Thomas BERRY. Selected Writings on the Earth Community. Selected with an Introduction by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. Part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014. pp. 200. $22.00. ISBN 978-1-62698-095-2. Reviewed by Ann MICHAUD, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458
Thomas Berry: Selected Writings on the Earth Community is the most recent addition to the prestigious Modern Spiritual Masters Series by Orbis Books. This volume pays worthy respect to the lifework of a man who integrated his study of history and the wisdom of the religious traditions with his reverence for the environment and fervor for evolution with such a unique depth of creativity that he found it necessary to coin the term “geologian” to describe himself and his collective passion.
Invited to teach at Fordham University in 1966, he founded and directed both its History of Religions program and the nearby Riverdale Center for Religious Research. A concise summary of Berry’s requirements issued to his students sums up his mindset: “learn the textual language of at least one tradition, know the history of many, appreciate the spiritual wisdom of each tradition, and read widely in an interdisciplinary fashion so that the living context of a tradition might open up.” (3)
Thomas Aquinas and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin were indisputably influential in Berry’s work, but critically assimilated, resulting in Berry’s issuance of a distinct challenge to the world’s religions to support the Earth in its new “Ecozoic” era. Small wonder that the editors of this volume – themselves prestigious scholars in the field of Religion and Ecology at Yale – aptly chose the title Selected Writings on the Earth Community, for that was the heartbeat of Berry’s life.
Carefully examining Berry’s entire corpus, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim create a concise synopsis of Berry’s seminal ideas. Berry firmly believed in our need for story – a guiding epic to help us explain what we do know at present and to guide and shape our human value system. In “The New Story,” which eventually blossomed into The Universe Story with Brian Swimme and then inspired Journey of the Universe by Swimme and Tucker, Berry developed an epic of evolutionary birth which intertwined science and religion, with humans as emergent creatures. The story was writ in language integral to both religion and science, with differentiation, subjectivity, and communion as its governing principles.
For Berry, the term “Earth community” conveyed the true interconnectedness of Earth’s ecosystems, of which human beings are fully a part. Embracing the wild is a place for the human being, torn from this relationship, to re-connect. “If Earth does grow inhospitable toward human presence” says Berry, “it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward Earth and its inhabitants.” (40) The single issue before us now is survival – not only in the physical sense, but as fulfillment and meaning. “The communion that comes through these experiences of the wild, where we sense something present and daunting, stunning in its beauty, is beyond comprehension in its reality, but it points to the holy, the sacred.” (48) Berry believed we have reached a sacred moment – a moment of grace – of transformative experiences. It is time to begin the “Great Work” as he called it, “to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.” (162) We are all – each one of us – called to this task.
As a Catholic Passionist priest, living daily the monastic rhythm, Berry was aware of how the liturgical cycle reflected and was interwoven with the changing seasonal cycles. He was calling for an expansion of these cycles to include an awareness of and celebration of “the emergent moment of the universe itself.” (63) Like Lynn White, Jr., Berry accused “Western Christian-derived civilization” in particular of “disruption of the planetary process.” (106) But he also saw the most basic and deepest tendencies of the universe as modeling the Christian understanding of the Trinity. Berry was not proposing a need for a new Christianity or new religions, but rather a new sensitivity in our religious traditions to humanity’s true place in the universe which would allow our existing religions to usher the world into this new Ecozoic era. According to the construct of his History of Religions program at Fordham, Berry was seeking “intercommunion” among the world’s religions, “calling forth the wellsprings of wisdom for transformation…[at] the highest level of appreciation and affection…[recognizing] these traditions as indispensable contributions…richly differentiated and yet unified.” (86)
Berry’s worldview is basic yet profound. In describing the centrality of his normative experience – his first view of the meadow across the creek from his new childhood home - he declared: “Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple. It is also that pervasive. It applies in economics and political orientation as well as in education and religion.” (186) What Berry was sensing in that moment he sought all his life: Pax Gaia – the Peace of Earth.
With this comprehensive volume, Tucker and Grim have successfully captured the essence of Thomas Berry’s life quest.