An estimated 100 people gathered at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Ont., on June 25, 2009, to pay tribute to the late cultural historian and cosmologist, Dr. Thomas Berry. Berry died on June 1, 2009, in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C. He was 94.
One of 13 children, Berry was born on Nov. 9, 1914. In 1933, he entered the Passionist order and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1942.
The priest pursued the life of a scholar, becoming a cultural historian and “geologian.” He was one of the world’s leading experts on the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
To Berry, his great work was about transforming humanity’s priorities through the realms of ethics, politics, economics and education.
Teacher and researcher
In 1948, he spent the year teaching at Fu Jen University in Beijing. While in Asia, he studied Chinese and South Asian language and culture. He wrote two books on Asian religions, one on Buddhism and the other on the religions of India.
Berry’s teaching career eventually took him to Fordham University in New York, where he was director of the graduate program in the history of religion from 1966 to 1979. He founded the Riverdale Center for Religious Research in 1970.
By the 1980s, Berry was writing on the intersection of ecological, spiritual and cultural issues and calling himself a geologian or scholar of the earth. He was one of the first to realize that the environmental crisis was a spiritual one: “We are in trouble now because we do not have a good story.”
Berry welded together discoveries of physics and astronomy with insights from the world’s wisdom traditions and the human search for meaning. He did this to forge a new story that would inspire human beings to cherish the Earth as sacred.
“The earth is not a collection of objects for our use, but a communion of subjects of which we are all a part,” he wrote.
Berry’s prolific writings included The Dream of the Earth (1988), The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era (with Brian Swimme 1992), The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (1999) and Evening Thoughts (2006).
Into the future
Despite the difficulties, this remarkable scholar was hopeful that human beings would be able to meet the challenges confronting them. He believed the evolving universe should form the basis of curriculum in schools and universities. Engaging young people at an emotional level and imbuing them with a sense of wonder and awe in the natural world.
Closer to home, Berry inspired a generation of teachers and activists during 20 summers spent at the Holy Cross Retreat Center at Port Burwell on Lake Erie.
Meanwhile, his friends at St. Paul’s University celebrated his extraordinary life and promised to stand together in the great work ahead.