Response to Thomas Berry's The Great Work

By Rosemary Radford Ruether

In this commentary on Thomas Berry's recent book, The Great Work, Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that the transformation that is needed to achieve a sustainable society must contain a dynamic interaction of three components: transformation of consciousness and culture, transformation of technology and transformation of social, legal and economic relations between humans. There cannot be a focus on only one or two of these components at the expense of the other(s). The transformation of culture and consciousness includes a profound deconstruction of the patterns of hierarchical dualism in Western theological, philosophical, psychology and scientific thought and their reconstruction in terms of relations of dynamic mutuality.

Keywords: Thomas Berry, The Great Work, technology, ecojustice, ecotheology

Thomas Berry's most recent book, The Great Work, is clearly the culmination of his life work on ecological philosophy. In this work Berry defines the defining task of our generation, the generation of the late 20th and first decades of 21st centuries, namely to create an ecologically sustainable relationship between the human species and the planet. This is the great challenge of our times. If we fail this challenge, we literally fail in the entire evolutionary experiment of the human species and in the process will destroy much of the evolutionary development of the cenozoic age of the last 60 million years since the demise of the dinosaurs, if not more.

This is a formidable challenge indeed. No generation has ever faced a greater challenge. For us as humans it is the defining challenge of our planetary and cosmic history. It is a challenge that encompasses every dimension of our lives, as we have constructed our relations to one another as human beings and our relation as a species to the planet and perhaps even beyond our planet, with increasingly efforts to colonize other planets; ideological and cultural, social, political, economic and legal.

This transformation must be multi-dimensional. One cannot privilege one kind of transformation as key and expect the others to follow. One must see these transformations in their interconnectedness. I suggest that there are three interconnected aspects of this transformation:

  1. Transformation of consciousness and culture
  2. Transformation of technology
  3. Transformation of socioeconomic, legal and political relations of humans to each other which also structures our socioeconomic relations to the air, water, land, plants and animals of the planet.

Most of the ecological movements at work today have focused on only one of these and have ignored or neglected the others. Specifically most movements have focused either on the first or the second dimension. One has many movements, such as deep ecology, ecofeminism, ecotheology and philosophy that have focused on transformation of culture and consciousness. These movements have spent their time defining what they see as the ideologies, cultures and patterns of thought that have fostered destructive relations to the earth. They present alternative ideologies, and patterns of culture and consciousness that would relate humans harmoniously to the other beings of the planetary community.

A second type of movement has privileged changes of technology. These have charted how our present ways of using energy in production, travel, heating, communication and consumption, our ways of disposing of wastes, techniques for population control, of food production, etc are unsustainable. They have proposed new technologies that would allow us to continue much of the life style of the affluent elite, but in a way that would no longer unsustainably use up those goods of the earth that are labeled “resources”, no longer destroy habitats of plant and animal diversity, no longer pollute air, water and soil, but would renew these ‘resources’ for continual reuse ad infinitum.

What tends to be neglected by both the focus on culture and consciousness and the transformation of technology is the transformation of socioeconomic relations between humans and to the earth. Most of the destruction of the earth, the choice of technologies and the ideologies that sustain it, is dictated by relations of power and profit for a small elite of about 20% of the human species, particularly the top 1%. This elite cling to their present patterns of destruction because they are gaining vast power and wealth from it, while passing along its costs to the poor, to impoverished humans beings and to the impoverished and polluted earth.

Some technologies indeed may change to accommodate the perpetuation of the wealth of this elite, but there will not be deep changes in ideology and culture or technology until there is a deep change in the socioeconomic relations between humans and how this exploitative interhuman relation dictates an exploitative relation to the earth. Ecological sustainability must be deeply and totally interconnected with ecojustice. Humans cannot live justly with each other without a deep reconstruction of their relation to the rest of nature toward harmony. Ecojustice is the connecting center around which change of consciousness and culture and construction of sustainable technologies must revolve.

Much of Berry's work speaks of culture change, change of consciousness. This is absolutely vital, but it will be very superficial unless it is tied to transformation of the ways we actually live together. Ideologies and cultures are reflections of social relations. One cannot change the one without changing the other. If one only tries to change culture without rooting it in changes of social relations, one only proliferates a ‘green-wash’ language, or a mystifying ideology by which public rhetoric tries to cover up business as usual.

I see ecotheology as a sub-category of changes of culture; it is about a transformation of the ways we see our ultimate relations to one another in the context of our relation to the ultimate sources of life and renewal of life, to God/the cosmos. This is a very important aspect of transformation of culture and consciousness, since theology gives us our ultimate sanctions for what is good, true and beautiful; for what inspires reverence and commitment. But again it would be possible to do a certain amount of ‘green-wash’ of our theology, and even our liturgical spaces, that would be mostly escapist, allowing us to feel comforted and uplifted by imagining a harmony of humans and other earth beings sustained by the divine, but without any real changes of daily life. Our religious cultures are very skilled in this kind of escapist evasion of real change.

As we think about the interconnection of transformation of consciousness and culture, including religious culture, technology and ecojustice, I suggest eight major patterns of transformation of relations. Many of these changes are not so much new as a reclaiming of patterns that existed in earlier cultures, even in early stages of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Israel that founded Christianity:

  1. From a politics of survival of the fittest that allocates resources and power to the most powerful, to a political community based on participatory democracy, community-based decision-making and representation of the interests of nature in making decisions.
  2. From an economy of maximization of profits that treats nature as “material resources” to be used and as a depository of waste without accountability, to an economy of sustainability that will renew nature from generation to generation.
  3. From the concept of one superior culture (white, Western, Christian) to be imposed on all other people to “save” and to “civilize” them, to a respect for a diversity of human cultures in dialogue and mutual learning, overcoming racist hierarchy and defending particularly the bioregional cultures on the verge of extinction.
  4. From patriarchal dominance as the “order of creation” and society, as the necessary way to keep “right order” in all relations, to a recognition that patriarchal dominance is the root of distorted relations between genders, which, in turn, is the model of domination between ruling men and nature, and a shift to gender equality, equity and mutual interrelations in all aspects of life.
  5. From a psychology that splits mind from body, mind from physical nature, setting mind as superior and ruling over body and nature, to a holistic psychology of humans as psychophysical wholes in interrelations with the rest of nature, also psychophysical beings, in one community of life.
  6. From an ethic that non-human entities on the earth and the universe—animals, plants, minerals, etc—only have utilitarian use value for humans for industrial development, to a view of all things as having intrinsic value, to be respected and celebrated for their own being.
  7. From a mechanistic view of the universe as composed of inert physical matter pushed and pulled from outside, to a view of the universe as organic, as a living whole manifesting energy, spirit and creativity.
  8. From a conception of God, the ultimate source of life and renewal of life, as holding all sovereign power outside of and ruling over nature, to a conception of God as the ultimate source of life, that is under, around, in and through, sustaining and renewing nature and human beings together.

Berry's Great Work has issued a challenge of creating ecologically sustainable community as the primary task of this generation to which we must give our full attention and creative energies. How are US Americans responding to this challenge? The 2000 Presidential campaign gave little evidence of seriousness about this issue, despite Al Gore's effort to present himself as the “green” candidate. Rather, continued over-consumption is presented as the promise of the future, and each candidate competes to claim that he will provide more of this glut to privileged US Americans.

The challenge of ecological community demands a transformation to all the systems of relationship, political, economic, social, cultural, cosmological and theological. The ecological crisis has been called a crisis of “alterity,” a crisis of all the ways that we have related to the “other” in Western culture, our relationship to the “other” in ourselves, and toward the “other” as other gender, race, class, to nature, the cosmos and deity. Sustainable community must be based on a transformation, ideologically and practically, of all these relations, from one of patterns of domination to patterns of reciprocity and mutual affirmation.

Changes of consciousness and culture are crucial, but they must be incarnated in social systems and expressed in new technologies. Current public discourse in the United States suggests deep resistance, avoidance, co-optation and trivialisation of the task to which Berry calls us. Will only deeper disasters that touch the affluent be necessary to issue a wake-up call too compelling to be ignored?

Professor Rosemary Radford Ruether, Garrett Theological College, 2121 Sheridan Road, Evanston, Illinois 60201 USA

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