Sunday, January 29, 2023

Thomas Berry: Views of death

Thomas Berry

“The challenges of life demand our full attention and concern, so I don’t normally entertain questions about death, or life after death. My basic orientation is that death is an intrinsic dimension of life. I am certain the universe will take care of us in death just as it has in life,” Thomas said. “But all of us end up reflecting on this question sometime or other and perhaps now is that time for you. I’ll give you my theory of death, and then you can tell me yours. No, let’s start with Teilhard de Chardin’s theory, which I believe is unique in the tradition of reflections on death and the afterlife primarily because he is thinking in the context of a developing universe. The vast majority of human reflection on death, including that of Thomas Aquinas and Dante, takes place in the context of a fixed cosmos.


“Teilhard’s thinking is that a complete annihilation at death cannot be the case because in order for humans to embrace the evolutionary challenges, they must have the sense that there is a way forward, that the future is open. If humans came to regard death as their end, they could still find value in caring for their families and others in need, certainly, but it would be nothing like what they would experience were they convinced their actions had eternal significance. In his later years, Teilhard’s deep concern became the activation of energy. He saw nihilism not as a moral mistake but as a cosmological dead end. His primary objection to the notion that the universe is meaningless is that such a conviction enervates humanity.


“There you have it. Teilhard’s faith in the universe’s development leads to his sense of immortality. Teilhard felt humanity as a whole will one day achieve a deep conviction of immortality and this will be on the order of a major evolutionary achievement, along the lines of aerobic respiration or photosynthesis. It will lead to a massive influx of energy into the human adventure.


As for myself,” Berry has said, “my thinking is darker, not in the sense of cynicism or depression, but in the sense of an appreciation for that which lies beyond language. I don’t believe that at our stage of development we humans have the cognitive capacities for understanding the deepest dynamics at work in the universe. Perhaps we will someday, but at the present time, the complexity of the universe far outstrips our theories."


Thomas Berry was a cultural historian (1914-2009) and a Catholic priest. His views are presented in a dialogue with cosmologist Brian Thomas Swimme in Swimme's 2022 book, Cosmogenesis (pp. 291-292). Catapult. Kindle Edition.

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