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Two Streams Converge at Religion and Ecology Summit

The histories and convergence of the Religion & Ecology Summit

Robert McDermott March 11, 2016

Allow me to introduce two mighty streams arriving at this time and place. Because I have been involved with both streams, Elizabeth Allison, convener of the Summit, asked me to recount their histories and convergence.

The first is the stream that flows through CIIS and the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program. When the PCC faculty and students meet at Esalen for a one-week retreat each October, Richard Tarnas and I recount the history of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness, the program founded in 1994 by Tarnas, author of Passion of the Western Mind and Cosmos and Psyche.

Rick, Brian SwimmeSean KellyElizabeth Allison, and I teach in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program. This stream starts with Sri Aurobindo because his follower Haridas Chaudhuri, with his wife Bina, founded CIIS in 1968. It was at least partly because I knew Dr. Chaudhuri, and published on Sri Aurobindo with him in 1970s, that I was appointed president of CIIS in 1990.

This stream involves millions of dollars from Laurance Rockefeller, Brian Swimme's founding the Center for the Story of the Universe, and Richard Tarnas's founding of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program. Inside PCC, Sean Kelly founded and directs Integral Ecologies, a track that emphasizes ecological thinking in a philosophical and cosmological context.

Not always told at Esalen but equally important for this event, and more important for our ecological situation, is the stream that begins with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist and spiritual thinker who died on Park Avenue, New York City on Easter Sunday, 1955. Just as Haridas Chaudhuri, until his untimely death in 1975, was Sri Aurobindo's foremost student and interpreter in the United States, Thomas Berry, the Catholic priest, historian, and ecologist, was the foremost student and interpreter of Teilhard until his death in 2009.

My relationship to Sri Aurobindo dates to 1970 when I edited his last book, The Mind of Light, visited the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and met Haridas and Bina Chaudhuri here in San Francisco. In 1972, in celebration of the centenary of the birth of Sri Aurobindo, Haridas and I edited an issue of the International Philosophical Quarterly devoted to essays on Sri Sri Aurobindo.

Haridas wrote the first essay and I wrote the second. I also wrote the Foreword to Chaudhuri's book, Sri Aurobindo: Prophet of the Life Divine. Thanks largely to the efforts of President Emeritus Joseph Subbiondo, CIIS continues to advance the influence of Sri Aurobindo and Haridas Chaudhuri. CIIS will soon announce an appointment to the Haridas and Bina Chair of Philosophy and Religion.

I met Thomas Berry in 1955 while I was in high school waiting tables at a retreat center in Jamaica, Queens, where Thomas was assigned to answer the bell and hear confessions. Later on, Thomas officiated at the wedding of my wife Ellen and myself; he also baptized our two children, the first of whom has Thomas for his middle name.

In the late 1960s, as part of my doctorate in philosophy at Boston University, I took Thomas's courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese civilization at St. John's University, and his Sanskrit course at Fordham University. At this time John Grim was studying Asian religions in the Fordham University department of comparative religion that Thomas founded, and Mary Evelyn Tucker was studying Japanese religions with Thomas's lifelong friend Wm Theodore (Ted) de Bary, the dominant figure in Asian Studies, and director of the Columbia Seminar on Oriental Humanities attended by virtually all of the professors of Asian philosophies and religions in the greater New York area.

The Thomas stream crossed over to the Aurobindo-Chaudhuri stream in 1973 when Thomas wrote an essay on Aurobindo's book Foundations of Indian Culture for a book I edited, Six Pillars: Introductions to the Major Works of Sri Aurobindo. During the 1970s Thomas delivered lectures on Teilhard at the Riverdale Center for Religious Research, the home of the American Teilhard Association. John Grim succeeded Thomas as president of the Teilhard Society.

One would think that I would have remained faithful to the privilege handed to me in the person of Thomas Berry as mentor but karma devised otherwise. During the academic year 1975-76, on a Fulbright to the Open University (which had been awarded to Thomas and which he then arranged to be given to me), I began an enduring relationship with the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Sometime after that year when I shared my enthusiasm for Steiner, Thomas was not responsive. As a result I drifted away, ever deeper into anthroposophy. Not incidentally, it was during those years, in the late 1970s, that Thomas essentially gave up his career as a professor of Asian religions for a career devoted to Earth, and to the human as essentially an Earth creature. Thereafter he referred to himself as a geologian. Thomas introduced his new career by "The New Story" (1978), his scholarly, powerfully argued, influential essay that has served as the foundation for his two major works, The Dream of the Earth (1990) and The Great Work (1999).

In 1981, at the urging of Brian Swimme's wife Denise, Brian, Denise, and their son Thomas left Chicago for Riverdale for Brian to study with Thomas Berry, thus inaugurating an especially fruitful mentor-mentee relationship, friendship, and co-authorship. Thomas and Brian wrote The Universe Story (1994). Twenty five years later, Mary Evelyn and Brian wrote and Brian narrated The Journey of the Universe, an Emmy-award winning film dedicated to Thomas Berry.

It is quite wonderful to consider the next crossover from the Teilhard and Thomas stream to the Aurobindo-Chaudhuri stream. Brian, Rick Tarnas and I met at the Esalen three-year conference called Revisioning Philosophy. Esalen, as almost every one here knows, was co-founded by Michael Murphy, follower of Sri Aurobindo and Haridas Chaudhuri. Rick was first a gate guard and then director of programs at Esalen in the 1980s. In 1990 Brian came to CIIS as co-director with Bruce Bochte of the Center for the Story of the Universe, and I came as president.

In 1995, while I was president I arranged for CIIS to award Thomas Berry an honorary doctorate. In 1998 Brian Swimme and I gave Thomas a weekend celebration, at the conclusion of which Thomas confided to us that not even Teilhard had such a celebration. As Teilhard's work continued through Thomas and a wide circle of Teilhard scholars, Thomas's work continues through friends and students, including Mary Evelyn and John (to whom CIIS awarded honorary doctorates in 2006), Matthew FoxDrew Dellinger, and the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness core faculty.

Seven years ago Brian, Rick, Sean Kelly and I were the four faculty members in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program in search of a fifth member, ideally a female ecologist. Of course we turned to Mary Evelyn Tucker and her husband John Grim, two of the founders and co-directors of the Religion and Ecology section of the American Academy of Religion. Mary Evelyn and John are also co-directors of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology (FORE).

It was Mary Evelyn who recommended Elizabeth Allison to the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program six years ago. While remaining a half-time faculty member in PCC, Elizabeth founded and directs the program in Ecology, Spirituality, and Religion. Elizabeth McAnally, a doctoral student in PCC, is the editor of the Yale Forum on Ecology and Religion.

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