Berry’s shortfall

The late Thomas Berry (1914-2009) tried desperately to bridge the scriptural religions of the West (specifically Christianity) with an ecological or environmental spirituality. He was at times eloquent in describing the origins and nature of the chasm, the identity of modern enlightenment views of nature with those of he scriptural religions, the character of the ecological crisis resulting from a rapacity and consumption that views nature as an object to exploit.

But Berry fell short of fully comprehending the late awakening of Western humanity to what it has done to the world of nature:

In traditional Christian thought, creation is generally presented as part of the teaching on “God in himself and in relation to his creation.” But this metaphysical, biblical, medieval, and theological context for understanding creation is not especially helpful in understanding the creation of the Earth and of the universe, as presented in scientific textbooks of Art or life sciences. …

While Berry here identifies the origins of Western thought (he elsewhere adds the Enlightenment), he only says that its categories of thinking are “not especially helpful.” He does not explain why it should have thrived and conquered and remained the vehicle for discussion, the lingua franca of Western thought even as it reshapes itself as critique. He does not explain what drove (and still drives) this mode of thinking, how it propels all of the values and institutions of modernism, how it overtakes the very structures of thought, let alone the technology and social discourse.

Not merely unhelpful, this mode is demonstrably inimical, but tightly-bound to culture so that no logical gaps occur and no ethical gaps are possible, although Berry and others wish it otherwise. So tightly does it bind thought that even the self-conscious Western thinker cannot escape the paradox of believing that new revisionist ways of thinking about the same things will promote a reform, a solution. Hence, Berry hoped that such new theorizing would perform a breakthrough:

This new narrative enables us to enter into the deep mystery of creation with a new depth of understanding. It is our human version of the story that is told by every leaf on every tree, by the wind that blows across the fields in the evening, by the butterfly in its journey south to its winter habitat, by the mountains and rivers of all the continents of the Earth.

A lyric passage, but it does not show exactly what the objects of nature will teach Western observers — or, rather, what Westerners will in fact learn, despite having had centuries to do so, and especially now that the time left is dwindling so quickly and the effects loom irreversibly.

Nature teaches indigenous peoples, but only because their consciousness never renounced organic embeddedness with their natural habitat. Nature teaches Eastern thinkers because they are rooted in philosophy that extends back to and originates in natural philosophy and expression versus dependence on human reason. (Even Easterners like Krishnamurti overemphasize reason and logic in attempting to “improve” Eastern modalities of thought.) But the building materials for a Westerner are already inadequate, broken, and inaccessible, and cannot use the same categories and structures that got us here in the first place.

Alternatives to a disciplined natural philosophy based on ethics but also emotion and taking into account what we know today of culture and technology have not fully matured in the West, or the East given the character of the problems. Alternatives may include nature philosophies of Jungian or Gnostic or phenomenological exploration. And there are the literal applications of living simply that have no particular philosophical apparatus attached to them, if that is possible. But any effort at this point is likely to be contrived, manufactured, thought-out, hampered by culture and its vocabulary, even a philosophy of solitude that would reunite the human being with its source, however we define it, or however we don’t define it.