Remembering Thomas Berry C.P.
Eco-theologian, Passionist and Catholic priest, 9 November 1914 – 1 June 2009
By Noel Debien, ABC Radio Religion Unit
“The time has come to lower our voices, to cease imposing our mechanistic patterns on the biological processes of the earth, to resist the impulse to control, to command, to force, to oppress, and to begin quite humbly to follow the guidance of the larger community on which our life depends. Our fulfillment is not in our isolated human grandeur, but in our intimacy with the larger earth community, for this is also the larger dimension of our being. Our human destiny is integral with the destiny of the earth.” (Thomas Berry, Dream of the Earth, 1988)
Though the death of one of the world’s leading thinkers on ecology, environment and spirituality is now marked by many obituaries, it remains true that words can only strive to capture the spirit and legacy of American Thomas Berry. Berry’s chief aim was to invite a deep reflection on the present ecological and cultural crisis for human beings as part of the universe. His ecological and environmental ideas, as formulated in such major works as The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work , have penetrated and influenced Catholic thought through such authors as Australian Dr Paul Collins, former-Dominican and creation spirituality exponent Matthew Fox and eco-theologian and Irish priest-activist Sean McDonagh. But his influence extends well beyond the church to which he belonged. Corporate globalization critic David Korten and Nobel peace laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya are among the many people who have responded to his influence. His personal relationships have been widely described as humorous, warm and gentle. Thomas Berry was also known for being very comfortable with both women and men in friendship.
Berry strove to raise awareness of the current ecological crisis and the role religions can play in preventing disaster. In the genuinely catholic sense, Berry had the ability to think comprehensively. No fan of post-modernism, Berry strove to identify meta-narratives and was able to attract people who thought comprehensively also. His driving question was far from modest in scope: “How does everything affect everything else?” He was not a man to be constricted into a single region of enquiry, and was never limited by his own speciality alone. He styled himself a ‘geologian’, yet his approach was interdisciplinary. Berry was concerned with what he called both biocide and genocide: the destruction of living organisms and the destruction of the planet. He studied history and philosophy to discover and challenge how people found meaning. He examined human traditions and cultures because it seemed obvious to him that the modern world was not working, that the processes of human civilization were destroying the planet. He came to the conclusion that Christianity was not assuming its share of responsibility for the state of the earth. He also became convinced that inter-faith dialogue was essential if disaster was to be avoided.
Over the course of his long and busy life, Berry spoke numerous times with the ABC and with Dr Paul Collins of the religious programs unit in particular. In 1995, while making the ABC TV documentary God’s Earth about the environment and spirituality, Paul Collins visited Berry at his home in the Bronx and interviewed him at length. Collins had previously interviewed Berry twice in the early 1990s for the ABC Radio National program Insights. Collins and Berry developed a friendly relationship which extended to Collins staying with Berry and sharing meals with him at the diner he frequented at the northern end of the Bronx, The Broadway Diner. As Catholic priests Collins and Berry also shared much in common. Collins describes Berry as a polymath “in the sense that there was very little he couldn’t discourse on without intelligence”. He recalls a typical incident where Berry revealed the extraordinary extent of factual knowledge he retained. At one time, Collins had gone to the USA to search out some details on the early convict priest Jeremiah O’Flynn who had been deported by Governor Macquarie in 1818 for failing to have official papers. O’Flynn had ended up in Pennsylvania and in 1831 was buried in a small, remote place in Susquehanna County. Collins had gone to research more on Flynn’s life and work in Pennsylvania. At breakfast, Berry asked Collins what he was going to do that day and Collins told him that he was off to an obscure place ‘no one would know of’ called Susquehanna. Straight away Berry remarked that that was where they mined most of the anthracite used in the street lighting for major American cities before modern lighting was invented. He said it was also where most dairy products had come from for the east coast cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Berry then discoursed on the whole area – how it had been deforested for dairy and then the forest had returned since the dairy industry collapsed. All in the course of a casual breakfast conversation. Collins later looked up what Berry had said. Berry was right.
Thomas Berry grew up in a large family in the American South, where Catholics were a tiny minority. His father worked on the railways, which is how the family had come to be living amidst an overwhelming Protestant majority in Greensboro, North Carolina. He learned how to live successfully as an outsider. He told Paul Collins that from early childhood he was profoundly attached to the natural world with a clear sense of his oneness with the world around him. Berry would later summarise his regard of the natural word in this way: “We lose our souls if we lose the experience of the forest, the butterflies, the song of the birds, if we can’t see the stars at night.”
Berry trained as a cultural historian after entering the Passionist order and, as his many obituaries note, his interests and expertise were diverse. While he was in the seminary he taught himself Sanskrit. He did a doctorate at the Catholic University of America and the Passionists sent him to China as a missionary. He was in language school in Peking when the Communists took over and was expelled from China as were all other missionaries. He was attracted to China and Confucianism in particular but also to other Eastern religions and philosophies, and he studied and wrote on them assiduously. Berry was also an expert on Native American religion. After the Chinese Communist revolution, he became a chaplain to NATO forces in Germany. His academic career is well documented, teaching at a number of smaller Catholic Universities in the greater New York Area and ending up at Fordham, the Jesuit University in the Bronx. It was there that he began to form a group of key relationships with students and people who would subsequently promote his teachings including Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Swimme.
Berry’s early articles were published in the Catholic periodical Cross Currents , a lay- founded and now ecumenical periodical aimed at discussing the interface between culture and religion. It was through Cross Currents that his ideas became known more widely. It was in the mid to late 1960s that Berry grew more and concerned about the environment. He had read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and became profoundly concerned. He founded the Riverdale Centre for Religious Research in 1970 which became the scholarly centre and meeting place from which he further developed his research and thinking. The centre was located in the grounds of the Cardinal Spellman Retreat Centre, a property owned by the Passionist order in the Bronx.
In terms of Berry’s inner religious convictions, Paul Collins says that Berry’s personal views on Jesus Christ and inter-religious dialogue were perhaps more radical than those of Jesuit Roger Haight, but Berry seems to have conducted his ecological discourse outside the boundaries that might concern the guardians of Catholic orthodoxy. His major focus remained dialogue with the broader world. Berry never seems to have found himself within the purview of the inquisitors.
Berry was also very influenced by the Jesuit palaeontologist and cosmologist Teilhard de Chardin, serving as president of the USA Teilhard Association for 12 years, though he once described Teilhard to Paul Collins as ‘rather bourgeois’. The Thomas Berry Foundation was established in 1998 by Yale University professors John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker to foster his work, and an annual Thomas Berry Award is given in recognition of outstanding work in the areas of Berry’s prime concern. In 2000, Berry was honoured at the United Nations Millennium Summit of Religious Leaders. His papers are archived at Harvard University.
Berry died on 1 June 2009 aged 94, surrounded by his family and friends. He had been seriously ill for some years having suffered after a number of strokes. Berry’s funeral mass was held at St. Paul the Apostle Church in his hometown of Greensboro. In September 2009, a public memorial service is planned in the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, where he was a canon. His mortal remains rest in the upper meadow at Green Mountain Monastery near Greensboro, Vermont, the monastery which he helped to found.
Thomas Berry obituary by Dr Paul Collins, Eureka Street
Thomas Berry obituary on the website of the Passionists
Thomas Berry obituary in the Los Angeles Times
Thomas Berry’s homepage
Forum on Religion and Ecology: Overview of World Religions and Ecology, by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim