Thomas Berry, Passionist priest, named by TIME as one of the top 100 thinkers of the 20th century died this week at 94 leaving behind an inspiring corpus of work as yet poorly integrated in Catholic theology.
Calling himself a “geologian” Berry was one of the prime movers away from the depressing “fall/ redemption” story of original sin which has held reign for far too long in Catholic circles. The idea that creation is mired in original sin until it was rescued by the sacrificial death was far too negative and short sighted. As John Spong reminded us “Contemporary atonement ideas have succeeded primarily in turning God into a child-abusing heavenly parent. They have also turned Jesus into being the ultimate, perhaps even the masochistic, victim of a sadistic father God.”
Not having the benefit of Hubble telescopes and our modern understanding of the earth’s evolution, our predecessors were mired in a blinkered scientific view of the world . No fault of theirs so we just kept repeating this tired salvation story until cosmic prophets like Berry and Teilhard forced us to think long and deep. Aquinas in the 13th century understood well that Creation was and is the first word of God.
We became consumed with words and books, lived in our heads instead of looking at the stars and the miracles around us. So Berry told us
To preserve the natural world as the primary revelation of the divine must be the basic concern of religion.
Berry was among the growing band of theologians who wish to refocus theology away from “the personal saviour orientation” of the last two thousand years. These thinkers are stating the obvious: God’s intimacy with the earth has been there since the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago. God has never not been present. As this evolutionary thinking has advanced and become known to a growing educated community of believers, ecclesial leaders caught in static institutions and centrally controlled feudal structures, began to get very nervous. The Catholic Church which has always regarded itself as the primary arbiter of revealed truth seemed paralyzed. Ironically, through the ages, it had shown remarkable resilience adapting itself to new currents of thought and quietly abandoning outworn ideas. It is cathching up to Berry.
Aided by the new physics which has moved away from individual atoms to a more relational and interdependent idea of the basic structure of life, that everything is relational, nothing stands alone, scientists now are more open to people like Berry who see universe and God as inextricably intertwined.
And on Trinity Sunday where Christians acknowledge the Divine as relational, Tom Berry’s life and work remind us that we are all in the midst of a new and exciting Story:
The Universe story is the quintessence of reality. We perceive the story. We put it in our language, the birds put it in theirs, and the trees put it in theirs. We can read the story of the Universe in the trees. Everything tells the story of the Universe. The winds tell the story, literally, not just imaginatively. The story has its imprint everywhere, and that is why it is so important to know the story. If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself; you do not know anything.