June 4, 2009
Updated September 26, 2009
By Andrew C. Revkin
New York Times - Dot Earth
[UPDATE, 9/26: A memorial service and celebration were held on Sept. 26 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to honor the memory of Thomas Berry and the philanthropic energies of Martin Kaplan, who is pictured above delivering an address at the event. Mr. Kaplan alluded to Mr. Berry's longtime view that humans are poised at a "moment of grace" as they absorb and respond to the reality that the "human project" is a subset of the "Earth project."]
Thomas Berry, who died at 94 on Monday, leaves behind a global following of academics, environmentalists, writers, educators and other people who found inspiration in his message: that awe for the cosmos, particularly this pale blue dot called Earth, could foster a transition to a new way of being for humankind, more in balance with nature’s limits. He said humanity was poised to shift from an anthropocentric to a biocentric view. He called the effort to make this transition “The Great Work.” Many people are remembering him this week as a great worker. (If you’re not familiar with his work, here’s one of his essays, “The Meadow Across the Creek,” which describes a childhood experience that shaped his view of the power of experience in nature. [UPDATE: Here's a broader look at the mix of values and data in environmental policy.]
I wrote an obituary for the paper, but it necessarily just flies over the surface of Dr. Berry’s deeply formed ideas and the community that grew around them. He was sometimes a tough critic of humanity and its institutions, including the Catholic Church, despite his ordination as a priest in 1942 (see his discussion of population in this Appalachian Voices interview). But he was most often a Pied Piper exhorting humanity to embrace the awe in encountering Earth and the universe as a kind of rocket fuel for powering a new way of life. Here are some more voices and resources:
Terry Tempest Williams: “We lost a soulmate and a beautiful Earth scholar who wrote from the future with compassion and insight. His ideas had a ferocity of imagination and truth that we are only beginning to understand. “The Great Work” about which he speaks is all of our work. All words now are local.” [ADDED 6/6]
Mary Evelyn Tucker, who with her husband John Grim runs the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, is part of Dr. Berry’s intellectual lineage and has been his longtime editor. In a phone call en route to the Wednesday funeral in Greensboro, N.C., his place of birth and passing, she offered this view of his definition of the human challenge now:
Darwin gave us the broad sweep of evolution as we are beginning to understand it. Thomas has given us a sense of our role in that process as almost no other thinker has done. We are birthed from the universe and the Earth. Through us, these processes that have created life in all its immense complexity have also given rise to a conscious form of the universe. It’s not just a poetic vision. It’s not just a spiritual connection to Earth systems and the Earth community but it’s an absolutely vital urgent moment. We now have to earn our name — Homo sapiens sapiens.
(Joe Romm made an apt comment in a recent blog post about our unique biological status: “[T]echnically, we are the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. Isn’t it great being the only species that gets to name all the species, so we can call ourselves ‘wise’ twice!”)
Caroline Webb, an educator and filmmaker, granted us permission to post video of a 2006 interview (above) that provides a glimpse of his eloquent delivery. She’s built a Web site, earth-community.org, with lots more background. There’s another nice video interview with Dr. Berry at the Web site for “Renewal,” a documentary about religious environmental activism.
Bill McKibben said this in an e-mail Tuesday night: “He — early on — understood that this was a much bigger question than stopping particular sources of pollution or protecting particular natural parks, that it went straight to the heart of how we understood ourselves, and that our traditions would have to bend to reflect those new understandings.”
Brian Swimme, a mathematical cosmologist who collaborated with Father Berry on the 1992 book “The Universe Story,” said in an interview that the strength of Dr. Berry’s ideas lay in his broad but also deep knowledge of religious and cultural traditions and the full scale of Earth history. “He’d reflect on the whole of things,” Dr. Swimme said, including the important but limited role of science. “He was able to position the scientific era in all of human history in a way scientists ourselves wouldn’t be able to.”
Thomas Berry was the earliest and most important voice to describe the profound importance of the disconnection between humans and the natural world, and what that could mean for the future of our species. He often said that his own experience in nature as a boy transformed him and shaped all of his work. I tried to visit him the few times I came through the state, taking him to his favorite restaurant for lunch. To spend time with him was like getting a soul transfusion. Of all the people I have met, I can truthfully describe only two as beatific: Thomas Berry and Fred Rogers. Thomas’s favorite topic was the 21st Century, and his hope for a new human relationship with nature. So I think that it’s poetic and appropriate that he died not long after dawn.