one's own immediate historical culture is one kind of orientation, related to but different from how one addresses the other cultures of the world. This is not quite the same as how one is oriented to the wisdom of women, and doubtless there are many different kinds of women with different stores of wisdom. Nature itself has many dimensions—the heavenly spheres and rotation of the seasons, the geography and climate of one's place, the particular flora and fauna one might meet. Each of these requires a sensitive orientation. An obsessive philosopher might think it important to integrate all these different orientations of character into a single consistent self. But the orientations themselves are in constant change because most of them are focused on processes rather than stable entities. Moreover, the impulse to reduce to a single consistent pattern of orientations is likely to lead us to leave out the hard ones just because they don't fit in well. Far better to think that we are balancing a whole bunch of shifting orientations. The heart of the self is the poise with which one manages that balancing act. Part of the valid and important force of Berry's vision is that living with sensitivity to the Earth and its peoples requires a lightly balanced self of nuanced orientations.

I have, finally, two questions to put to the discussion. The first is fairly simple. Why be so attentive to the Earth rather than the cosmos in its larger dimensions? Why fix upon the renewable stability of the Earth rather than upon the one-way, unique, and nonrenewable entropic processes of the universe? This book focuses not even on the Earth as a whole, but on North America. The reason is its polemic directed at the American ways of life. Berry is fully aware of the small place that the Earth itself occupies in the expansion of the universe, and qualifies his Earthbound focus at several points. Moreover, there are two plain pragmatic reasons for this book's focus of attention, namely, the Earth is all that we can affect at this point and the appeal not to be selfishly human can be funded with selfishly human cash when we see it's our own nest we are fouling. The question remains, however, whether the best sense of human identity is within the rhythms of renewable Earth, problematic as that might be, or is part of a larger, singular, cosmic process.

My second question is a complicated version of the first. I submit that a fundamental division of ontological visions or religious sensibilities lies between the symmetrical and asymmetrical folk. The symmetrical people believe that at bottom the cosmos is whole, one, and full; they believe that the move from aboriginal symmetry to the particularity of the cosmos requires the introduction of singular definiteness into an otherwise equal, symmetrical, balanced indeterminate source. Symmetrical people love Brahman's pure consciousness, the yin-yang interdependence of non-being and the great ultimate, the Neo-Platonic One, Thomas's purely full and actual Act of Esse, transcendental unity, and the comforting embrace of Buddhist emptiness and non-being. Thomas Berry's vision of the threatened harmonious renewable rhythms of nature suggests that he is a symmetrical person.

The asymmetrical people believe that the most fundamental thing in the cosmos is a singular act of creative particularity. The nothing from which it rises is not a quiet pool of tranquil non-being, or the fullness of indeterminate being, and it isn't even there. The only thing is the ontological act of particular origination. The universe is tilted all the way down. The asymmetrical people find no pure consciousness without objects, no dancer without some dance; they resonate to the ontological priority of non-being to the great ultimate, radical creation ex nihilo rather than the Neo-Platonic One, Scotus's God whose will proceeds and creates the divine nature rather than Thomas' whose will follows from its nature, transcendent fragmentariness and mere pockets of order rather than transcendent unity, Buddhist suchness rather than blissful nirvana. Whereas symmetrical cosmologists worry about explaining how the initial homogeneous cosmic soup of the big bang differentiates into particular galaxies, asymmetrical cosmologists wonder that the heat, speed, and distance of the big bang can look so homogeneous from here—definiteness and singularity do not need explanation—only order needs explanation. For the asymmetrical people, of course the cosmos is tilted, unfair, bunched, one way, and not lasting. For asymmetrical people the rhythms and harmonies that make for human life are fragile, temporary achievements; human justice is the imposition of order on an inherently unscaled set of processes that do not keep order well. For asymmetrical people the human imperative to preserve the Earth and promote justice is a clutch at high value in a cosmos that is too singular to be fair for long. Green Earth briefly rides the cosmic winds out to dissipation and the dark. The tranquil Buddha-mind, the enveloping Dao, the absolute simplicity of Brahman or the Act of Esse, are not such insightful metaphors for the ontological ground of things as Crazy Yahweh. I'm an asymmetrical fellow myself.

Let me put the question one last way. Should we address the ecological crisis and reconceive the human home by enlarging the domestic rhythms of the household to envelop the whole Earth? Or should we construe the wildness of the cosmos, its singular unrepeatability, its one-way direction, to apply to the Earth which we had mistakenly thought so stable, and even to our societies and households, with the practical result that maintaining an Earthly home requires the desperate maintenance of order and the creation of a stabilizing ingfluence of the human upon the rest of nature by the imposition of rhythmic ritual? Crazy Yahweh needs Confucian ritual to give his carbon-based creatures their brief but glorious day, I think.

Robert Cummings Neville, Professor of philosophy, religion, and theology, Boston University School of Theology, 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215 USA

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