Slow-Cooked Sentences

Ecotheologian Thomas Berry on the urgency of evolutionary epic

Rachael Conlin Levy

“With a story, people can endure catastrophe.
And with a story they can gather the energies to change their lot.”

 

Unexpected

Original photo by Chaja Levy.

The world that fed the curiosity of the scientist and the reverence of the believer, that motivated tremendous breakthroughs in understanding and expression of life’s great questions, must be saved in order to save ourselves, said Thomas Berry, a pioneer in the field of religion and ecology.

The self-described geologian was one of the first to link cultural and spiritual evolution to the natural history of the planet. For decades Berry (1914 – 2009) warned that humanity’s unwillingness to accept biological limitations on life was leading to ecological crisis that would devastate our physical world and our psyche. 

 

Thomas Berry.

In his 2006 book of essays, “Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on the Earth as Sacred Community,” Berry wrote:

“The beauty and life on Earth is the inspiration for all emotional, aesthetic and intellectual development. Without such magnificence we would not be able to bring forth any sublime expression of what it is to be alive or to experience fully the delight in life that is presently available to us.”

Ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1942, Berry left the monastic order to study cultural history and world religion. In the 1980s he began to explore how the myth of progress and the promise of redemption were inadvertently despoiling nature and unintentionally alienating humans from the universe.

“That these centuries of ‘progress’ should now be ending in increasing stress for the human is a final evidence that what humans do to the outer world they do to their own interior world. As the natural world receded in its diversity and abundance, so the human finds itself impoverished in its economic resources, in its imaginative powers, in its human sensitivities, and in significant aspects of its intellectual intuitions.”

With climate catastrophe, Berry’s prescient warnings of widespread pollution, population growth, and economic exploitation of resources, particularly petroleum, take on greater urgency. He proposed that a deepening understanding of our place within the universe was needed to guide us toward a viable future. An updated origin story, Barry proposed, would be enriched by theological and cultural wisdom, and grounded in scientific reasoning. 

 

Second sighting

Photo by Chaja Levy.

The call for a new story resonates with me. As a girl, feelings of smallness in relation to the isolation and immensity of the high desert, and the harshness of a life without electricity or water loomed large. Back then deep darkness and the Milky Way’s river of glittering stars filled the long, silent winter nights.

As a writer of fact and fiction, story is my method for understanding. Conflicts that end in uncertain resolution built character, provided purpose, and shaped time and memory for me. A multitude of beginnings, middles and endings, concentric circles — an hour, a day, a love, a duty, a feud, an age, a season, a second — spread, overlapped and mirrored the universe’s movement. 

Story, for Berry, was more than the passive reception by a listener, but an active, inclusive event in which the story was present and alive in the telling, according to his editors, the husband-wife team John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, managing trustees of the Thomas Berry Foundation and co-founders and co-directors of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. “With a story, people can endure catastrophe,” the two fondly recalled Berry saying. “And with a story they can gather the energies to change their lot.”

 

Unexpected

Photo by Chaja Levy.

Berry’s advocacy for the reinvention of our origin story is an act of hope in the spirit of Buddhist scholar and environmental philosopher Joanna Macy, who said we must identify what we want or value, and then take steps to move ourselves in that direction. Berry’s call was not simply for a new story, but for an epic about evolution that contained cultural truths.

Across the world and through the centuries humans venerated the divine in nature, and religion awakened in the soul through human’s immersion in the world. But Berry suggested in “Evening Thoughts” that a desire for personal salvation from this world into a heavenly one, a belief that separated and elevated human from nature, contributed to world religions’ lackluster response to the environmental crisis. He wrote:

“The Genesis story of a fall in the beginning of a paradisal human situation does not fit the emergent story of the universe such as we now understand it. The redemption story saves individuals out of the world rather than inspires integration into the world. … So long as salvation proceeds, the Earth community has little relevance.”

World religions drifted away from traditional creation myths, and storytelling gave way to empirical reasoning, an anemic voice that could not awaken and sustain the human spirit, Berry asserted, writing that:

“Wonder has been a major motivation for many scientists, yet, paradoxically, through objective studies, the scientific technological world has lost its intimacy with the natural world.”

Central panel of St. Barbara altarpiece (1447), National Museum in Warsaw.

Failure to respond to scientific evidence with moral responsibility was evident at the United Nation’s 24th annual climate change conference, where courage, not coal, was in short supply. In a provocative move, the host country Poland championed its coal industry with a flourish of music, a showcase of coal, and a president who left early in order celebrate the feast day of St. Barbara, patron saint of miners. 



2 responses to “Ecotheologian Thomas Berry on the urgency of evolutionary epic”

  1. Andrea says:

    Thank you for this introduction to Thomas Berry. Very intersting and timely! I hope to find time to come back and follow the links to learn more. And I love the idea of story having a place in addressing our climate crisis.

  2. I’m equally curious about the idea of story as a motivator in addressing climate change. It’s leading me in interesting directions.

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