Thomas Berry, The Great Work

The story of the late nineteenth and the entire twentieth century has been largely the story of petroleum, its discovery and use by humans, and the social and cultural consequences in human society. The story of the twenty-first century will be the story of the terminal phase of petroleum and the invention of new patterns of human living. (p.150)
The most important thing for me about Thomas Berry's The Great Work: Our Way into the Future is that it's got me questioning my opposition to all things spiritual, religious, or faith-based. His rejection of standard theological responses to environmental crisis is pretty thorough, even if he's deeply respectful of their efforts, so his call for an ecospiritual awakening is oddly compelling. Thomas Berry as Bhagwan, without the gold-plated limos? Not really, no, but this is a real unsettling of my way of thinking, and I'm grateful to him for it.

Don't get me wrong. My skin still crawls at remarks like "There is a spiritual capacity in carbon as there is a carbon component functioning in our highest spiritual experience. If some scientists consider that all this is merely a material process, then what they call matter, I call mind, soul, spirit, or consciousness" (p.25). Well, the second sentence is okay, more or less, but the first one gets my eyes a-rolling.

Berry's view on humans is that we're part of "the integral universe." Our highest function is to exist as the way that the universe is conscious of itself -- we're conscious, we humans, but we need to be conscious not of ourselves but of the universe, on behalf of the universe: "we are that reality in whom the entire Earth comes to a special mode of reflexive consciousness. We are ourselves a mystical quality of the Earth" (p.174). More than that, the universe itself is creative in and of itself, with evolution "neither random nor determined but creative" (p.169), such that the universe itself "must be experienced as The Great Self" (p.170), as distinct from the individual self as whom each of us lives.

Imagine there's a smooth transition or segue here.

As horrifying as the images are of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it's important to remember that all of this oil was going to be turned into one form of pollution or another anyway, whether as smoke or as toxins or as indestructible plastics. It's just that it's all happened at once, in a single form. The Boston Globe's "Big Picture" gallery is heartbreaking, but it's just a more dramatic form of pollution. It's not like all the oil was going to live on a farm where it could run around free.

So yeah, I'm thinking about ways to reimagine my way into the world. Who isn't? Thomas Berry's ecospirituality is for me neither the truth, the way, nor the light, but I've come away from The Great Work more prepared to hear out those for whom it's the best available option.

Though it isn't.


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