Cultural historian Thomas Berry has devoted his
career to understanding how Western religion and culture have failed
to sustain a nurturing relationship between humans and the Earth.
In his major works - The Dream of the Earth, The Universe Story,
and The Great Work - he has traced the Western spiritual estrangement
from the earth implicit in the growth of modern technological culture.
Berry calls for a new cosmology, expressed in a "New Story"
or mythic consciousness that will reunite humans with the creative
energy of the universe and overcome our destructive spiritual estrangement
from the source of life. Berry's work offers both a conceptual framework
for understanding how this western cultural estrangement has come
about and a means of overcoming it through his new cosmology. Implicit
in Berry's work is a reunification of science and religion through
an "Earth Spirituality," an incarnational spirituality,
an affirmation of the spiritual potential of matter, and a reflection
of how we treat the material world. Berry, in a clever pun, calls
himself a "geologian," not a theologian, meaning presumably
that he is concerned with the earth, not with God, and reflecting
the focus of his spirituality.
In his paper, "The
Spirituality of the Earth," published in The Riverdale
Papers, vol. V, Berry talks explicitly about his vision of a spirituality
that is not merely appreciation of the Earth; instead, he means
that the Earth itself is endowed with an innate spirituality. His
concern is with the Earth as a maternal and nurturing principle
that is the source of our existence and our spirituality. The Earth
is the primary subject, "endowed with a spiritual mode of being,"
not merely an object of spiritual regard ("The Spirituality
of the Earth" 1).
As Western Christianity has become an increasingly redemption-based
rather than a creation spirituality, Western science and religion
have become separate entities and the social impact of religion
and ethics has diminished. "The central pathology that has
led to the termination of the Cenozoic," Berry observes, "is
the radical discontinuity between the human and the nonhuman"
(The Great Work 80). But now Western science has provided what amounts
to a "new revelation" in its understanding of the origins
of the universe, as well as an evolutionary understanding of human
nature. A new common ground for science and religion has become
possible with the emergent view of the universe. Berry calls for
a new spirituality "grounded more deeply in the numinous dimension
of an emergent universe." ("The Spirituality of the Earth"
3). "Our spirituality itself is earth-derived," he observes.
"If there is no spirituality in the earth, then there is no
spirituality in ourselves" ("The Spirituality of the Earth"
1). The language of redemption-oriented spirituality has ceased
to be effective in our contemporary world and may indeed widen the
gap between human and environmental concerns. In building upon the
insights of Teilhard de Chardin, Berry argues that "the earth
has an intrinsic spiritual quality from the beginning" and
that "this spiritual quality finds a distinctive expression
in the human mode of being" ("The Spirituality of the
"For Berry, the primary problem facing humans
today concerns the human attitude that we as a species are somehow
essentially disengaged from the earth on which we live and that
our destiny is to bend nature to our purposes" (Kinsley
172). The story or myth that continues to drive this goal of human
domination of the earth is a secular version of the old millennial
dream of Christianity, a version in which God will rule the Earth
and peace, harmony, and justice will prevail, brought about, however,
through human science and technology. But this destructive myth
of a technological wonderland in which nature is bent to every human
whim is turning the Earth into a wasteland and threatening human
survival. Western spiritual traditions have not been able to impede
these lethal tendencies, but have encouraged them as part of God's
plan for human domination of the Earth, and these traditions have
understood human destiny as primarily involving a heavenly spiritual
redemption (Kinsley 173). The Western religious traditions "are
also seriously deficient in not teaching more effectively that the
natural world is our primary revelatory experience" (The Great
Work 75). The Logos or reason of science must be balanced with a
healthy, life-affirming Mythos, or Story embodying a poetic and
spiritual appreciation of the Earth. With their preoccupation with
redemption and their neglect of creation, modern religious traditions
are unable to offer a spirituality adequate to experience the divine
in ordinary life or in the natural world. Not only is the loss of
the sacred a notable deficiency in modern religion, but "an
absence of the sacred is the basic flaw in many of our efforts at
ecologically or environmentally adjusting our human presence to
the natural world," according to Thomas Berry ("Foreword"
18). As Loren Eiseley has warned, science alone will not save the
An authentic new global Earth spirituality lies
in the Universe story, the emergent story of cosmogenesis or the
unfolding of cosmic creation leading to life on earth. "There
is enormous potential religious value in the new story of the universe,
but Christianity still cannot accept this story as its own sacred
story, " Berry observes in Befriending
the Earth (27). Our traditional Judeo-Christian story of creation
is outmoded and prescientific, but as a culture we have been unable
to accept the "New Story" that science has given us, despite
the best efforts of popularizers such as Carl Sagan. The recent
rise of religious fundamentalism has made it even more difficult
for the three great monotheistic religions to accept a science-based
Earth spirituality. The sense of God as transcendent and separate
from creation is one of the chief difficulties of the Judeo-Christian
tradition. Berry would like to recapture a sense of the immanence
of the Sacred in the world. We are at a moment of transition, according
to Berry, in which we need a new vision to carry us from the end
of the Cenozoic into the Ecozoic Age.
According to Berry, the Earth is the source of
our spiritual energy, which needs to be expressed in a nurturing
and healing mode. We need a spiritual vision of human life grounded
in the biological processes of the planet and integrated with every
other terrestrial life form. We need a new understanding of human
nature as the "understanding heart of the universe" or
"the consciousness of the world" ("The Spirituality
of the Earth" 6).
The Chinese have a concept of human nature as the hsin, "the
understanding heart of heaven and earth" (Ibid 6). We need
to renew our communion with the spiritual forces out of which we
were born. As Berry has repeatedly observed, "the universe
is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects"
(Universe Story 243). In Dream of the Earth, he observes that beyond
our genetic and cultural coding, humans need "to go into the
earth, as the source whence we came, and ask for its guidance, for
the earth carries the psychic structure as well as the physical
form of every living being upon the planet" (195). Science
has given us a story of a time-developmental universe in which humans
are related to all other forms of life, but this has not yet penetrated
into our religious and mythic consciousness. Or perhaps it was there,
among Indigenous Peoples, but it has been suppressed by the monotheistic
religions. Perhaps this communion can come about through the emergence
of new spiritual metaphors, poetry, and liturgies, or in a personification
of the Earth itself as a numinous presence - as Gaia or Mary - or
in a new understanding of our "coming of age" as a species,
but it must result in a spiritual transformation that leads us to
take responsibility for the well-being of the planet. The problem
lies in our anthropocentric worldview, but can we outgrow it? Our
preoccupation with our human needs alone has become totally dysfunctional
and needs to change.
Berry's new Earth spirituality, grounded in a
new cosmology, will encourage the growth of universal compassion
and empathy for all forms of life. There is great potential for
altruism and biophilia in our recognition that we are all created
from the same physical matter. Humans will come to understand that
they are but one manifestation of the dynamic creative energy of
the cosmos, which Dante and Rumi called Love and which draws everything
into itself. A new Mythos of the Earth will envision humans as one
species in the great community of life and will emphasize the interconnectedness
of all life.
In a recent interview in Caduceus entitled "The
Mystique of the Earth", Thomas Berry expands the concept
of Earth spirituality as Earth community. First of all, he emphasizes
that "human health is a subsystem of the earth's health. You
cannot have well humans on a sick planet" (2). He restricts
his use of the word spirituality, observing that "we talk about
spirituality but first of all humans are not spirits. That's why
I don't use the word `spirit' or `spirituality' much. `Spirit' has
no inner reference to body, or to matter. We are ensouled beings.
The soul is that vital principle in a living organic body, and all
living beings are ensouled beings"(2). The difference is that
"humans have an intelligent soul, a soul that is capable of
reflecting on itself and on the deeper aspects of the universe"(2).
Thus "the universe knows itself in us"(2).
Our problem is that because humans have assumed
that anything nonhuman is of lesser value, we have created a human
governance that only benefits us rather than the larger community
of life. We have failed to recognize that we are but a subset of
a larger integral Earth community of life. Our laws privilege human
rights and private property rights at the expense of the rest of
life. "If there are no rights and no protections for anything
that is not human, then we establish a predator relationship"(2).
When we begin to consume everything that is not human, we risk losing
our humanity, which can only be defined in the context of a comprehensive
Earth community. What we need is to develop "an integral human
order within the order of the planet earth"(3). Such a change
in human thinking would involve a virtual reinvention of the human,
which Berry has called for in The Great Work (159-165).
In The Great Work,
Berry identifies the four human institutions that need to change
to facilitate the transition to the Ecozoic Era - government, religion,
the corporation, and the university. Universities need to teach
the Universe Story and make ecology a centerpiece of their curricula.
Humans need to learn that they are genetically related to all other
life and that our future depends upon the well-being of the planet.
In The Great Work, Berry discusses the necessary reforms in all
of these major institutions, but he has observed that the single
most devastating document for the nonhuman world has been the American
Constitution, with its exclusive emphasis on human rights (74).
Some of the most interesting applications of Berry's ideas have
emerged in the area of environmental law, and among the most promising
of these developments is a new Earth jurisprudence.
Berry recognizes how difficult it will be to establish
a conceptual foundation for legal rights for the nonhuman world,
but we have to reframe our thinking, as Aldo Leopold has said, and
learn "to think like a mountain" (A
Sand County Almanac 140). We have to expand the resources of
our language and find new conceptual expressions for nonhuman rights.
Berry's articulation of the nonhuman world's fundamental right to
exist reflects both a "Deep Ecology" perspective and his
theological training in Thomistic philosophy, since he often makes
recourse to natural rights arguments. His outline of "The Origin,
Differentiation and Role of Rights" (1/1/01) provides an important
conceptual foundation for environmental law, based on his assumptions
that the right to exist is innate for the nonhuman world because
it is grounded in the universe, not in any act of human
law. There are ten basic precepts in Berry's original "Rights"
statement, and although he has recently published a shorter version
of "Rights of the Earth" in Resurgence (2002), I am presenting
the original, more comprehensive version:
- Rights originate where
existence originates. That which determines existence determines
- Since it has no further context of existence
in the phenomenal order, the universe is self-referent in its
being and self-normative in its activities. It is also the primary
referent in the being and activities of all derivative modes of
- The universe is a communion of subjects, not
a collection of objects. As subjects, the component members of
the universe are capable of having rights.
- The natural world on the planet Earth gets
its rights from the same source that humans get their rights,
from the universe that brought them into being.
- Every component of the Earth community has
three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right
to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth
- 6. All rights are species specific and limited.
Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have
insect rights. Difference in rights is qualitative, not quantitative.
The rights of an insect would be of no value to a tree or a fish.
- Human rights do not cancel out the rights
of other modes of being to exist in their natural state. Human
property rights are not absolute. Property rights are simply a
special relationship between a particular human "owner"
and a particular piece of "property" so that both might
fulfill their roles in the great community of existence.
- Since species exist only in the form of individuals,
rights refer to individuals and to their natural groupings of
individuals into flocks, herds, packs, not simply in a general
way to species.
- These rights as presented here are based upon
the intrinsic relations that the various components of Earth have
to each other. The planet Earth is a single community bound together
with interdependent relationships. No living being nourishes itself.
Each component of the Earth community is immediately or mediately
dependent on every other member of the community for the nourishment
and assistance it needs for its own survival. This mutual nourishment,
which includes the predator-prey relationships, is integral with
the role that each component of the Earth has within the comprehensive
community of existence.
- In a special manner humans have not only a
need for but a right of access to the natural world to provide
not only the physical need of humans but also the wonder needed
by human intelligence, the beauty needed by human imagination,
and the intimacy needed by human emotions for fulfillment. (1/1/01)
Thomas Berry's vision of
a mutually enhancing Earth community in which the rights of all
subjects are respected involves an enormous paradigm shift from
the present anthropocentric, mechanistic, reductionistic, and exploitative
ways of thinking about the nonhuman world. Berry envisions
the Earth as an ultimate good in itself, irrespective of how humans
may benefit or profit from it, not merely as a collection of raw
materials or natural resources to be exploited. His vision will
entail fundamental changes in human ethics, law, and government.
The difficulty will be in translating these general principles into
more specific policies and programs. "Governance at all levels
occurs within a framework established by laws," notes Cormac
Cullinan, because "laws are embedded in society and reflect
the perspectives of the dominant societies that made them"
for All" 37). The American Constitution was designed to
protect personal human rights and private property rights, not to
protect the natural world. It reflects an outmoded eighteenth century
view of the natural world and hence has helped to legitimize the
continued exploitation of the world. As Cormac Cullinan notes, "Fundamentally
changing our governance systems will require more than reforming
existing laws or making new ones. We need to take a long hard look,
not only at our legal systems, but, more importantly, at the legal
philosophies that underlie them. Only by creating a vision of an
Jurisprudence' will we be able to begin a comprehensive transformation
of our governance system" (Ibid 37).
Jonathan Swift remarked that "vision is the
ability to see the unseen." Thomas Berry's Earth Spirituality
offers a new vision of a mutually enhancing Earth community, a vision
which could permit us to reconceive the basic institutions of government,
religion, education, and business, and from which a genuine Earth
Jurisprudence might eventually emerge. Promising work has already
been accomplished by Cormac Cullinan's Wild
Law (Siberink, 2002), Mike
Bell's work with Inuit self-governance and restorative justice,
the Gaia Foundation's Earth Jurisprudence meetings, and Vandana
principles of Earth Democracy. In the area of Earth Jurisprudence,
Thomas Berry's call for a "Great Work" has clearly been
Bell, Mike. Thomas Berry and an Earth Jurisprudence: An Exploratory
Essay" The Trumpeter 19, 1 (2003): 69-96.
Berry, Thomas, and Thomas Clarke. Befriending the Earth: A Theology
of Reconciliation Between Humans and the Earth Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third
Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club
__________. "Earth Spirituality." Riverdale Papers, vol.
V (New York: The Riverdale Center for Religious Studies, n.d.):
1-15. Also in Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches to Ecological
Theology, ed. William 11 Birch, et al (1990).
__________. "Foreword." Thomas Merton, When the Trees
Say Nothing: Writings on Nature, ed. Kathleen Deignan (Notre Dame,
IN: Sorin Books, 2003.
Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999).
Mystique of the Earth" Interview with Caroline Webb. Caduceus
59 (Spring 2003): 8-13.
__________. "The Origin, Differentiation and Role of Rights"
__________. "Rights of the Earth: Earth Democracy," Resurgence
214 (September/October, 2002): 28-29.
__________, and Brian Swimme. The Universe Story: From the Primordial
Flaring Forth to The Ecozoic Era -- A Celebration of the Unfolding
of the Cosmos New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992).
Cullinan, Cormac. "Justice for All," Resurgence 214 (September/October
__________. Wild Law (Claremont, SA: SiberInk, 2002).
Kinsley, David. Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in
Cross-Cultural Perspective Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
Leopold, Aldo. A
Sand County Almanac (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966).