Thomas Berry (1914–2009), the American cultural historian and “eco-theologian” who relished exploring natural boundaries and broadening religious understanding, died in North Carolina in June. Last month, friends, scholars, and artists honored him at a resounding celebratory memorial at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York.
A Passionist priest with a doctorate in European intellectual history from the Catholic University of America, Berry was working as a Catholic missionary in China in 1948 when the Communists took over. He was expelled, but returned to the United States and became an expert on Asian religions and cultures. He taught at Fordham, chaired its history of religions program, and served as president of the American Teilhard Association. For more than twenty years he headed the Riverdale Center for Religious Research, where his ecumenical interests and influence never ceased to grow.
In his 1988 book The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club), Berry wrote that in human beings the universe achieves “a special mode of conscious reflection.” It is that unique ability that gives us a singular mandate. Berry was convinced the great work of humanity is to take responsibility for the fate of the earth. In The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (Bell Tower, 1999), he wrote that moving the human project from an exploitative one to a more careful, benign one is the task given us “by some power beyond ourselves.” And, as he told an interviewer in 1994, “there is nothing that happens in time that does not have an eternal dimension.”
Related: Christiana Z. Peppard reviews The Sacred Universe by Thomas Berry