“The modern equivalent of the biblical book of Revelation” is the way that The Bloomsbury Review described Thomas Berry’s book The Great Work: Our Way into the Future when it was published in 1999. The similarity lies not in the literary style since Berry does not write about supernatural events, everlasting torments, and the heavenly city with streets of gold even though he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest early in his career. Instead, he writes in language learned in his later studies that made him an acknowledged authority in the history of world cultures and religions, especially Asian and Native American. This wealth of knowledge is apparent throughout the book. He sometimes referred to himself as a geologian.
Berry focuses much of his attention upon the ecological and climate crisis, convinced that human life in the future needs to be guided by a deep understanding of the evolving universe.
During a sixty-year publishing career, Berry wrote ten books, and The Great Work, which I found on a sale table outside of Annie Bloom’s Books in Multnomah Village, on the southwestern side of Portland, Oregon, is the only one I know. The first few lines of his introduction persuaded me to buy the book: “Human presence on the planet Earth in the opening years of the twenty-first century is the subject of this book. We need to understand where we are and how we got here. Once we are clear on these issues we can move forward with our historical destiny, to create a mutually enhancing mode of human dwelling on the planet Earth.”
Berry provides a synopsis of this book in the first chapter where he states that “history is governed by those overarching moments that give shape and meaning to life by relating the human venture to the larger destinies of the universe. Creating such a movement might be called the Great Work of a people.” He then names earlier Great Works—in the classical Greek world, Israel, Rome, the Western world of the medieval period, China, and the world of the First Peoples who occupied the American continent. European occupation led to dramatic changes that combined assaults upon the indigenous peoples, the plundering of the land, and “a devastation that led to an impasse in our relations with the natural world. . . . . The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, 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 way.”
The Great Work contains a multi-faceted account of the development of the modern period, with chapters on the university, ecological geography, and ethics and ecology. A chapter on “the new political alignment explores a change in the basic tension in human affairs between conservative and liberal. What once was “based on social orientation is being replaced with the tension between developers and ecologists based on orientation toward the natural world.” This conflict cannot easily be resolved because the “violence already done to the Earth is on a scale beyond acceptability. . . . The change required by the ecologist is a drastic reduction in the plundering processes of the commercial-industrial economy.”
Berry’s critique appears in chapters entitled “The Corporation Story, The Extractive Economy, and The Petroleum Interval.” Our challenge is to “re-invent the human” and in the process develop a new era in geological time, moving us from the Cenozoic age to the Ecozoic. Nature requires a radically new response “beyond that of rational calculation, beyond philosophical reasoning, beyond scientific insight. The natural world demands a response that rises from the wild unconscious depths of the human soul.” This response must have “a supreme creative power, for the Cenozoic Era in the story of Earth is fading as the sun sets in the western sky. Our hope for the future is for a new dawn, an Ecozoic Era, when humans will be present to the earth in a mutually enhancing way.”
This new way of being human in the universe will be rooted in four streams of wisdom that Berry identifies as central elements of human reality. In the life, thought, and ritual of indigenous peoples we find agreement “in the intimacy of humans with the natural world in a single community of existence.” In the wisdom of women can be found “the description of the universe as a mutually nourishing presence of all things with each other.” Similar ideas are present in classical traditions and in the traditions of modern science.
We can feel secure as we undertake The Great Work, Berry writes near the conclusion of this book. “The guidance, the inspiration and the energy we need is available. The accomplishment of the Great Work is the task not simply of the human community but of the entire planet Earth. Even beyond Earth, it is the Great Work of the universe itself.”
Rather than the picture language of dragons and angels used John in the book of Revelation, Berry uses a simpler language that combines history, science, culture, and religious vision. Both writers describe the new world that we can hope for and pray for—and, as Berry tells us in this book, work for. As he makes clear, for the people of our age, this has become our Great Work!