Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Thomas Berry, 1914-2009

Anyone who has read my books or been a longtime visitor to this blog will know of my admiration for Thomas Berry, who died yesterday morning at age 94. Berry was a Roman Catholic priest, a cultural historian, and an ardent conservationist. But to say all of that is to overlook his status as one of the great gurus of religious naturalism. He world have rejected that designation himself, but those of us who seek room for the sacred within the scientific evolutionary story of the universe found in Berry an inspiration and an ally.
Today, in the opening years of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a critical moment when the religious traditions need to awaken again to the natural world as the primary manifestation of the divine to human intelligence. The very nature and purpose of the human is to experience this intimate presence that comes to us through natural phenomena. Such is the purpose of having eyes and ears and feeling sensitivity, and all our other senses. We have no inner spiritual development without outer experience. Immediately, when we see or experience any natural phenomenon, when we see a flower, a butterfly, a tree, when we feel the evening breeze flow over us or wade in a stream of clear water, our natural response is immediate, intuitive, transforming, ecstatic. Everywhere we find ourselves invaded by the world of the sacred.
The creation, said Berry, is the primary revelation. All other sources of revelation -- sacred books, prophets, tradition -- derive from the natural world as understood within a historical context. Times change. In place of the spirit-haunted world of our prescientific ancestors, a renewed Church should embrace the evolving scientific cosmology of the 21st century -- what Berry called the "New Story." The antagonisms between science and traditional faith are deeper than they might appear to be, he wrote, and cannot be swept under the rug. The older redemptive stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply do not meet the most basic tests of rational knowing. But the newer, scientific story of creation has not yet acquired a spiritual aspect: "An integral story has not emerged."

Berry was full of hope, and it was his spirit of optimism that I most admired. Like his own hero Teilhard de Chardin, Berry's influence on the institutional Church was minimal (unlike Teilhard, he avoided censure by flying under the radar). His influence on the ordinary people of the Church, however, is significant, especially, it seems to me, among Roman Catholic professed women. The "green sisters," as they have been called, will carry on his ecological, universalist vision of what the future of the Earth might be, what Berry called "the Great Work" -- celebrating the scientific story of cosmic evolution, caring lovingly for the natural world, and open to all traditions that embody an expression of the immanent divine. Maybe, just maybe, some of it will rub off on the stasis-obsesssed patriarchy in Rome.

Pace, Thomas, and thanks.

(If I can suggest one reading from Berry's work, it would be the essay "The New Story" from The Dream of the Earth. I will summarize tomorrow.)