“But What Does It Mean?”

An Appreciation and Assessment of Father Thomas Berry, CP
on the One Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth [November 11, 2014]


T. BerryI continually meet people who express appreciation for the wisdom of Thomas Berry [1914-2009] as the “bard of the new cosmology.” Each seizes on some different dimension of the accomplishments of this great man. I have been privileged to know him both as Father Thomas and simply as Thomas. I cannot begin to express the debt of gratitude that I owe to him as a priest and as a teacher and mentor. Thomas married my wife and me, and baptized our first son. But above all he was one the great masters in our intellectual journey. For forty-two years until his death in 2009 he and I talked about the books he encouraged me to read and to study. Since I met Thomas in 1967, roughly about half way through his own journey as a scholar, I first knew him as he was completing for himself the intellectual foundations for his The Great Work: Our Way into the Future [1999] and for The Universe Story, co-authored with Brian Swimme [1992]. Knowing about these intellectual foundations adds even greater depth to an understanding of these later works. In fact I wish I had known him even earlier in his more formative years when he read his way through the Patrologia Latina, the great collection of the Fathers of the Church. He was deeply informed by the neo-Thomists of his youth, Joseph Gredt and Aimee Forest, and by the historian, Etienne Gilson. I wish I could have been there when as a young teacher, at the same high school seminary that I later attended, he tried unsuccessfully to get high school seminarians to read Augustine’s City of God and The Communist Manifesto. On the day I met, while I was still in college, we talked about the relationship of religion and culture found in the historical works of Christopher Dawson whom he claimed as one of his inspirations.

As he did for so many, he encouraged me to study the religions of Asia. Thus four years later, he encouraged me to concentrate my graduate studies at Fordham University in the history of religions. I had the honor of being his graduate student and also was appointed his assistant at the foundation of the Riverdale Center for Religious Research in Riverdale, New York. I remember the hot summer afternoons when we moved his extensive library of books in wash tubs in order to clear the old house for renovation as the Riverdale Center. Thomas and I, under the supervision of Father Ernie Hotz, spent several days knocking down old plaster walls with hammers. During my first summer with him each morning he taught me Sanskrit and each evening he would bring me books to read: McNeil’s The Rise of the West, Beckett’s Endgame, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, van der Leuuw’s Religion in Essence and Manifestation, Fung Yu-Lang’s History of Chinese Philosophy, Neumann’s The Great Mother, and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Even then his attention was on issues of the environment. We read Commoner’s The Closing Circle and Dubos’ So Human an Animal. I helped Thomas plan his week-long summer conferences: “The Counter Culture,” “Symbolism,” “New York as Sacred City,” “Energy: Its Cosmic-Human Dimensions.”

In his courses Thomas introduced me to Lady Murasaki, Confucius and Mencius [“no one should call themselves educated if they have not read Mencius”], Teilhard, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Black Elk, and Krishna [somehow he missed Muhammad; I think it was deliberate!]. He encouraged me never to forget Thomas Aquinas. He directed my dissertation on the Bhagavata Purana, stressed the importance of divine affectivity, and how to make comparisons in similarity and difference. He persistently asked me, “But what does it mean?” Amazingly he affirmed me as a young scholar; he told me to write the entire dissertation before showing it to him. It took me four months. From 1982 to 1996, each winter, I spent two weeks with him studying. In the nineties we discussed for several years Cajetan’s commentary on Aquinas concerning creation out of nothing and the analogy of being. For our last meeting, my wife MaryAnn, Brian Brown, and Amarylis Cortijo visited him in Greensboro, North Carolina. He had had a stroke and was aphasic He couldn’t read but he could remember. He remembered which passages for me to read aloud from Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles.

In sum, for my own scholarship as an historian of religion, I learned three things from Thomas. (1) The world religions have conflicting soteriologies that include contradictories. Thus Berry never spoke of convergent “ways to the center.” For the next forty years, this conclusion placed me at odds with the prevailing currents in the theology of religions. Only with the emergence of comparative [and contrastive] theology has a countervailing assumption begun to be given a hearing. (2) Fr. Thomas worked from the style of cultural history of Christopher Dawson. He maintained that the problematic of the present time is cultural, not theological.[1] He stated to me that there was nothing basically wrong with the classical theology of God. Characteristically he bragged that he had never read anything by Karl Rahner.[2] (3) I learned: go deeper in theology and not to innovate. I would add that Ewart Cousins also taught me that Paul Ricoeur was perhaps naïve about second naïveté, since there was nothing naïve about first naïveté. Depth need not be achieved by innovation. Fr. Thomas’ later development of an ecozoic spirituality, which, while not completely dismissive of, is at least inattentive to, the redemption, I have chosen not to follow.


I think it is unfortunate for those who encountered Thomas Berry in his later years after The Great Work [1999] that they don’t know about Thomas’ intellectual development from the thirties to the sixties. Augustine’s The City of God is central to Thomas’ historical perspectives with its emphasis on the biggest picture possible, on convergent historical factors, and on cultural impact. With Augustine Thomas searched for the broad unfolding of human, and of cosmic, history; of the entanglement of the divine and the human. He wanted to know where history was going. This emphasis on Augustine also explains why Christopher Dawson influenced him even though he never [rarely?] cites him. Dawson understood that religion was the key to understanding culture. When Thomas called himself a cultural historian he meant it in the sense that Dawson did, not in the anthropological sense of Kroeber and Kluckhohn. His dissertation at Catholic University in 1948 on Vico illustrates what I am saying here. It is basically an essay on Vico’s thought. It would not pass muster these days as a dissertation. But it very much shows the direction of Berry’s thought, and his practice as a cultural historian. In the early fifties he studied the great neo-Confucians, especially Chu Hsi [12th century A.D.]. This is important because Thomas juxtaposed neo-Confucian cosmic humanism dialectically with Augustine’s and Aquinas’ monotheism. In the later fifties he discovered Teilhard who for him synthetically pulled the two strands together and from which Thomas derived the basis for his environmental and ecological work, even while he could be very critical of Teilhard.

I think Thomas in the forties and fifties should be situated as a historian of thought, and then from the sixties on as an essayist of genius. He had found his genre. Unfortunately, Thomas never produced a major historical work. Nonetheless, his insights are conveyed and shaped by the “essay” which may be the perfect vehicle for what he wanted to say, for the audience he wanted to reach, and for the way he wanted to impact that audience. He appreciated other essayists like Emerson, Annie Dillard, Rene Dubos, Wendell Berry, Teilhard, etc. The essay, with its carefully-crafted prose and poetic resonance, channeled and focused his thinking. What he wanted to say he would say in ten pages of careful prose that he reviewed again and again. He also delivered these essays in spoken form. Usually he stayed very close to the text. His phrases and modes of thought were repeated again and again in his essays, even as they unfolded over the decades. He never got involved in academic games of publication and scholarship, and in the intricacies of detailed research. He read foundational texts directly and worked off of them, e.g., Augustine in Latin, Chu Hsi in Chinese, the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, the Communist Manifesto, Teilhard, Jung, etc. Many of the dissertations of his doctoral students were about significant Hindu and Buddhist texts, and about Native American myths and rituals, and what they mean to a contemporary. This approach allowed him to read the ancients as if he and they were contemporaries. Their thought spoke directly to him in the present. Thus he did not get bogged down too much in historical contextualization. This is both a gain and a loss. It means that his major points may on the whole be true, but his historical illustrations may fall short. Historians may be impatient with him, from the historical point of view rightfully so.

As I stated above, I would join Thomas each January for a two-week intellectual retreat. We discussed Thomas Aquinas and his doctrines of analogy and of creation. These discussions show that in his last years, in private conversations, he was very interested in the most important question from his earliest studies as a seminarian: is the universe self-explanatory or not? Yet he rarely alludes to these themes in his essays. Back on him as a historian, he works into his essays a thesis that Christianity since the Black Death, the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation has overemphasized redemption at the expense of creation theology. This he thinks contributed to the ecological crisis. This thesis is stated but never demonstrated with convincing historical evidence according to contemporary historiographical criteria. I am not sure I support this thesis. In fact, I know I don’t. However I think it can be sorted out of his thought without losing its overall value and impact. [He would not have agreed with me]. This is the strength and weakness of Thomas Berry as an historian. He was an “essayist” and direct reader of texts. He was a humanist in the classical sense even as he resituated the human project into the Universe Story: “the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through Earth”

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1] Thus I have found the reflections on culture of Tracy Rowland, Charles Taylor, John Milbank, and Joseph Ratzinger very helpful.

[2] This is ironic because, when Fr. Berry told me that, I was working with Fr. McCool on The Rahner Reader. My contribution was to provide the index.

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