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The Great Work

Reviewed by Susan Bridle

book review

Susan Bridle considers eco-theologian Thomas Berry's resounding call to our ecological conscience.
The Great Work: Our Way into the Future
(Bell Tower: New York, 1999)

I sit here before a blank screen in a difficult predicament. I'm writing a review of a book that I feel very strongly about. Simple enough—ideally one wants to feel strongly about the books one reviews. But in this case, the trouble is, I also feel very strongly divided about it. One of the reviewers in my head wants to heap on the accolades and shout from the rooftops: Read this book! It could change the world as we know it! The other reviewer, unfortunately sharing the same keyboard, is needled with doubts and reservations and is tempted to take out my mental X-Acto knife and launch a pointed critique. The book provoking this war of the words is eco-theologian Thomas Berry's latest collection of essays, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future.

I first encountered The Great Work early in our preparation for this issue of What Is Enlightenment? when our editorial team picked it up and began to read it aloud together, as we often do with the seminal books that serve as catalysts in our research and investigation of the themes we explore in the magazine. Chapter after chapter, as we passed it around, stopping frequently to reflect upon, exclaim about, and discuss some of Berry's key points, the book riveted our attention, driving home the horrors wrought on our fragile planet by human hands and the profoundly uncertain future of life in our ravaged biosphere. More than anything else we had come across, as we put together an issue devoted to examining the role of spiritual awakening in addressing the urgent environmental and social crises we face today, The Great Work was a wake-up call. At times we fell into silence, stunned by the starkness of the picture Berry paints. He calls for an awakening of ecological conscience that goes far beyond a commitment to recycling or living the basic tenets of voluntary simplicity. The human/earth predicament is now so grave, Berry asserts, that only a radical re-visioning of what it means to be human on this planet will suffice. As we made our way through the book, a few chapters per afternoon over the course of a week, Berry's voice became a nagging mosquito in my mind. A deeper ecological conscience was indeed being called up from the roots. Yet inexplicably, at the same time, I experienced a sense of subtle suffocation, a kind of flattening effect on my consciousness, a dulling rather than a vivifying atmosphere that seemed very at odds with the starkness of the issues being confronted. I came away from our reading sessions convinced beyond doubt that The Great Work is a truly important book that many, many people should read, consider, and deeply grapple with—even while I continued to have significant questions about it.

A grandfather of the deep ecology movement and a Catholic priest in the Passionist order, Thomas Berry is a prophetic visionary, a voice of the crying wilderness, a resounding call to wake up from our nightmare of alienation from and devastation of the earth. The Great Work is the culmination of his lifetime of contemplation, as both a renowned cultural historian and a catalytic environmental activist, of humankind's evolving relationship with our planet. His central thesis is that each era of human history has its own particular "Great Work," which can be seen as the central aspiration of a culture that gives shape to its cultural forms and worldviews and furthers the human venture in a distinct way. From the ascendancy of reason and humanistic values championed in classical Greece to the personal rights, religious freedom, and participatory government established by the Industrial Age, the arc of history is punctuated by these great movements that provide new forms and meaning for the human endeavor. "The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium," he explains, "is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner. This historical change is something more than the transition from the classical Roman period to the medieval period, or from the medieval period to modern times. Such a transition has no historical parallel since the geobiological transition that took place sixty-seven million years ago when the period of the dinosaurs was terminated and a new biological age begun." Humankind becoming truly "present to the planet" is the heart of the matter. "Our fulfillment is not in our isolated human grandeur," he insists, "but in our intimacy with the larger earth community, for this is also the larger dimension of our being. Our human destiny is integral with the destiny of the earth." What is now required of us is a wholesale "reinvention of the human, at the species level, . . . within the community of life-systems." For Berry, this is simply, unavoidably, "the historical mission of our times."

The wisdom of the past, Berry asserts, is entirely inadequate for the challenges that lie ahead. Our religious and cultural traditions took shape in ages when we had no notion of the vast extent of cosmological evolution, in eras when we little perceived the subtleties of the interdependencies and interactions among species, in times when the pressure of humans on the planet through our burgeoning population and technology was far less lethal. "The devastation taking place cannot be critiqued effectively from within the traditional religions or humanist ethics," he writes. "We find ourselves ethically destitute just when, for the first time, we are faced with ultimacy, the irreversible closing down of the earth's functioning in its major life systems. Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the earth, and geocide, the devastation of the earth itself. . . . The human is at a cultural impasse. . . . Radical new forms are needed. These new cultural forms would place the human within the dynamics of the planet rather than place the planet within the dynamics of the human."

Cosmologist Brian Swimme has described Berry's work as the emergence of a new eye and a new ear with which to see and hear the earth and comprehend our place within it. "Of course, in an obvious sense we have eyes and ears and we can regard the earth," Swimme writes. "We have photographs, geophysical surveys, historical studies. . . . But the vision of the earth Thomas Berry points to is something more. . . . [His] essays, . . . once assimilated, begin to rework one's visual, aural, intellectual, imaginative, emotional, and spiritual orientation in the world. . . . [In] our new experience [of] the earth through the eyes of Thomas Berry, . . . colors reveal unsuspected hues, and not all of them are soothing; sounds swell with new meanings, but not all of them are comforting; human actions bespeak hitherto unimaginable significance, but not all of it is complimentary."*

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