Thomas Berry: Reflecting on Emotions, Heart and Conservation
An analysis of this great thinker's views on our relationships with Earth.
Posted November 20, 2020
The mind and heart of a great thinker
“That the universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects is the central commitment of the Ecozoic. Existence itself is derived from and sustained by this intimacy of each being with every other being of the universe.” —Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, p. 243
“...everything has a right to be recognized and revered. Trees have tree rights, insects have insect rights, rivers have river rights, and mountains have mountain rights.” —Thomas Berry, The Great Work, p. 5
Every now and again a book comes along that I simply can't put down and one that I've just read through and through is titled Thomas Berry: A Biography by Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal.1,2,3 I honestly don't know where to begin writing a summary of this great work that details the remarkable mind and heart of this great thinker, a self-called geologian, so here are some thoughts and feelings about the timeless views of this remarkable human being that couldn't be more timely given what's happening right now on our magnificent planet.
The current horrific pandemic is the canary in the coal mine for planetary suffering and must be recognized as such. Not only is there much food for thought in this remarkable book for people interested in conservation psychology and anthozoology, but so too for everyone who cares about the state of the world.
A great entry into Thomas' life is captured in what the authors of his biography write (p. 173): "Like Francis of Assisi, Thomas Berry's life testifies to the indestructible human spirit, the surviving triumph of human wisdom over all the follies and cruelties of our generations." This reminds me of what Jane Goodall wrote in her book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey about the indomitable human spirit.
Another entry into Thomas' mind and heart are quotes from him and some co-workers, many of which are collected here. In Thomas Berry: A Biography, you can read all about his views on a plethora of wide-ranging, but fully interconnected ideas such as jurisprudence, the importance of jurisprudence and respect and compassion of all beings and our planet as a whole, biophilia, the importance of being positive and maintaining hope, and the importance of what I call "personal rewilding." The "12 P's of personal rewilding"—all of which involve being proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful, passionate, playful, present, principled, and proud—essentially boil down to being nice to one another and trying as hard as possible to work together to make Earth a peaceful community for all.
I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas on a few occasions and enjoyed some phone calls with him. I always left these discussions with a brain fully packed with new ideas about how we must continually revisit who we are in the great scheme of things and how important it is to let emotions, compassion, respect, decency, and heart move us toward unwavering paths of coexistence, rather than useless and often violent divisive confrontations, the results of which we all suffer. Simply put, what works for Earth works for all—humans, nonhumans, flora, and inanimate landscapes—because we are all unified as a communion of subjects and deeply interconnected in a kincentric way.
Many of Thomas' ideas wound up in a number of my own books, especially Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart and Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, in which I write about the importance of personal transformations concerning our relationships with Earth and all its residents and landscapes. One of Thomas' gems reads: “The journey, the sacred journey of the universe, is the personal journey of each individual. …The universe is the larger self of each person, since the entire sequence of events that has transpired since the beginning of the universe was required to establish each of us in the precise structure of our own being and in the larger context in which we function.” This is why Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, along with Brian Swimme, created Journey of the Universe, the journey of who we are, how we got here, and where we are headed. This consists of an Emmy Award-winning film, a book, a series of conversations, and three online courses.
Thomas' countless words of wisdom also are extremely useful guides for the ever-growing global field of compassionate conservation.4 He clearly shows that there's no reason at all for people to resist expressing their deep feelings—their very hearts and souls—about how they feel about their connections to Earth and how deeply affected they are when they experience the cries of a deeply wounded and troubled planet. It baffles me when people say something like, "Oh, you're being too sentimental," or "We need to be objective about our relationships with Earth and other animals." I have no idea what they're afraid of.
There simply are no good reasons for people backing off when discussions of emotions, compassion, decency, and respect enter into debates about how to deal with our relationships with Earth as a whole or with so-called "problematic" human-nonhuman encounters. We must mind Earth and all other animals with all our hearts and build deep connections so that future generations can benefit from living in a unified and interconnected world. Indeed, reconnecting with other humans, other animals, and nature can make people more peaceful. This view is entirely consistent with the One Health initiative, a win-win for all. It's not all about us. David Johns laments, "We live in a time that may in the future be called The Great Dying."
Where to from here? Science, nature, and heart
"To a bewildered world, Thomas Berry offers a moral compass. To a fragmented world, he offers the convergence of scientific and spiritual worldviews in a new story of the evolutionary unity of humans and the cosmos. For a despairing world, he offers meaning and hope... For a suffering world, he offers a new jurisprudence of Earth rights... this biography is a brilliant, erudite, joyous book that will change your life." —Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change
This endorsement of Thomas' biography says it all. I remain an optimist, a hopeful human being. I ache with the pains of other beings and also feel pangs when I feel inanimate landscapes being destroyed. Surely we do not want to be remembered as the generation that killed Nature. No one could argue that a world absent cruelty and but full of boundless compassion, respect, grace, humility, spirituality, peace, and love would not be a better place in which to live and raise our children and theirs. We are all citizens of Earth, members of a global community in which intimate reciprocal and beneficent peaceful relationships are mandatory. We have compelling responsibilities for making Earth a better and more peaceful habitat for all beings. Time is not on our side. We must reflect and step lightly as we “redecorate nature.”
I also yearn for a seamless tapestry of oneness consisting of deep and reciprocal friendships in which all individuals count, a single community in which individuals are at one with all others, in which the see-er and the seen are one, a community in which it feels good and makes individuals happy to be kind to others. My own dreams and spirituality are based on a passionate drive for reconciliation, a seamless unity—a wholeness and oneness—motivated by trust, compassion, respect, grace, humility, and love. Science need not be suspicious of things it cannot fully understand.
Mary Evelyn Tucker and her colleagues end their book noting, "The fire continues to burn brightly. This is the deep confidence he bequeathed." (p. 264) Let's hope that Thomas' words that offer some of his most remarkable insights and deep feelings can be used to guide us through these incredibly tumultuous present times toward smoother future journeys. He writes:
“Here we might observe that the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through the earth. If the dynamics of the universe from the beginning shaped the course of the heavens, lighted the sun, and formed the earth, if this same dynamism brought forth the continents and seas and atmosphere, if it awakened life in the primordial cell and then brought into being the unnumbered variety of living beings, and finally brought us into being and guided us safely through the turbulent centuries, there is reason to believe that this same guiding process is precisely what has awakened in us our present understanding of ourselves and our relation to this stupendous process. Sensitized to such guidance from the very structure and functioning of the universe, we can have confidence in the future that awaits the human venture.” —Thomas Berry, “The New Story,” in The Dream of the Earth, p. 137.
Our very survival depends on working for universal umbrellas of heartfelt emotion, compassion, empathy, and respect that guide us as we attempt to preserve and conserve our wondrous planet. Those who shy away from being "too fluffy" or who criticize people with "too much heart" or "too much compassion" are ignoring what's happening and what Earth is clearly warning us about. They aren't paying careful attention to science, common sense, or reality. If we don't change our ways we should be engaged in serious doomsday prepping, but who really wants to do that?
Bill McKibben notes that Thomas' biography "helps chart the course for our future." I wholeheartedly agree. My humble suggestion is that you read and share this wonderful biography of a most remarkable human being. Even if you can't read the entire book, reflect on his messages summarized here. They will change your life and those with whom you share these prescient and precious words of wisdom that couldn't be more timely. Indifference is deadly.
Expressing our emotions about the current state of the world is just what is needed in these troubling times. Turning to Thomas Berry is a wonderful move in the right direction.
1) I thank Mary Evelyn Tucker for helping me along with this piece. She and John Grim teach at the Yale School of the Environment and the Yale Divinity School, where they direct the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. They worked closely with Thomas Berry for over thirty years as his students, editors, and literary executors and are the managing trustees of the Thomas Berry Foundation. In 2019, the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture selected them as recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Andrew Angyal is professor emeritus of English and environmental studies at Elon University. He is also the author of Loren Eisley, Lewis Thomas, and Wendell Berry.
2) The book's description reads: Thomas Berry (1914–2009) was one of the twentieth century’s most prescient and profound thinkers. As a cultural historian, he sought a broader perspective on humanity’s relationship to the earth in order to respond to the ecological and social challenges of our times. This first biography of Berry illuminates his remarkable vision and its continuing relevance for achieving transformative social change and environmental renewal.
Berry began his studies in Western history and religions and then expanded to include Asian and indigenous religions, which he taught at Fordham University, Barnard College, and Columbia University. Drawing on his explorations of history, he came to see the evolutionary process as a story that could help restore the continuity of humans with the natural world. Berry urged humans to recognize their place on a planet with complex ecosystems in a vast, evolving universe. He sought to replace the modern alienation from nature with a sense of intimacy and responsibility. Berry called for new forms of ecological education, law, and spirituality, as well as the creation of resilient agricultural systems, bioregions, and ecocities. At a time of growing environmental crisis, this biography shows the ongoing significance of Berry’s conception of human interdependence with the earth as part of the unfolding journey of the universe.
3) For more information on Thomas Berry's publications and video and audio media click here.
4) Many references about compassionate conservation can be found here.
Bekoff, Marc. A Rewilding Manifesto: Compassion, Biophilia, and Hope
_____. A Journey to Ecocentrism: Earth Jurisprudence and Rewilding.
_____. Conservation Science Shouldn't Be All About Us. (David Johns writes about freeing Earth and other species from human domination.).
_____. The Personal Side of Extinction: The Case of Orca Scarlet. (Orca expert Lori Marino writes about emotional suffering and species losses.)
_____. Do Individual Wolves Care if Their Species Is on the Brink?
_____. Minding animals, minding earth: Science, nature, kinship, and heart. Human Ecology Review, 10(1), 56-76, 2003.
_____. A Bug and a Bird: COVID and the State of Our Planet. (The horrific pandemic is the canary in the coal mine for planetary suffering.)
_____. Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues: Reflections on Redecorating Nature. Temple University Press, 2006.
_____. Expanding Our Compassion Footprint: Minding Animals As We Redecorate Nature.
_____ and Dale Jamieson. Reflective ethology, applied philosophy, and the moral status of animals. Perspectives in Ethology. 1991.
Goodall, Jane. The Indomitable Human Spirit: Conservationist Jane Goodall Spreads Hope in Beijing.
Nelson, Melissa K. DECOLONIZING CONQUEST CONSCIOUSNESS. Center for Humans & Nature, October 26, 2020. (In this piece we read, "Indigenous and other traditional land-based peoples have demonstrated, over millennia, what Enrique Salmón and Dennis Martinez have termed a “kincentric” philosophy of life. We humans are profoundly interrelated in kinship networks with the entire fabric of life; from rocks to redwoods, butterflies to bears, clouds to corn."
Waldau, Paul and Kimberley Christine Patton. (editors) A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics. Columbia University Press, 2006.