Thomas Berry and Columbia University: Reflections from Mary Evelyn Tucker, Columbia PhD 1985

A tour de force biography: Thomas Berry was one of the most important thinkers on humanity and our trajectory on this wondrous living planet—and indeed in the journey of the universe. This is a book written with love and clarity and belongs on everyone’s required reading list. Read it and you will understand one of the most inspiring persons of our time—and it will change how you think about the future.

~ Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor, George Mason University

This week were are featuring Thomas Berry: A Biography, by Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim, and Andrew Angyal. In today’s guest post, Mary Evelyn Tucker reflects on Berry’s connection to Columbia University.

Enter our drawing for a chance to win a copy of Thomas Berry: A Biography!

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With the publication of Thomas Berry: A Biography we also commemorate the 10th anniversary of his passing on June 1, 2009. On this occasion we wish to highlight Thomas’s decades-long connections to Columbia fostered by his friendship with Ted de Bary, a noted scholar of Asian studies, especially Confucianism. Here is their remarkable story.

In July 1949 Thomas Berry set sail from San Francisco on a boat bound for China. He intended to study Chinese language and culture. The voyage would take several weeks and include stops in Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines before reaching Shanghai. As the boat was pulling away from the dock in San Francisco Bay, Thomas noticed a young man waving goodbye to a striking young woman on the dock. They began a conversation. This was Ted de Bary who was waving to his wife, Fanny, a Barnard graduate. Ted was a graduate student at Columbia and the first Fulbright scholar to go to China. He learned of Thomas’s interest in Chinese religion and philosophy and during their voyage across the Pacific they began to form a deep friendship. This bond lasted a lifetime, supported by Fanny de Bary who came to understand Thomas well. She valued his penetrating understanding of Asian religions, of Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary worldview, and of environmental concerns.

Thomas later reflected on his encounter with Ted en route to China, “This meeting was one of the most significant events in my life, for it was through this association with Professor de Bary that I was eventually able to establish some presence in the world of Asian thought traditions.” Ted de Bary went on to create courses at Columbia in Asian Traditions and publish the leading textbooks with Columbia University Press on the Sources of Indian Tradition, Chinese Tradition, Korean Tradition, and Japanese Tradition.

He and Thomas worked closely together to articulate the spiritual dimensions of these traditions to western audiences who were largely unfamiliar with religions outside the west. During this collaborative period in the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas wrote two books on Asian traditions that are now distributed by Columbia University Press, Buddhism (1966) and Religions of India (1971). That these books have remained in print is a tribute to the breadth of historical scholarship and depth of spiritual insight that Berry brought to understanding these traditions.

Thomas’s profound insights into Buddhist texts and teachings had moved even a highly learned Buddhist monk and Columbia professor.

At Columbia in the 1960s Ted and Thomas founded the Oriental Thought and Religion Seminar, whose name was later changed to the Asian Thought and Religion Seminar. This seminar met on the first Friday of each month during the academic year drawing scholars from Columbia and other universities in the New York metropolitan area. Thomas delivered a number of papers at this seminar, especially on Confucianism and Buddhism. At one such meeting Thomas was speaking on the symbolic richness of Shingon Buddhism, the esoteric form of Buddhism in Japan. Ted de Bary witnessed a distinguished Columbia professor of Japanese Buddhism, Yoshito Hakeda, weeping quietly as Thomas spoke. The next day when he saw him in the hall he asked him why he was so moved during the seminar. Hakeda replied, “I felt as if I was hearing my old master in Japan speak.” Before coming to Columbia to teach, Hakeda had studied for ordination as a Shingon Buddhist monk on Mt. Koya, the sacred Buddhist mountain in central Japan. Thomas’s profound insights into Buddhist texts and teachings had moved even a highly learned Buddhist monk and Columbia professor.

In addition, to his work with Ted on Asian religions, de Bary invited Thomas to teach several courses at Barnard. These included some of the earliest introductory courses offered on Native American religions, following in the tradition of Frans Boas and other eminent anthropologists at Columbia. In addition, Thomas taught an innovative class on Contemporary Spirituality, which ranged from topics such as The Journey Symbol, the Dionysian and Apollonian, Technology and Spirituality, and Cosmic Communion. Berry was responding to the outburst in the 1960s of new forms of spirituality beyond traditional religions. All of these courses were oversubscribed.

Thomas’s final book, Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion, was published by Columbia University Press in 2009 the year he passed away. That collection of essays, written over several decades, illustrates the evolution of his thinking on the nature of religion as well as on the dynamic unfolding universe. These essays lay the foundations for the emerging field of religion and ecology as well as for the telling of evolution as a universe story.

This biography then of Thomas Berry, published to commemorate the tenth anniversary of his passing, also pays tribute to the role Columbia and Columbia University Press played in his life and thought. From his collaboration with Ted de Bary in the Asian traditions to his broad articulation of the spirituality of the Earth, Columbia and the press have been a foundational part of his journey.

Mary Evelyn Tucker

My own affiliation with Columbia is relevant to the story of Thomas Berry and Ted and Fanny de Bary. My grandfather, Carlton Hayes, was a Columbia undergraduate and Ph.D. as well as a lifelong member and occasional chair of the History department. Ted de Bary was his student and I was deBary’s student. Under his mentorship I focused on Asian religions, especially Japanese Confucianism. Coincidentally my mother attended Barnard with Fanny de Bary and I went to high school with two of the de Bary daughters, Brett and Cathy. A third daughter, Bea, was with me in graduate studies in Columbia’s religion department. Moreover, Thomas Berry was much influenced by Carlton Hayes’s writings and read many of his history textbooks as well as his major works, A Generation of Materialism and Nationalism: A Religion.

The arc of a life is illustrated in the fact that Carlton Hayes began to move Columbia’s history department from a focus on American History to European History as an important field of study after World War I. Similarly, when Ted de Bary returned from the Pacific theater in World War II he helped to create Asian studies at Columbia and beyond. Out of the two world wars came deeper understanding of the history of the world’s countries and cultures.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is co-author of the Journey of the UniverseFor an online class on Thomas Berry taught by authors Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim go to The Worldview of Thomas Berry: The Flourishing of the Earth Community on Coursera.

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