Thomas Berry – The Great Work: Our way into the Future

Thomas Berry was an American cosmologist, ecotheologian, and Catholic priest who died in 2009. His major books include The Dream of the Earth, and The Great Work.


He believes the Great Work of our times is to reconnect humanity with nature. This has to start at the vision/dream level. He observes that not only in Native American, but many other cultures, e.g. early Christian (Benedictine, Cistercian) and Chinese, humans aimed to align their spiritual life with nature, e.g. the seasons. “We lose our intimacy with the natural world once we take on a secular life attitude.”

However, he emphasises we can’t simply go back in time. He says we need “three commitments” to progress:
i. To “observational science,” recognising this has moved well beyond mere materialistic reductionism.
ii. To the idea of a “developmental universe,” i.e. one that’s engaged in “an irreversible emergent process.”
iii. “to recognise that there exists at every level a basic tendency towards self-organisation.” (Including the Earth as a whole).

Berry is eloquent about the need to reconnect with the wild and sacred: “There is an ultimate wildness in…the universe, [for it], as existence itself, is a terrifying as well as a benign mode of being.” “It is out of the wild depths of the universe and of our own being that the greater visions must come.” This implies that the way out of current worldly chaos may look even more wild and chaotic.

Thomas Berry

Thomas Berry

There is deep work to be done in restoring the human connections to Nature. Our separation from nature “is healed…as soon as we perceive that the entire universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not primarily of objects to be exploited.” He goes on: “We must find our primary source of guidance in the inherent tendencies of our genetic coding…In Jungian terms…the primary archetypal forms [which]…find expression in the symbols of the Heroic Journey, Death-Rebirth…the Great Mother, the Tree of Life.”

Parallels between the individual and the whole cosmos can help this process: “…the story of the universe…is our most valuable resource in establishing a viable mode of being for the human species…” “…a new revelatory experience is needed…wherein human consciousness wakens to the grandeur and sacred quality of the Earth process.” “We must…experience the universe in its psychic as well as its physical aspect…the sequence of evolutionary transformations as moments of grace and also as celebration moments in our new experience of the sacred.”

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