Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Thomas Berry in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
For Thomas Berry—an 81-year-old historian, Asian scholar, and ecological thinker who has lived in a Catholic monastery, studied in China, and taught in seven universities—one of the most important places on earth is an obscure little meadow in the Appalachians.
“I discovered it when I was 10 years old,” he says. “It was filled with lilies and ran down to a little creek. As the years passed I realized that the little meadow was normative for everything. That a good economics would preserve it; a good science would help us understand it; a good religion would interpret its message.”
Thomas Berry’s teaching and writing are a passionate meditation on the links between that meadow, its message, and the deep cultural and philosophical structures of both East and West. With a thorough professional knowledge of European thought, Chinese Taoism, and the religions of India (“where the divine is always immanent in the natural world,” Berry points out), he is one of the planet’s most erudite and far-seeing advocates of a transformed relationship with nature.
The Dream of Earth (1988) and The Universe Story (1992, written with cosmologist Brian Swimme) reflect on the interdependence of all life and call for nothing less than a new epoch of earth history, the “Ecozoic,” in which humankind accepts the unprecedented magnitude of its current impact on nature and then undertakes a change of heart and mind that goes far beyond recycling. “The remedy for our dilemma is a deep cultural therapy,” says Berry. “We must come to see the natural world not as a collection of objects, but a communion of subjects; and subjects have rights.”
This vision, which looks back to the great French scientist-priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, also looks forward to the transformation of contemporary society; and one of Berry’s current concerns is working out the terms of the transformation of the “establishments”—university, government, church, and business. “We must transform all four,” Berry insists, “because all four operate on the basis of disconnection between the natural and human worlds.”
Where does this scholarly prophet go for precedent and hope in this immense enterprise? To the Middle Ages, among other times and places. “People in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries felt that they were engaged in what they called a Great Work—the establishment of a finer civilization after the chaos of the Dark Ages,” says Berry. “There is a Great Work for us to do too, and as we do it, it will not only give us a better world—it will give us a reason to live.”