Thomas Berry

By the age of 8 Berry had concluded that commercial values were threatening life on Earth, and three years later had an epiphany in a meadow in which he came to understand that the evolution of the universe was for humans the “primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being. Berry went on to become one of the most profound thinkers in the environmental movement, with his books including “The Dream of the Earth,” “The Universe Story” and “The Great Work” exploring the place where ecology and theology connect.

The global environmental challenges that we face are becoming better understood by science, but it is often difficult to break through the fundamental lack of empathic connection with the natural world, which has not been encouraged in industrialized and urbanized societies. We intellectually understand the impact of our consumer driven society, yet don’t seem to feel it in our hearts enough for a proper response. It has been my life experience that a significant emotional event is what motivates people to care or change. Ultimately, this affective dimension of being human is what Thomas hoped to facilitate and catalyze, both in deep empathic resonance toward biodiversity and in sympathetic communion with other humans. The world is not simply a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects- a vast web of relationships.

For Thomas, this affective sense of cosmology was never about foregrounding scientific data as the exclusive story. Rather, the world offered itself for cultural telling of creation stories, while our contemporary scientific context gave expression to our evolutionary story in new and creative ways. When flying back from the Seychelle Islands, looking down over the great expanse of the Nile River, he came to the realization that he was a geologian. That is, he was a person who arises from the great ages of Earth’s history to be a self-reflective part of this process. This personal epiphany was a crucial element of what he would call the new story.

Thomas’s penchant was to explore at the edge of his intellectual horizon. And that horizon was not simply as an existential being-in-the-world but increasingly as a participant in a living, evolving world. Thomas encourages reflective human consciousness to manifest a deep affectivity for the world that both forms us and informs our embodied being and becoming.

Berry also had a radical notion of rights, believing that it was a mistake to ascribe them only to humans. As he told his interviewers: This kind of thinking is a disaster! To think that we have certain rights to intrude upon the living things and that the other beings don’t have rights, this is a sacrilege. Every being has rights! Every being has free rights. … The right to be. The right to habitat. And the right to fulfill one’s role in the great community of the cosmos. I don’t see how anybody could argue with these rights. I mean, for humans to think they are the only beings that have rights is just silly. All things get their rights from existence. From merely existing.