Thomas Berry: Dreamer of the Earth

While news reports of recent days focus on the war being waged against Ukraine and its people, a solitary voice cries out in desperate warning about a different war: that being waged by humans upon our planet, our Mother Earth. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in the briefest of news clips speaks of the upward revision of degrees now being predicted for our planet’s temperature within this century.

Seeking the quote online, I came upon the transcript of a talk given by Guterres to Columbia University in NYC in December, 2020. Pointing out dire current environmental and climate trends, Guterres said: “Humanity is waging war on nature.” Noting the ways in which nature is “striking back with growing force and fury,” including not only natural disasters but also the spread of COVID, Guterres stated that “making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century.”

That clear statement sent me back to a book of essays, honouring the Spiritual Ecology of Thomas Berry. In his foreword to Dreamer of the Earth (Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2011), Ervin Lazslo offers us Thomas Berry’s analysis of the root causes of our ecological crisis. Berry saw the ineffectiveness of our efforts to solve it through “simply adaptation to a reduced supply of fuels” and by making modifications to “our system of social or economic controls.” Berry was convinced that neither our efforts to find cheaper sources of energy nor seeking to stabilize an economy in crisis through pumping money into it would solve our problems. He told us that the order of magnitude of what we face requires “a radical change in our mode of consciousness. Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it means to be human.”

Berry cuts through our belief in the superiority of our modern world over past ages. “Even the most primitive tribes have a larger vision of the universe, of our place and functioning within it, a vision that extends to celestial regions of space and to interior depths of the human in a manner far exceeding the parameters of our own world of technological confinement.”  

Berry points out the folly that led humans to lose their intimate connection with the universe: “While former civilizations established our exalted place within the seasonal sequence of the earth’s natural rhythms and established those spiritual centers where the meeting of the divine, the natural, and the human could take place, the new effort, beginning in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century work of Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton, was less concerned with such psychic energies than with physical forces at work in the universe and the manner in which we could avail ourselves of these energies to serve our own well-being.”

Lazslo points out that while “these great pioneers of modern science were themselves deeply spiritual people with vast horizons”, their followers mistook explanations for the “mechanistic regularities observed in the natural world” for its fundamental nature. It was these Newtonians and Galileans who gave birth to what Berry called the “objective world”.

Berry describes this as “a world clearly distinct from ourselves and available not as a means of divine communion, but as a vast realm of natural resources for exploitation and consumption.” What we are living now on this planet are the consequences of this denial of the sacredness of the earth, the consequences of our matricide.     

Acknowledging the critical problems we’re facing, Ervin Lazslo asks what each of us asks, “What is it that needs to be done?” Lazslo finds the answer in the words of Thomas Berry: “What we need, what we are ultimately groping towards, is the sensitivity required to understand and respond to the psychic energies deep in the very structure of reality itself.….this is the ultimate lesson in physics, biology, and all the sciences, as it is the ultimate wisdom of tribal peoples and the fundamental teaching of the great civilizations.”

How are we to evolve this sensitivity? Lazslo advises that we heed Berry: “We need only to listen to what we are being told through the structure and functioning of our being….the universe is so immediate to us, is such an intimate presence, that is escapes our notice, yet whatever authenticity exists in our cultural creations is derived from these spontaneities within us, spontaneities that come from an abyss of energy and a capacity for intelligible order of which we have only the faintest glimmer in our conscious awareness.”

We access the spontaneities of the universe through a vision that is dreamlike. As Berry writes, “In the beginning was the dream. Through the dream all things were made, and without the dream nothing was made that has been made.”  Elsewhere he says, “We are immersed in the depths of our own being and of the cosmic order itself in the dream world that unfolds within us in sleep, or in the visionary moments that seize upon us in our waking hours.”   

Is there hope? Berry finds it in the very extremity of our situation which he foresaw clearly in the years before his death in 2009:

“(W)e are not left simply to our own natural contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers of the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities within our own being….”

“The universe is revealing itself to us in a special manner just now. Also the planet Earth and the life communities of the earth are speaking to us through the deepest elements of our nature.”

(All Berry quotes are from The Dream of the Earth Sierra Club, 1988)  

2 thoughts on “Thomas Berry: Dreamer of the Earth”

  1. Such an important reflection on the state of our worldl. Despite all the warnings of scientists about the climate crisis, we continue to go about destroying one another and our very life support system through war, pollution, over consumption. When will we learn to love one another and collaborate in caring for our Earth?


  2. How perfect for this time, Anne Kathleen – and meeting the trees, leaning against the huge stones for long periods, spending time in their silence – all the ways I feel the Earth welcoming me, without words, of course…


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