Eco-Theology and the Earth
A Book Review
by Ron Shafer
Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth
San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990
Father Thomas Berry, a solitary American monk, has written a wonderfully beautiful and incredibly important book. Dr. Donald B. Conroy, President of the North American Conference on Religion and Ecology, says, "This volume quite possibly is one of the ten most important books of the twentieth century."
Scientific researchers in this century are discovering a universe that is dynamically alive: a whole system, fluid and interconnected, a new version of the "enchanted" world that was so much a part of the natural mind for most of human history. Berry argues that the loss of this world view in the last three hundred years has resulted in the present environmental crisis. The Dream of the Earth is an exploration into what it means to be part of a universe that is alive.
Berry sees a new Ecological Age coming and sets forth principles that ought to guide us in developing technologies that will mutually enhance both the human community and the earth process. In "Economics as a Religious Issue," he observes, "Creation must now be experienced as the emergence of the universe as a psychic/spiritual as well as material/physical reality from the beginning....We need to see ourselves as integral with this emergent process....All human professions, institutions, and activities must be integral with the earth as the primary self-nourishing, self-governing, and self-fulfilling community.... (this) is our way into the future."
One of the principal characteristics of the emerging Ecological Age is the move from a human-centered norm of reality and value to a nature-centered norm. Berry says, "We cannot expect life, the earth, and the universe to fit our rational human designs of how life, the earth, and the universe should function. We must fit our thinking and our actions within the larger process. We must move from democracy to biocracy. We need a constitution for the North American continent, not simply a constitution for the humans occupying this continent. We need a United Species, not simply a United Nations." To Berry, too much of what we are doing is irreversible. He defines "bioregion" as an identifiable, geographic area of interacting life systems which are relatively self-sustaining in the ever-renewing processes of nature. Of primary importance in North America is identifying the various bioregions with sensitivity akin to that of the Shamanic personality of tribal peoples. He goes on to give us an extraordinary example of a successful bioregion in the "The Hudson River Valley: A Bioregional Story."
Father Berry sees our way into the future as recognizing that our cultural traditions are themselves a major source of our difficulty. We must go beyond our cultural coding to our genetic coding to ask for guidance. Importantly, the genetic coding for life on the North American continent is preserved in Native American peoples: "The fate of the continent, the fate of the Indian, and our own fate are finally identical. None can be saved except in and through the others."
"In relation to the earth, we have been autistic for centuries. Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth's demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy of the universe."
Thomas Berry has given us a wondrous vision of how we may drastically change our lives to live in harmony with the earth, and he has done it in marvelous, clear, poetic/prose that lyrically speaks to our souls.