Thomas Berry was born in Greensboro, North Carolina where he spent his early childhood and where he returned when he was 80. It was there that he died peacefully on June 1, 2009. Named William Nathan after his father he was the third child of thirteen of which four siblings remain. He entered the Passionist Order in high school and upon ordination he took the name Thomas after Thomas Aquinas whose Summa Theologica he admired.
He received his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America in European intellectual history with a thesis on Giambattista Vico. Widely read in Western history and theology, he also spent many years studying and teaching the cultures and religions of Asia. He lived in China in 1948 where he met the Asian scholar and Confucian specialist, Ted de Bary. Their collaboration led to the founding of the Asian Thought and Religion Seminar at Columbia. Thomas authored two books on Asian religions, Buddhism and Religions of India, both of which are distributed by Columbia University Press.
For more than twenty years, Thomas directed the Riverdale Center of Religious Research along the Hudson River. During this period he taught at Fordham University where he chaired the history of religions program. He directed some twenty doctoral theses, including those of John Grim and Brian Brown, as well as many Master’s theses, including those of Mary Evelyn Tucker and Kathleen Deignan. From 1975-1987 he was President of the American Teilhard Association, and it was from Teilhard de Chardin that he was inspired to develop his idea of a universe story. With Brian Swimme he wrote The Universe Story (Harper San Francisco, 1992), which arose from a decade of collaborative research.
His major contributions to the discussions on the environment are in his books The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club Books, 1998), The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (Random House/Bell Towers, 1999), and Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community (Sierra Club/University of California Press, 2006). His final two books focusing on world religions and on Christianity were published in September 2009: The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century by Columbia University Press and The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth by Orbis Books.
Addressing past historical examples of people who acknowledged the interdependence of all life, Thomas wrote:
“It has taken these many centuries for us to meet with each other in the comprehensive manner that is now possible. While for the many long centuries we had fragments of information concerning each other, we can now come together, speak with each other, dine with each other. Above all we can tell our stories to each other.” (“Evening Thoughts,” a speech delivered in August of 2000 and published in Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community. Ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker, Sierra Club Books, 2006, p. 140.)
- The Double Life of Thomas Berry, a chapter written by Duane Elgin for the book Thomas Berry, Dreamer of the Earth: The Spiritual Ecology of the Father of Environmentalism (2011)