Why Thomas Berry Matters Today:
Mary Evelyn Tucker Reflects on Her Latest Book, Thomas Berry: A Biography

Thomas Berry (1914–2009) was one of the twentieth century’s most prescient and profound thinkers. As a cultural historian, he sought a broader perspective on humanity’s relationship to Earth in order to respond to the ecological and social challenges of our times.

Thomas Berry: A Biography, by Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal (Columbia University Press, 2019), is the first biography of Berry. The book illuminates his remarkable vision and its continuing relevance for achieving transformative social change and environmental renewal.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale where she teaches in an MA program between the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Divinity School. With John Grim she organized ten conferences on World Religions and Ecology at Harvard. They were series editors for the ten resulting volumes from Harvard. She co-edited Confucianism and Ecology, Buddhism and Ecology, and Hinduism and Ecology. She has authored with John Grim, Ecology and Religion (Island Press, 2014). They also edited Thomas Berry’s books including Selected Writings (Orbis, 2014). With Brian Thomas Swimme she wrote Journey of the Universe (Yale, 2011) and was the executive producer of the Emmy award-winning film Journey that aired on PBS. 

Orion’s Editor-in-Chief H. Emerson Blake recently spoke with Mary Evelyn Tucker about the book.

 

What distinguishes Thomas Berry from other modern thinkers and philosophers?

Berry overcomes many of the abstractions and intellectualizations that are present in many modern thinkers. He is seeking a more encompassing worldview for contemporary dilemmas, such as racial divisions and ecological exploitation. This is why Berry calls us to a Great Story for the Great Work of transformative change for the well-being of both people and the planet.

Berry is interested in our identity as humans in the largest sense of our being. This means that an important part of who we are is our race or ethnicity, gender or sexuality, state or nation. We are richly differentiated, yet also one species. Thus, he is keen to awaken our deepest identity as related to the cosmos itself—we arise from out of universe and Earth processes. This is an ancient reality and yet a new discovery. That is because all cultures have had cosmologies that explain where we come from and where we are going. But now through the lens of science we have a new sense of cosmology as the interrelationship of systems—galactic, planetary, and ecosphere. We are part of nested circles of interwoven realities from stars to planets, from mountains to rivers, from humans to more than humans.

The awareness of this relationally is born from a new understanding of evolutionary time—cosmic, geological, and human. We are older than we thought. We have arisen out of the deep time of the universe unfolding. We are kin to all biological life. 

Thus, we sense we are related both to that which is minute and that which is infinite—to the microcosm of the atom and the macrocosm of the universe. Within such immensity, we belong here. As the Chinese Neo-Confucian scholar, Zhang Zai, said, “Heaven is my father; Earth is my mother and even a small child has a place on their midst. Therefore, that which fills Heaven and Earth, I consider as my body; that which directs Heaven and Earth, I considered as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, all creatures are my companions.”

This cosmological identity is very old in the human family, especially among indigenous peoples. Yet it is also being understood anew though the lens of science from the microscope to the telescope. We sense it in the awareness of the communication patterns of all mammals, in the migratory patterns of birds and fish, in the hidden life of trees and fungi. 

This opens us up to awe and reverence in the face of vast mystery and endless complexity. Such awe can lead to action; such reverence can lead to responsibility. A new understanding of our role not as dominators or exploiters, but care takers, care givers. As such we are participants in the dynamic creative powers of the universe and Earth. May it be so!

You’ve known Thomas Berry since you were twenty-four. How do you think your life would be different if you hadn’t met him?

There is no doubt my life would have been radically different without meeting Berry.

Before I went to Japan to teach in 1973 I was given some of his yet unpublished essays to read. I didn’t understand them well before I left, but once there I began to sense their import. In particular, I was so moved by his understanding of Asian religions that I wrote him for a copy of his book on Buddhism. The miracle of my life is that he wrote back!

When I came back to the States in 1975 I met him at his Riverdale Center for Religious Research along the Hudson River. The moment I met him there on a bright winter day in early February I knew I had met my teacher. For the next 34 years I studied with him at Fordham, planned lecture series with him at Riverdale, prepared and edited his Riverdale papers into five books of essay, and eventually wrote his biography. All of this was done with John Grim, my husband and collaborator, whom I met in graduate school studying with Thomas at Fordham. I have been fortunate in finding an inspiring teacher and a dedicated partner. 

In writing Thomas Berry: A Biography, what new thoughts did you develop about Berry that you hadn’t had before?

I was continually amazed at his persistence against great odds. He came out of a Catholic background in the south, but grew to embrace all religions and cultures. He entered a monastic order devoted to personal prayer and divine contemplation, but he branched out of this to contemplate the Earth and Cosmos. He was asked to preach retreats not teach in a university, but he broke free of that restraint to found one of the first graduate history of religions program of its kind in the country. He was encouraged to remain in the monastery, but he traveled the world giving talks and attending conferences. 

His persistence and continual growth were fascinating to me. All of this is because he had a penetrating intelligence and a unique ability to synthesize material. He brought these gifts early on to address the ecological problems we were facing—fifty years ago and down to the present. He was prescient in anticipating our challenges and helping us to develop the stamina to understand them and endure.

Berry died in 2009. What do you think his reaction to the today’s political turmoil would be?

He would be devastated with the racial upheaval and white supremacism, with the militarism of our society and the violence of our ongoing wars, with the destruction of the rainforests and the pollution of our oceans. Yet he understood that as we are shutting down the Cenozoic era due to the rate of species extinction, we are also laying the foundations for a new Ecozoic era for the flourishing of the Earth community. 

He predicted that our institutions would not be up to the task of this Great Transition. And we see this in the inadequate response of government, economics, education, and religion. All of these institutions are unraveling in terms of efficacy to meet our current challenges. He would say they are breaking down so as to break though to new forms of ecopolitics, ecoeconomics, ecoeducation, ecospirituality. This is the Great Work we need to be involved in fostering, individually and in communities.

Where do you hope that Berry’s legacy, and the work of the Thomas Berry Foundation, will be a few decades from now? 

Berry’s legacy of a “new story” is already available in the projects we have been birthing with the Journey of the Universe projectThese are an Emmy award winning film, a book (Yale, 2011), a series of interviews with ten scientists and ten environmentalists, and massive open online classes with Yale / Coursera. One of the online classes is “The Worldview of Thomas Berry.” We hope these materials will move out further into societies around the world. Already the book has been translated into some ten languages and the online classes have over 24,000 people participating. This cosmological perspective will help to engender ways that can see our commonalities amidst our differences. There is no future without a shared future and that sensibility is what Journey is trying to midwife. 

By the same token we would hope that his efforts to teach the world’s religions, and encourage understanding of indigenous traditions, will also lay the ground work for greater tolerance and respect. Moreover, he saw that the role of religious communities needs to be elevated in the struggle for greater awareness of an integral ecology fostering ecojustice. His insights will endure, his spirit will continue to inspire.

Additional Resources: 

Orion is a nonprofit, 100% ad-free magazine because of subscribers and donors like you. Subscribe or give today.  

H. Emerson Blake is Orion’s Editor-in-Chief and Executive Director.