‘The Great Work: Our Way into the Future’ by Thomas Berry

Bell Tower/Random House New York 1999

ISBN 978-0-609-80499-5

Reviewed by Alex Wildwood


This is a prophetic, challenging and inspiring book, which both synthesises and elaborates on themes implicit in Dream of the Earth and The Universe Story. The ‘Great Work’ of the title is the historical task given to those of us living at this critical time, that of ‘managing the arduous transition’ to what Berry calls the emerging Ecozoic Era, the period when humans will be present to the planet as participating members of the comprehensive Earth community. Our historical mission is ‘to reinvent the human’; collectively we have to move industrial civilisation ‘from its present devastating influence on the earth to a more benign mode of presence’. For Thomas Berry, ‘the nobility of our lives’ as well as the physical survival of our species (and many more besides) depends upon how we understand and fulfil this destiny.

What has led us to this historically unprecedented situation, an age of extinctions unknown since the end of the age of the dinosaurs 67 million years ago? Berry is uncompromising and unflinching in his thorough analysis of the crises we face – for this alone the book deserves to be widely read. The root issue, he argues, is a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being and the bestowal of all rights on the humans. The other-than-human has come to have reality and value only through their use by the human, and have become totally vulnerable to exploitation.

Berry traces this attitude through ‘the four establishments’ of modern society – governments, corporations, universities, and religions. What is prophetic about his voice is its breadth of vision, the author’s warm humanity and worldliness and his insistence that we do not live by bread alone: if the outer world is diminished in its grandeur then the emotional, imaginative, intellectual and spiritual life of the human is diminished or extinguished. Without the soaring birds, the great forests, the sounds and coloration of the insects, the free-flowing streams, the flowering fields, the sight of the clouds by day and the stars by night, we become impoverished in all that makes us human’ (200).

The theme of rights is central to Berry’s argument. The bulk of the book is spent critically examining how the four establishments consciously or unconsciously continue to promote discontinuity between the human and the nonhuman – whereas the Great Work of our time has to do with developing a new understanding and respect for the mystery that is the planet earth. Berry combines both the love of the particular and specific, the reverence for place that is the essence of bioregionalism, with a masterful distillation of his life-long studies as a cultural historian. He relates our present ecological holocaust to other overarching historical movements, the Great Work of classical Greece, of ancient Israel and of Rome, of medieval Christianity, of the civilisations of China and India. He offers the reader a detailed ‘ecological geography’ in which he illustrates his view that ‘the high purpose of human presence on the Earth’ is ‘to experience its endless wonder, its functional integrity and to enter into intimate relations with the various life communities of these regions’ (87). Tracing the disastrous rise of the transnational corporations (focusing inevitably on the North American experience), Berry paints a bleak picture of the planetary-wide influence of what he calls ‘the extractive economy’ of the late nineteenth and twentieth century – an era he wryly characterises as ‘the petroleum interval’.

Given his sustained and damning indictment of how the ‘commercial industrial powers’ have exponentially devastated the natural world in the past two centuries – so that the Earth is now seen solely as a collection of commodities to be bought and sold, how we have, in effect, ‘created a technosphere incompatible with the biosphere’ (167) – the surprising thing about this book is that Berry is so soberly optimistic. Always seeing the ‘human project’ in the context of an emergent universe, Berry finds hope in the ‘widespread awakening to the wonder of the Earth’ in this time. Whilst never flinching from the reality of our situation Berry writes with infectious hope because he sees mounting evidence that now, just when ‘a new revelatory experience is needed’, human consciousness is indeed awakening ‘to the grandeur and sacred quality of the earth process’ (165).

What is so heartening in Berry’s vision is his underlying conviction that ‘the entire universe has been involved in shaping our individual psychic as well as our physical being from that first awesome moment when the universe emerged’ (69). His mature, persistent encouragement to his readers is borne of a faith in certain key human traditions – a ‘fourfold wisdom’ – which, he believes, can guide us into a sustainable future. The first wisdom we need is that of the indigenous peoples of the earth – who model ‘a more integral human presence to the earth’, a sustained cohabitation with the nonhuman we must learn from. The second is the wisdom of women, who ‘join the knowing of the body to that of mind, soul to spirit, intuition to reasoning, feeling consciousness to intellectual analysis, intimacy to detachment, subjective presence to objective distance’. The third is the wisdom of the classical traditions – in particular the biblical, the Greek humanist, and the Roman imperial – which together form the mythical, intellectual and ethical/legal underpinnings of Western civilisation, and which have long promoted the vision of our necessary participation in some Great Work or other. Finally Berry finds hope in the wisdom of science – particularly its discovery that the universe has come into being by a sequence of evolutionary transformations over an immense period of time. This, Berry sees as the foundation of the new sacred story humanity yearns for.

If we are to survive, if we are to realise our human destiny in this story of an unfolding universe, we need to align our human wills with ‘the deeper structures of reality’ of the universe itself. For … We are not lacking in the dynamic forces needed to create the future. We live immersed in a sea of energy beyond all comprehension. But this energy, in an ultimate sense, is not ours by domination but by invocation (175).

In this far-sighted book, which is likely to be his last, Thomas Berry admirably fulfils his role as sage and elder-statesman of the Creation Spirituality movement. Challenging to the end, he reminds his readers that ‘the Great Work of a people is the work of all the people. No one is exempt … Personal work needs to be aligned with the Great work’. The product of a passionate, rigorous intelligence, this book is also clearly a work of love, a gift for us to carry into the twenty-first century. But as much as his invaluable scholarship, it is perhaps Berry’s poetical expression of vision that can sustain us:

We must feel that we are supported by that same power that brought the Earth into being, that power that spun the galaxies into space, that lit the sun and brought the moon into its orbit. That is the power by which living forms grew up out of the Earth and came to a special mode of reflexive consciousness in the human. This is the force that brought us through more than a million years of wandering as hunters and gatherers; this is the same vitality that led to the establishment of our cities and inspired the thinkers, artists, and poets of the ages. Those same forces are still present; indeed, we might feel their impact at this time and understand that we are not isolated in the chill of space with the burden of the future upon us and without the aid of any other power (174).

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