Thomas Berry, one of the foremost Christian thinkers to root his philosophy in the Earth, died yesterday at the age of 94. Born to the Appalachian hills, he became a Catholic priest of the Passionist order and then a renowned writer on ecology, cosmology, and religion. He preferred to call himself, not a theologian, or “thinker about God,” but rather a geologian, or “thinker about the Earth.”
Today, in tribute to a person who through his many books has led thousands to live in deeper communion with the more-than-human world, I offer excerpts from his book The Great Work, published in 1999 (all emphasis added).
The Great Work, now as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.
The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being and the bestowal of all rights on the humans.
In reality, there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human. In this community every being has its own role to fulfill, its own dignity, its own inner spontaneity. Every being has its own voice. Every being declares itself to the entire universe. Every being enters into communion with other beings.
Trees have tree rights, insects have insect rights, rivers have river rights, mountains have mountain rights. . . . All rights are limited and relative. So too with humans. We have human rights. We have rights to the nourishment and shelter we need. We have rights to habitat. But we have no rights to deprive other species of their proper habitat. We have no rights to interfere with their migration routes. We have no rights to disturb the basic functioning of the biosystems of the planet.
The difficulty is that with the rise of the modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than as a communion of subjects. . . . We no longer hear the voice of the rivers, the mountains, or the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. The world about us has become an “it” rather than a “thou.”
[Science has] moved beyond the mechanistic understanding of a so-called objective world as it was known in the past few centuries of Newtonian physics. We now know that there is subjectivity in all of our knowledge. . . . If formerly we knew by downward reduction processes that considered the particle as the reality and the wholes as derivative, we now recognize that it is even more important that we integrate upward, because we cannot know particles and their power until we see the wholes that they bring into being.
A new basis for the unity of humans with the larger earth community is found in the discoveries of modern science. The more clearly we understand the sciences and their perceptions of the universe, the more clearly we appreciate the intimate presence of each component of the universe with every other component.
It seems best to consider that mind and matter are two dimensions of [a] single reality.
We see quite clearly that what happens to the nonhuman happens to the human. What happens to the outer world happens to the inner world. . . . Without the soaring birds, the great forests, the sounds and coloration of the insects, the free-flowing streams, the flowering fields, the sight of the clouds by day and the stars at night, we become impoverished in all that makes us human.