I read this book as the UK faced severe weather events. Media coverage of flooded homes, storm-lashed coasts, and crippled transport infrastructure were a vivid illustration of the growing challenge of climate change, and the urgent need for us to work with nature, rather than fight a losing battle against it. So it seems increasingly important that the message contained in Thomas Berry’s book is understood and embraced.
Thomas Berry died in 2009 and this book was published posthumously. A collection of ten essays, written between 1987 and 2000, it is a good introduction to the work of a great thinker and a great spirit.
As a Catholic priest of the Passionist, order Berry had a deep Christian faith, but this supremely gifted man was much more than a priest, and his faith was much bigger than an adherence to one narrowly defined creed. As a scholar and a teacher, to describe his approach as ‘holistic’ would be true, but also an enormous understatement. He rejoices in diversity, and his inclusive philosophy and spirituality embraces not only other religions, scriptures, and cultures, but science and the entirety of Creation.
Berry, who studied both Chinese and Sanskrit languages, took inspiration from an enormous range of sources, but had a particular affinity for St Thomas Aquinas, from whom he took his clerical name, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who trained as a palaeontologist and geologist.
A quote from Aquinas illustrates how startlingly relevant ancient writings can be in our modern age. The ‘perfection of the universe’ lies in its diversity, says Aquinas,
‘For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided; and hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatsoever.’
Taking this as his starting point, Berry infers that consequently there is no area of human knowledge or experience which should remain outside the remit of a Christian. He is saddened when his own Church claims to have a monopoly on truth, and asserts, ‘When the religious traditions are seen in their relations to each other, the full tapestry of the revelatory experience can be observed.’
With the advancement of scientific understanding of how the earth and humanity came into being he says, ‘For the first time the entire human community has, in this story, a single creation or origin myth. Although it is known by scientific observation, this story also functions as myth.’ So he believes that for the first time in human history humanity can unite in a truth which is relevant to all and includes all.
For Thomas Berry, the natural world and the human community are seen as ‘a unified single community with an overarching purpose: the exaltation and joy of existence, praise of the divine, and participation in the great liturgy of the universe.’ So the degradation of the earth and man’s alienation from nature is seen as a tragedy, and spells certain death for the planet if we do not change our ways. For the Church, which Berry feels has in the past been part of the problem, it is an urgent necessity to become part of the solution. In fact he says it is ‘the fundamental task of the Church in the twenty-first Century.’
Thomas Berry’s work is an antidote to and a challenge to literalist and fundamentalist Christians around the world who rather depressingly embrace ignorance to reinforce their own certainty. When all humanity’s hard-earned knowledge of Creation, evolution, and the grandeur of our Universe is rejected in favour of a literal interpretation of the Bible we diminish ourselves and our faith.
It is sad that Thomas Berry will not be around to read a new encyclical on ecology which it is said Pope Francis is working on. It would have been fascinating to see his analysis of it. One hopes that he would find it encouraging, and would also be encouraged to see the work in the UK of organisations like Operation Noah, ‘informed by the science of climate change, motivated to care for creation by our faith and hope in God, and driven by the desire to transform and enrich our society through radical change in lifestyles and patterns of consumption.’
As more and more Christians become aware of the threat of climate change Thomas Berry’s work should become increasingly relevant and inspiring.
This review also appeared in the latest edition of ‘The Social Crediter’ quarterly