Thomas Berry (1914–2009) was one of the twentieth century’s most prescient and profound thinkers. Like Teilhard de Chardin, he was a Christian who saw the crucial significance of incorporating evolution as a spiritually significant story of the cosmos and humanity’s place in it. Beyond de Chardin, Berry saw in addition how the synthesis of evolution and Christian spirituality holds out a great and needed ecological perspective for us to re-vision our present and re-envision the future. Achieving the capacity to think this perspective is key to accomplishing “the Great Work”, which is to initiate an “Ecozoic era”, wherein humanity lives reconciled to and in harmony with the Earth.
As a cultural historian, Berry sought a broader perspective on humanity’s relationship to the Earth in order to respond to the ecological and social challenges of our times. His work continues with the Thomas Berry Foundation, the American Teilhard Association, the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, and the Journey of the Universe project. Two of his great books are The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work.
As Berry contemplates the human presence on earth in his book, The Dream of the Earth, he reflects that “A truly human intimacy with the earth and with the entire natural world is needed.” (13). To attain this intimacy we need to overcome our anthropocentrism, which is a form of our species isolation that is keeping us from entering into biocentrism, a larger community of living species. Berry argues that the challenge of shifting from anthropocentrism to biocentrism is “to create a new language,” that “moves us beyond our species’ limitations and to enter into the larger community of living species. This brings about a completely new sense of reality and value” (42). Berry argues that more than any other mode of consciousness (prophetic, scientific, philosophical, etc.) we need to retrieve a shamanic consciousness – i.e., one that is attuned with and receptive to the non-human others of nature – and develop it anew in such a way that we can participate in the dream-revelation of the Earth itself, of which we are integral parts, as an evolving reality.
This argument he will elaborate a decade later in his book The Great Work: “Perhaps a new revelatory experience is taking place, an experience wherein human consciousness awakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process. Humanity has seldom participated in such a vision since shamanic times, but in such a renewal lies our hope for the future for ourselves and for the entire planet on which we live.” (106).
On the basis of this new revelatory experience and ensuing hope, Berry goes on to argue that “The historical mission of our times is to reinvent the human – at the species level, with critical reflection, within the community of life-systems, in a time-developmental context, by means of story and shared dream experience.” (The Great Work, 159).