Thomas Berry, C.P. (November 9, 1914 – June 1, 2009) was a Catholic priest of the Passionist order, cultural historian and ecotheologian (although cosmologist and geologian – or “Earth scholar” – were his preferred descriptors).
Among advocates of deep ecology and “ecospirituality” he is famous for proposing that a deep understanding of the history and functioning of the evolving universe is a necessary inspiration and guide for our own effective functioning as individuals and as a species. He is considered a leader in the tradition of Teilhard de Chardin as demonstrated in the Introduction to his book, The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth. Author Michael Colebrook describes two key elements in Thomas Berry’s thinking: “Firstly, the primary status of the universe. The universe is, ‘the only self-referential reality in the phenomenal world. It is the only text without context. Everything else has to be seen in the context of the universe’. The second element is the significance of story, and in particular the universe as story. ‘The universe story is the quintessence of reality. We perceive the story. We put it in our language, the birds put it in theirs, and the trees put it in theirs. We can read the story of the universe in the trees. Everything tells the story of the universe. The winds tell the story, literally, not just imaginatively. The story has its imprint everywhere, and that is why it is so important to know the story. If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself; you do not know anything.”
Thomas Berry in dialogue with Brian Swimme summarizing the Twelve Principles
Born William Nathan Berry in Greensboro, North Carolina, Berry was third of 13 children. By age eight, he had concluded that commercial values were threatening life on the planet. Three years later he had an epiphany in a meadow, which became a primary reference point for the rest of his life. He later elaborated this experience into a set of Twelve Principles for Understanding the Universe and the Role of the Human in the Universe Process. The first of these principles states:
“The universe, the solar system, and planet earth in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being.”
At age 20, Berry entered a monastery of the Passionist order (ordained 1942) and, traveling widely, he began examining cultural history and foundations of diverse cultures and their relations with the natural world.
He received his doctorate in history from The Catholic University of America , with a thesis on Giambattista Vico's philosophy of history. He then studied Chinese language and Chinese culture in China and learned Sanskrit for the study of India and the traditions ofreligion in India. Later he assisted in an educational program for the T'boli tribal peoples of South Cotabato, a province of the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, and he taught the cultural history of India and China at universities in New Jersey and New York (1956–1965). Later he was director of the graduate program in the History of Religions at Fordham University (1966–1979). He founded and directed the Riverdale Center of Religious Research in Riverdale , New York (1970–1995). Berry studied and was influenced by the work of Teilhard de Chardin and was president of the American Teilhard Association (1975–1987). He also studied Native American cultures and shamanism.
Works Thomas Berry's books include:
- The Historical Theory of Giambattista Vico (1949)
- Buddhism (1968)
- The Religions of India (1972)
- The Dream of the Earth (1988)
- Befriending the Earth (with Thomas Clarke, 1991)
- The Universe Story From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era, A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (with physicist Brian Swimme, 1992)
- The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (1999), Bell Tower/Random House, NY, ISBN 0-609-80499-5
- Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (2006), Essays, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker, A Sierra Club Book, ISBN 1-57805-130-4, See description and TOC.
- The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth (2009), , Essays edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim.
Berry also contributed two introductory essays ('Economics: Its Effects on the Life Systems of the World' and 'The Earth: A New Context for Religious Unity') to the volume Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology, in which Brian Swimme, Caroline Richards, Gregory Baum and others discuss the implications of Berry's thought for a range of disciplines and paradigms. Berry's 'Twelve Principles for Understanding the Universe and the Role of the Human in the Universe Process'  offer a postscript to this 1987 work. A review of Thomas Berry's life and work appears in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. It begins with this paragraph by Prof. Mary Evelyn Tucker.
From his academic beginning as a historian of world cultures and religions, Thomas Berry grew into a historian of the Earth and its evolutionary processes. He sees himself not as a theologian but as a “geologian.” Berry began his career as a historian of Western intellectual history. His thesis at Catholic University on Giambattista Vico’s philosophy of history was published in 1951. Vico was trying to establish a human historical science of the study of culture and nations comparable to what others had done for the study of nature. Influenced by Vico, Berry gradually developed a comprehensive historical perspective in periodization and an understanding of the depths of our contemporary crisis due to the ecological destruction caused by humans. Eventually he saw the need for a new mythic story to extract humans from their alienation from the Earth. Berry described this alienation as pervasive due to the power of the technological trance, the myth of progress, and human autism in relation to nature. With his books, The Dream of the Earth, The Universe Story, and The Great Work, Berry aimed to overcome this alienation and evoke the energies needed to create a viable and sustainable future.
Berry was featured in the 2007 documentary What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire.
Biographies (Links from www.thomasberry.org)
- Short Biography of Thomas Berry
- Biography of Thomas Berry – Mary Evelyn Tucker
- Time, History, Historians in Thomas Berry's Vision – John Grim
- Tributes, Photos, and Obituaries
- Thomas Berry Award and Memorial Service at Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Publications by Thomas Berry (Links from www.thomasberry.org)