A Tribute to Thomas Berry (1914-2009)
By Diarmuid O’Murchu MSC
Greenspirit, London, UK
September 20, 2009
For me, Thomas Berry has been one of the greatest single disciples of Teilhard de Chardin, and it is in that context I wish to pay tribute to him today.
As a student of the 1960s, like many of my contemporaries, I sensed a change in the air, the call to a bigger and deeper world view. I became increasingly dissatisfied with my inherited Christian faith and its negative image of human life and especially of God’s creation. I began looking elsewhere and fortunately stumbled on the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. It marked a significant change in my life direction, with an ongoing impact that has lasted till the present time.
Throughout the 1980s I became involved with the Teilhard de Chardin association of the UK, an inspiring group of people, mainly academics, deeply committed to honouring the memory and wisdom of Teilhard. I struggled with the group in terms of how we might translate Teilhard’s insights into the context of our present reality, and use those insights to re-invigorate our inherited faith in an attempt to make it more relevant for now and the future. Group members wanted to support me in that, but remained committed to preserving Teilhard’s inherited wisdom, along with the purity and integrity of his key ideas, as embodied in the writings he left us.
In the 1990s, I began reading the works of Thomas Berry, and it was through those writings, that for me the marriage took place between Teilhard and the contemporary world. An avowed Teilhardian, Thomas, nonetheless, could critique Teilhard in a sensitive and respectful way, and push his vision to the broader horizons I was seeking. Thomas Berry became for me a living embodiment of Teilhard for the late 20th and 21st centuries.
Evolution & Creation
Teilhard reclaimed for Christian faith the notion of evolution, and recast its meaning in a creative and dynamic way. Creation is much bigger and suppler than conventional Christianity had claimed. It evolved and changed, and through that process, grew into the magnificent universe that would serve as a living revelation of a living God.
The iconic nature of that unfolding was enlarged and enriched by Thomas Berry far in excess of what Teilhard had so well named. Thomas described that same evolutionary process as a story, in fact the Great Story that includes and embraces every other story, including all religious narratives from around the globe. (Teilhard was mainly interested in the Catholic faith). For Thomas, that story is God’s primary revelation for us, far exceeding in age and grandeur the doctrinal understanding of revelation provided in and through formal (Christian) religion. And the story is embellished through the tripartite process of differentiation, interiority and communion:
Differentiation: everything in creation has a distinctive uniqueness: every hair on the head is numbered (to paraphrase the Christian scriptures;
Interiority: the basis of all meaning comes primarily from within, not from without;
Communion: everything in creation is programmed to interconnect, interrelate, the symbiogenesis of which Lynn Margulis writes so elegantly.
Both Teilhard and Thomas were acutely aware of the dark side of life, the pain and suffering so visible throughout all creation. It is here that Thomas scores in his analysis and discernment. Assisted by his friend, the physicist Brian Swimme, they devote a substantial proportion of their jointly authored classic work, The Universe Story, to an exploration of what they call the paradox of creation and destruction.
Creation has a quality of destructibility written into it. It is not a deviation from what is real, but an inherent element, one that has to be seen as God-given in some mysterious sense. It is the great paradox of birth-death-rebirth. Christians tend to explain it away (rather than explain it) through the theory of original sin, ensuing in an act of divine rescue made possible through the life and death (and especially the latter) of the historical Jesus, a process popularly known to Christians salvation and redemption.
This approach is excessively anthropocentric – as if only humans can be saved. It gives scant attention to the suffering earth itself, seems to have little discerning skill to identify what suffering is necessary to the creative process, and what suffering is caused by wrong human interference. Thomas has written and spoken extensively about this destructive human interference, especially as we pursue the exploitative industrial usurpation of the earth and its resources.
The work of Integration
One gets the impression from Teilhard’s work that evolution will eventually lead to a wholesome outcome; spiritually and theologically we need to trust the process. Thomas is much more insightful and prophetic in this regard. Like Teilhard, he trusts the evolutionary process, while seeing our human participation in a much more proactive mode. We humans have a direct responsibility for the evolutionary process and we need to be vigilant and informed in the awareness we bring to what is essentially a co-evolutionary enterprise, a collaborative endeavour, with God, creation, and humans all working together to bring about the new heaven and the new earth.
Instead of the present dispensation, where humans tend to operate in isolation, and frequently in an adversarial relationship with the living earth, we must learn afresh our joint responsibility within the communion that is the great web of life. And to that end we need an integrated spirituality and not merely a revamped understanding of Christianity (or any other religion). That integration is based on a cooperative endeavour, in which everything, and everybody has its rightful place, but for mutual enhancement, so that together we can support forward movement of everything in creation under creative plan of God.