From his academic beginning as a historian of world cultures and religions, Thomas Berry grew into a historian of the Earth and its evolutionary processes. He saw himself not as a theologian but as a “geologian.” Berry began his career as a historian of Western intellectual history. His thesis at Catholic University on Giambattista Vico’s philosophy of history was published in 1951. Vico was trying to establish a science of the study of nations comparable to what others had done for the study of nature….
From his academic beginning as a historian of world cultures and religions, Thomas Berry grew into a historian of the Earth and its evolutionary processes. He saw himself not as a theologian but as a “geologian.” Berry began his career as a historian of Western intellectual history. His thesis at Catholic University on Giambattista Vico’s philosophy of history was published in 1951. Vico was trying to establish a science of the study of nations comparable to what others had done for the study of nature.
Influenced by Vico, Berry developed a comprehensive historical perspective in periodization, in an understanding of the depths of contemporary barbarism and in the need for a new mythic story to extract humans from their alienation from the Earth. Berry described this alienation as pervasive due to the power of the technological trance, the myth of progress and human autism in relation to nature. With the Dream of the Earth (1988), The Universe Story (1992) and The Great Work (1999) Berry aimed to overcome this alienation and evoke the energies needed to create a viable and sustainable future.
After completing his graduate work Berry spent 1948–49 in Beijing studying Chinese language and philosophy. There he met the Columbia University professor and Confucian scholar Wm. Theodore de Bary. Upon returning to the States they founded the Asian Thought and Religion Seminar at Columbia. Berry taught Asian religions at Seton Hall (1956–60), at St. John’s University (1960–66) and at Fordham University (1966–79). He founded a Ph.D. program in the History of Religions at Fordham and wrote books on Buddhism (1966) and on Religions of India (1971).
What distinguished Berry’s approach to world religions was his effort not only to discuss the historical unfolding of each of the traditions, but also to articulate their spiritual dynamics and contemporary significance. Confucianism has had special significance for Berry because of its cosmological concerns, its interest in self-cultivation and education, and its commitment to improving the social and political order. With regard to Confucian cosmology, Berry has identified the important understanding of the human as a microcosm of the cosmos. Essential to this cosmology is a continuity of being between various levels of reality—cosmic, social and personal. Berry saw this as similar to the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead and other contemporary process thinkers.
Berry also drew extensively on Native American and indigenous traditions for rethinking the dynamics of human-Earth relations. Berry’s appreciation for indigenous traditions and for the richness of their mythic, symbolic and ritual life was enhanced by his encounters with the ideas of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade. Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious, his reflections on the power of archetypal symbols and his sensitivity to religious processes made him an important influence on Berry’s thinking. Moreover, Mircea Eliade’s studies in the history of religions were influential in Berry’s understanding of both Asian and indigenous traditions.
In formulating his idea of the New Story, Berry is particularly indebted to the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. During the 1970s Berry served as president of the American Teilhard Association. Berry derived from Teilhard an appreciation for developmental time. As Berry writes, since Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species we have become aware of the universe not simply as a static cosmos but as an unfolding cosmogenesis. The theory of evolution provides a distinctive realization of change and development in the universe that resituates the human in a vast sweep of geological time. With regard to developmental time, Teilhard suggested that the whole perspective of evolution changes our reflection on ourselves in the universe. For Berry, the New Story is the primary context for envisioning the immensity of cosmogenesis.
Berry also derived from Teilhard an understanding of the psychic-physical character of the unfolding universe. For Teilhard this implied that if there is consciousness in the human and if humans have evolved from the Earth, then from the beginning some form of consciousness or interiority is present in the process of evolution. Matter, for both Teilhard and Berry, is not simply dead or inert, but a numinous reality consisting of both a physical and spiritual dimension. Consciousness, then, is an intrinsic part of reality and is the thread that links all life forms. There are various forms of consciousness and, in the human, self-consciousness or reflective thought arises. This implies for Berry that we are one species among others and as self-reflective beings we need to understand our particular responsibility for the continuation of the evolutionary process. We have reached a juncture where we will determine which life forms survive and which will become extinct.
Berry’s approach is comprehensive in terms of cultural history and world religions, while Teilhard’s is scientifically comprehensive. These two approaches come together in Berry’s book The Universe Story written with the mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme. Together they relate the story of the evolution of the solar system and the Earth along with the story of the evolution of Homo sapiens and human societies and culture. While not claiming to be definitive or exhaustive, The Universe Story sets forth an important model for narrating the epic of evolution.
The Universe Story was based on Berry’s ideas first articulated in 1978 in an article titled “The New Story.” As he pondered the magnitude of the social, political, economic and ecological problems facing the human community Berry observed that humans are in between stories. The coherence provided by the old stories was no longer operative, Berry asserted, proposing instead the new evolutionary story of how things came to be and where we are now as a comprehensive context for understanding how the human future can be given meaningful direction. Berry stated that to communicate values and orient human action within this new frame of reference we need to identify basic principles of the universe process itself. These, he suggested, are the primordial intentions of the universe towards differentiation, subjectivity and communion. Differentiation refers to the extraordinary variety and distinctiveness of everything in the universe. Subjectivity is the interior numinous component present in all reality. Communion is the ability to relate to other people and all life forms due to the presence of both subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of things for one another. For Berry these are principles that can become the basis of a more comprehensive ecological and social ethics that recognizes the human community as dependent upon and interactive with the Earth community. This new ecological orientation suggests that humans are a subset of the Earth, not dominant controllers. In light of this perspective, nature is not here solely for our use but as grounds for communion with the great mystery of life.
This New Story arose from Berry’s own intellectual formation as a cultural historian of the West, turning toward Asian religions, examining indigenous traditions and finally culminating in the study of the scientific evolution of the universe. Berry suggests that this story provides a comprehensive context for orienting human life toward the “Great Work” of our time, namely, creating the grounds for the flourishing of the Earth community.
Reprinted from Elixir: Consciousness, Conscience and Culture, No. 4, Spring 2007, with permission of the author.
Mary Evelyn Tucker
Mary Evelyn Tucker