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A Profile of Thomas Berry,
scholar and lover of the Earth

by Matthew Fox
University of Creation Spirituality, Oakland, California, USA

EarthLight Magazine #34, Summer, 1999

Editor's note: This essay was writtten for EarthLight in Thomas Barry's honor and was part of a special 10-page section featuring Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology in our summer 1999 issue. 

     I remember the first time I met Thomas Berry.  It was about twenty years ago in January in Chicago at Mundelein College where I had begun our Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality a few years earlier.  Scientist Brian Swimme had moved out with his family that fall to teach with us and he insisted that we invite Thomas Berry from New York to speak to the students.  After his challenging presentation, we were walking to dinner through the wet slush of a Chicago January and I told Tom that I was working on a book on Hildegard of Bingen's paintings and illuminations.  "Ah, Hildegard!" he said.  "A great genius."  And he was off expounding on Hildegard.  He was the first person I had encountered who knew who she was.   And of course his knowledge was of the deepest kind.

     Thomas Berry helps me to resacralize the gift of curiosity.  So many people in our culture and so many clergy appear to be anything but curious.  They are complacent. Intellectually complacent.  But not Tom.  Perhaps the greatest tribute I can make to Thomas Berry is to point out how profoundly his work parallels that of his namesake, whom he quotes often, Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas, living in the thirteenth century, was witnessing a breakdown of forms in religion, politics, and economics not wholly unlike our century.  His response was like Thomas Berry's: Go to science, rediscover the ways of the Universe.  "All creatures love one another," he would observe. 

     While Aquinas had only one scientist to go to, Aristotle, nevertheless he spent his life bringing Aristotle's scientific worldview into culture and into Christian thought.  Aquinas was an intellectual who was both mystic and prophet; his ideas had social consequences that made him and his work deeply controversial in his time.  (Indeed, he was canonized a saint by the same church that condemned him three times first!)

     Thomas Berry has studied contemporary science with depth and abandon, mind and heart.  He has also immersed himself in the ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples and the wisdom of China and the East.  Yet he has always stayed true to the path of critical thought and of prophetic consciousness.  He speaks with the poetry of his Celtic ancestors, and his scholarship (as distinct from academic ego inflation) is both critical and caring. 

     Above all, his love of the cosmos and his insistence that all education and all professions are ultimately responsible to the cosmos is his deepest legacy.  By calling us to an enduring creation story from the new science he gives us tools for beginning over.  He not only deconstructs; he reconstructs.  So many priests of his generation are cynical and so many academicians are only committed to deconstructing.  What Thomas Berry has that these people lack is a sense of wonder that has not diminished with age.  There is a youthfulness in Thomas Berry that is evident in the radical questions he asks as well as in the wonder he elicits.  He helps us dream the Earth anew, dream our work anew, dream religion and education anew. 

     I find in Thomas Berry and his passion for eco-justice and cosmic storytelling a true descendant (might we say reincarnation?) of the Celtic spiritual genius.  His love of the Earth, his sense of humor, his gift of language, his poetic consciousness, his moral outrage, his primal appreciation of the aesthetic, his common sense, and his prophetic storytelling all point to the interconnectivity of nature and human nature, the sacred and daily life, the divine and the human and the more-than-human that characterize the Celtic spirit at its best.  His encouragement of other thinkers is also a gift that he gives to us.

     Thomas Berry is a true elder. He has been true to his catholic heritage in the deepest sense of finding and naming, with Teilhard de Chardin's help, the sacramental character of the Universe.  And, in the tradition of Aquinas, he has "shared the fruits of his contemplation" by his writing, his teaching, and lecturing, and by his witness as an elder gifting other generations with the most precious gift of all: the blessing of creation.  Some day, it may even happen that his religious order and his church will recognize his spiritual depth.  But there is no need to waste time waiting for that.  Rather, our gratitude to Tom ought to be expressed in getting on with our living and our citizenship whereby we integrate Tom's values -- which are the ecological values the world needs today -- into our workworlds and worship worlds, our psychic, cosmic, and planetary worlds. 

     I myself have tried to do this by bringing Universe back to university as we try to do at the University of Creation Spirituality and Naropa Institute in Oakland and by bringing ritual alive again through Techno Cosmic Masses at our Howard Thurman Ritual Center.  Judging by the response to both enterprises and from the talent and excitement they attract, I know Thomas Berry has laid out a correct agenda for our time.  There lies this man's tribute to a master teacher, "Meister Thomas Berry." 

Matthew Fox is president and founder of the University of Creation Spirituality and co-director of the Naropa Institute's program in creation spirituality in downtown Oakland (see ad, page 25). He is the author of 23 books including Original Blessing, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen and most recently, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Lessons in Transforming Evil in Soul and Society.

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