There are some men, thinkers, sages, saints (perhaps), prophets (perhaps), whose insights are so profound and even revolutionary that they offer us that rarest of commodities – pure truth. Generally speaking, they travel so beyond conventional understanding that their gifts are overlooked and they pass by us without receiving the full recognition they warrant. Such a man died at age 94 on Monday, June 1, 2009. His name was Thomas Berry.
Thomas Berry posed for we remaining humans and our offspring and successors questions that – depending on how we respond – will lead to our survival or to our collective demise. Being a Catholic, somewhat renegade priest in the tradition of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Berry believed that we human beings are not the end of evolution but that a heightened state of consciousness awaits us as the next stage in evolution. Should we achieve this state of consciousness, of awareness, we would, Berry believed, be ushering in a new era he called the Ecozoic era.
What would characterize this consciousness? It would be our recognition that we are not merely caretakers of the earth. Rather, we are of the earth. We are stardust having evolved over billions of years; we are 70% water and 30% minerals like the very crust of the earth. We are the earth having become conscious of itself. Gradually, we are becoming conscious of our own relationship to the earth. The earth is quite literally our mother and father. The earth is itself a living organism. If we injure it, we injure ourselves. And this is just what we are doing.
Thomas Berry offered us the way out of this dilemma. To Berry, what is needed is nothing short of a new cosmology – a new creation myth. And this, of course, created problems for Berry within his faith and his church. The Christian myth of transcendence in which man is the caretaker of the earth places man above and somehow beyond the confines of the earth. No matter how badly we mess up the planet Earth, well, there is heaven awaiting us. Berry argued, to the contrary: this Earth is God’s creation, and we humans are part of that creation. Notice the preposition of – we are “of the earth” not transcendent to it.
Believing in our self-generated myth of transcendence which – married with our other governing myth of progress – has led us to launch an attack on our very home planet that is stunning in its destructiveness. We are, as Berry demonstrates, victims of our own flawed cosmology. Believing in our supremacy over the earth, aided by our immense technology, we have taken structures and species that have taken billions of years to evolve, and we have decimated them in a few generations.
The new cosmology Berry proposed is for us to evolve from our disastrous transcendent-progress trap into a place of “courteous and celebratory” relationship to the earth. To Berry, there is still a theological dimension to all this. In Berry’s view, when we destroy the living forms of this planet, we destroy modes of the Divine Presence. This, says Thomas Berry, is “pathological.” In his path- breaking book The Dream of the Earth, Berry writes that “we are not simply a human commodity, but we are genetically related to the entire community of the living beings, since all species are descended from a single origin.”
Our new story must take us beyond nations and the United Nations to the United Species. We need to travel beyond capitalism and socialism to a planetary universalism. Given the ecological and political messes in which we are enmeshed, this task of creating such a new story seems virtually impossible. But, on the other hand, that is the function of prophets – in the case of Thomas Berry, to dream the impossible dream – the dream of the Earth.