May he be celebrated in generations to come 

Remembering Father Berry

Consider this not an obituary, but a belated tribute to an inspiring and transcendent life. Some of the most important people in history were hardly noticed in their lives and in their deaths. So it was with Father Thomas Berry, who died a few weeks ago. His passing was observed in a few online scholarly journals and a handful of the nation's leading newspapers. Needless to say, there was no mention of him in local media.

In his 94 years, Berry was many things: a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist order, historian of cultures, philosopher, teacher, writer. He called himself a geologian, or earth scholar.

There is abundant irony in the fact that one of the foremost religious thinkers of the age was a Southerner, born and raised in Greensboro, N.C. In the South, religion is most often the province of proselytizers, demagogues, and charlatans. Think Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker.

Thomas Berry took a different course. Lying in a North Carolina meadow as an 11 year old, he had an epiphany which changed his life and may change the lives of countless others in this new century and beyond.

"The field was covered with white lilies rising above the thick grass," he wrote years later. "A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember ... This early experience has remained with me ever since as the basic determinant of my sense of reality and values. Whatever fosters this meadow is good. What does harm to this meadow is not good."

That moment stayed with him through a long life of scholarship and writing. "A good economic, or political, or educational system is one that would preserve that meadow and a good religion would reveal the deeper experience of that meadow and how it came into being," he wrote.

What Berry was saying is that our current earth crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. Our heedless consumerism; our destruction of earth, air and water; our devastation of habitats and species — it is all the result of a creature which has lost its way, a clever hominid which has learned to split atoms, decode DNA, send machines and humans into space, but which has forgotten its origins and has spiritually cut itself off from the planet and the universe which gave it life, nurtured it, and brought it to a state of sentient self-awareness.

All of the great religions of the world were born in an age before science, when humans gazed into the heavens and saw the forms of dragons and warriors and gods, when the human ego fashioned a universe with the earth at its center and mankind holding dominion over it and all its creatures. These religions served us well for thousands of years, giving us a sense of place and meaning in our world and myths and gods to direct our lives. But in the 21st century these myths and gods are no longer adequate.

Even the fundamentalist Christian or Muslim or Jew, who insists that God/Allah/Jehovah created the world in a flash of inspiration, true believers in ancient magic and mystery, will watch the electrons dance in their television screens, flip a switch and expect a room to light up, and turn on a computer and communicate with others around the world. And in some dark, subconscious corner of their minds, they are surely aware that there is a disconnect between their ancient faith and their modern reality.

This disconnect — this cognitive dissonance — is the source of our great spiritual alienation, Berry wrote, to say nothing of the destruction we have brought upon our planet.

"From a large planet of overwhelming magnitude, unlimited resources, and endless mystery, the Earth has suddenly become a small planet, thoroughly explored, limited in resources, and reduced in mystery," he said.

It is our responsibility as a species to grow up, to put aside our childish habits of conflict, prejudice, and environmental destruction and become responsible adults. We must find our biological place within the complex biosphere of our planet and our spiritual place within an infinite and mysterious cosmos.

Berry has been called "the most provocative figure among the new breed of eco-theologians." But he insisted that he was "trying to establish a functional cosmology, not a theology."

Whatever he was doing, I suspect that it will be important to the survival of our species.

A few Southerners have fundamentally changed the way we humans view the world and each other. Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King come to mind. Perhaps some day we will add Father Thomas Berry to that short list.


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