The Journey of the Universe
“The Journey of the Universe” is a book by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker (Yale, 2011). It is also a DVD based on the book and presented by Brian Swimme. See for further information: http://www.journeyoftheuniverse.org I will also put a link below to a presentation given by Brian Swimme at Seattle University to the Department of Theology and Ministry: Seattle University describes itself as a Jesuit Catholic University. I think the DVD and the presentation to Seattle University are well worth the time to watch. Though I have some criticisms of both, they are nevertheless very inspiring. My reservations are, however, not insubstantial. If you have not read the book or seen the DVD then you could watch the video clip before you read on.
The main focus of the book is to encourage us to find our spiritual connexion with the Cosmos and to help us to find our place and purpose within it. (I will move in my comments from the book to the DVD and to the Seattle lecture). Swimme, who is in many ways a disciple of Thomas Berry ( The Universe Story, Swimme and Berry 1994) makes the significant claim that our present ecological crisis, and our personal unhappiness, is the result of our loss of this cosmic spiritual unity. I would want here to add the qualification conscious: our spiritual unity with the Cosmos to me is a given, it’s our loss of conscious awareness of this that afflicts us. (Hegarty 2012). He seeks to inspire us and encourage us to consider our necessary unity by illustrating and dwelling on the absolute and awesome wonder of the Cosmos in all its dynamic creative beauty and to show how we are part of this emergent creativity. I say “inspire and encourage” because the style of his and Tucker’s presentation is very much that of the skilful preacher; it is in short evangelical and in the clip below (he is of course speaking to theologians) one might almost say ‘preaching to the converted’. In the clip you will hear the audience cry out in wonder: “oh my”, there are biblical references, and during a lighting change you hear the lighthearted: “now that’s an act of God” etc.
The “Journey”, which Swimme presents, is described as “an Epic story” and there is here reference to Berry’s “new story of the universe” as cited above. The “story/journey” aspect of this work is further emphasised on the DVD by it being set deliberately on the greek island of Samos with all the associated allusions to ancient mythology. In his opening remarks we are told that though this story owes much to the recent discoveries of science it is “nourished by the ancient religious wisdom of our planet”. (In writing this I made the Freudian slip of calling the island Paphos not Samos; I meant of course Patmos, my mind-slip was to John the Evangelist who wrote on that island his story of the Universe).
So my first problem is this re “storying” of the science and/or an implied re-mythologising of the evolution of the universe. I like to think we live in a “planetary era”, a modern scientific age fully aware of the planet as our home, ( Kelly, 2010) and we are beginning at least to free ourselves from storytelling. Stories are part of our cultural history, for sure, but should play no part in the evaluation of our spiritual locus now. Stories restrict, oppress, and tend to lend themselves to fundamentalist interpretation. Our stories so easily become “scripture”. My story is always the true one, yours is heresy or blasphemous. My story condemns your behaviour and (even worse) dictates your punishment by death or amputation, my story justifies war and violence etc. They are invariably attempts to explain the past in the light of a desired outcome. It would be so easy to see this “new story” start to become dogmatic and prescriptive especially in the heads of theologians who are struggling to make sense of a disintegrating paradigm in whatever “ancient religious wisdom” tradition. I give one example from the book to illustrate my point here:
I hope as a Gay man (let’s make my lens explicit) this is not an unfair criticism but it is not untypical of other implied assumptions in the book. I quote from the section in Chapter One, “Atoms and Attraction”:
“Attraction is at the heart of creativity at all levels of being”
Note at the very beginning of this section the unsupported generalization “at all levels”. the section goes on to say:
“We cannot explain why a proton ia attracted to an electron. Saying that opposite electrical charges attract one another does not address the mystery of why this is so. Nothing outside is pushing them together…..Rather it is by their very nature that they are drawn to each other.”
Why is this a “mystery”? We have science here (or is it an ancient religious wisdom) prescribing what the “very nature” of creation is like. What is the evidence for this assumption? Swimme and Tucker then get totally carried away in wonder:
“We are left marvelling over the fact that the allurement between opposites gave birth to the atoms. And who is it that is marvelling over this fact? it is none other than we humans – a much later development of these very atoms. The attraction between a proton and an electron is not just another disconnected fact about our universe. Attraction between a proton and an electron is a way in which the universe gives rise to ever greater complexity, which, after some fourteen billion years includes us.” (My italics: page 12-13)
Well it includes Brian and Mary if not perhaps all of us! This is gross anthropomorphism and extremely romantic. Note how “attraction” has now become “allurement”. This is in the opening chapter but it is further developed in Chapter 7, ” The Passion of Animals”. In a section called “Female Choice”:
“We see in this attraction of the genders the same sort of disequilibrium that has appeared elsewhere in the universe, as in the stars with their explosive and implosive forces.” (page 75)
The wonder of sexual procreation does seem to assume the proportions and the focus here that I feel is typical of the religious traditions where it is seen as a pivotal sharing of Divine creation and therefore governed by dogma and a strict sexual morality based on an implicit “natural law”: it follows that all human behaviour like the electrons and protons above can be seen as a product of this innate “nature”. It is easy to miss the point that “the Journey of the Universe” is leading to this destination; the summit of its creative achievement is the Human Phenomena. It is useful to remember that Brian Swimme wrote the “Foreword” to the new translation of the book of this very name: Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Human Phenomenon” (1999) translated by Sarah Appleton-Weber. The DVD also suggests our arrival on the planet quite early on; Swimme quotes Freeman Dyson’s suggestion that: “the Universe must have known that life was coming”. Dyson describes himself as a practising Christian so his point of view is science “nourished by the ancient religious wisdom of our planet” as Swimme suggested earlier.
I find the lack of referencing in both the book and the DVD is remiss for such academic authors, frequently one hears something like, “as many scientists now believe” or words to that effect: I should like to know which scientists are being refered to. To take an extraordinary example: in Chapter 5 in the section headed “Living Earth” the authors say:
“One of the most spectacular examples of emergence is that of the integrated Earth system, our fabulously interconnected planet….”
I have not heard of this called “integrated Earth system” before, though Stephen Harding tells an amusing story of how its discoverer first thought of calling it “Biocybernetic Universal System Tendency” or BUST (Harding 2006). Our authors continue:
“Some scientists go so far as to suggest that Earth itself is alive, that it is actively coordinating the temperature of its atmosphere or the salinity of its oceans.” (page 55)
They are referring to what we know as “Gaia Theory” discovered by James Lovelock, C.H., (Lovelock, 2005), though they hardly do the theory justice here and poor old Lovelock is one of “some scientists” presumably. On the following page they say:
“This adaptive dance between life and non life changes our thinking about our planet.”
This is almost a direct quote from Lovelock:
“…evolution is a tight-coupled dance with life and the material environment as partners, and from the dance emerges the entity Gaia.” (Lovelock 2000 page 8.)
But at least this is accurate science another reference is less so. We go to the very start of this “story” Chapter One, “Beginning of the Universe” and in the section called “Expansion and Emergence”, we are told:
“one of the most spectacular” (is this word over used) “features of the observable universe is the elegance of its expansion”
They go on to describe what has become known as the fine tuning of the initial rate of expansion after the Big Bang and how the rate was at a critical point for a successful outcome of life. They conclude:
“What we’ve discovered is that we are living in a universe that is expanding at just that rate necessary for life to emerge.” (my italics, pages 10-11)
Who exactly discovered this? It is mentioned also, without reference, on the DVD, where it is ingeniously illustrated with a red party balloon while Brian Swimme sits in a Greek Taverna. In the Seattle presentation it is of course attributed to Stephan Hawking from his book “A Brief History of Time” (Hawking 1988). The first point here is the anachronism arising from the use of the present tense. If what they say is true it refers only to the speed of expansion fractions of a second after the Big Bang; it is not questioned that the speed subsequently slowed down and has since altered again. Perhaps this is a slip worthy of correction in a future edition but it comes from this constant hyperbole and excitement. More importantly, it can be argued that to conclude, as they do, that this suggests a design or even a designer (as the Dyson reference suggests, as does the whole tone of the “Journey” idea) is to take the Hawking reference totally out of context. I have re blogged Emil Karlsson’s blog re this misreading of Hawking as another post and I read the entire chapter of Hawking to satisfy myself that Karlsson was correct. (Chapter 8, “The Origin and Fate of the Universe” Hawking, 1988 ) Hawking questions this fine tuning hypothetically, before coming to a very different conclusion about it than that suggested by Swimme; one only needs to read the concluding remarks in the final paragraph of that chapter to see which way his opinion falls. Hawking says:
“So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: It would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?” (ibid, page 160/161)
I quote this not to agree or disagree with Hawking but to point out that Swimme and Tucker do not have an ally in Hawking for a “story” with a beginning, middle (where we are now as Swimme claims) and an end, let alone support for any “fine tuning” argument. It is seriously misleading.
My final point is practical and pragmatic; I agree with Swimme about the need to re-establish a spiritual connection with nature and that the alienation of humans from the planet is the source of many ills both psychological and ecological, as stated at the start of his Seattle lecture. What he actually says, quoting Thomas Berry, is that we have become unaware of the “sacred dimension” of the Universe. But my starting point would be humbler and more Earth bound. It would be based on a reconnection with our home planet the Earth. This before venturing off into the unimaginable wonders of the Cosmos. In fact I think it could overwhelm many people (a point he jokingly makes in his Seattle lecture, adding that he can offer therapy to anyone so afflicted! Is this hubris?) The Christian tradition has always denigrated the Earth, seeing it as corrupt and fallen and been a major source of our alienation from it. Swimme and Tucker’s trip into the Cosmos with all its wonders seems to me to be reaching out very much to this transcendent world, the “sacred dimension” of the Creator rather in that religious tradition. Our first step is at home. It is after all the planet that has nurtured us in its very special way. This greater Cosmology is indeed wonderful and worthy of all sorts of scientific and philosophical investigation but our immediate future (or lack of it) lies with our troubled planet Earth. In fact our attitude to this amazing Cosmos that lies out there may well depend on our ability to value what it has given us here. It might also be thought that this major awakening to the Cosmos of which our authors talk is romantic and a little politically naive: it is a belief that some spiritual re-evaluation lies at the heart of a movement for change. This is fine sounding and no doubt sincerely meant but haven’t the ancient religious wisdoms our authors speak of tried this out for thousands of years only to produce this mess we are in now? There is I believe a “sacredness” much nearer to hand in the bird song and the trees I see out of my window right now!
Berry, Thomas and Swimme, Brian Thomas (1994). The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos. Harper.
de Chardin, Pierre Teilhard (1999). The Human Phenomenon: Translated by Appleton-Weber, Sarah. Sussex Academic Press.
Dyson, Freeman. (1979) “Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe.” In: Reviews of Modern Physics 51/3 page 447-460
Harding, Stephan. (2006). Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia: Dartington: Green Books Ltd.
Hawking, Stephen (1988). A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang To Black Holes: Bantam Books.
Hegarty, Anthony J. (2012). Gaia: The Question of Consciousness. In: The British Psychological Society: Transpersonal Psychology Review, Vol 15, No 1, Spring 2012.
Kelly, Sean M (2010) Coming Home: The birth and transformation of The Planetery Era. Lindisfarne Books
Lovelock, James (2000) Homage to Gaia: The life of an independant scientist. Oxford University Press
Lovelock, James. (2005) Gaia: Medicine for an ailing planet: London: Gaia Books.
Swimme, Brian Thomas and Tucker, Mary Evelyn (2011). Journey of the Universe. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.