Anne Marie Dalton*
Just two days ago, I received the request from Brian Thomas Swimme to write a reflection on his auto-cosmology, Cosmogenesis: The Unveiling of the Expanding Universe. I am sure he was unaware of the unusual circumstances in which I immediately agreed. I am on vacation at my place of birth and childhood, a very small outport in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. I did not have Brian’s book with me and had read it about six months ago. All my potential references normally used for such responses were thousands of miles away. You may wonder why I so eagerly agreed? The response is simple: Cosmogenesis had a hold on me! So, having downloaded the e-edition, re-visited the text for a couple of days, charged up my laptop and taken over my sister’s art room, I humbly attempt to share some reflections on Brian’s auto-cosmology.
In the Epilogue to his book, Brian writes:
While Cosmogenesis did evoke such memories for me, this reflection is an attempt to further the reach of this important work by highlighting some of the “events” of his life Brian shares with us and the profound significance of remembering who we are, as humans, within cosmogenesis. It is an extremely difficult task to remember and communicate the process of self-discovery evoked by such memories while navigating day-to-day life in a culture that has largely forgotten who we are as humans in this amazing universe. As Brian acknowledges throughout his text, it is perhaps impossible without loving support. Cosmogenesis is dedicated to his life partner, Denise Marie Santi Swimme, who also figures largely throughout his account. The major mathematicians and philosophers who are academic ancestors are celebrated for their painstaking and challenging work to unveil the expanding universe. “[Paul] Dirac’s imagination destroyed Western civilization’s twenty-five-hundred-year belief concerning the eternal nature of elementary bits of matter” (111). This is just one example of many in which Brian highlights breakthroughs in piecing together what we are now privileged to know, that the universe is a dynamic cosmogenesis. He also highlights the difficulty even these researchers experienced in letting go of older entrenched concepts and opening to the new. Dirac and Albert Einstein, to name just two, were reluctant to acknowledge what their equations were telling them.
The recognition of the dynamic changing nature of the cosmos is a theme throughout the book. Most difficult, perhaps, is the recognition that the human species is also first and foremost an integral part of cosmogenesis. We are looking at a universe that is looking back at us, Brian gradually learns. A radical change of consciousness is required to deeply understand the integral relationship of all modes of being in the universe, including the human species. None of us can accomplish this alone. A community of support is required. Cosmogenesis, as auto-cosmology, offers a model in Brian’s own life journey. He pays tribute to colleagues who challenged him and friends who were kind with words and resources. Brian’s encounter with Matthew Fox and subsequently with Thomas Berry, his major interlocutor and mentor moving forward, occupies a major part of Cosmogenesis.
Part One of Cosmogenesis presents, on the one hand, an accessible account of the latest discoveries and theories of an ever-evolving universe set in historical context. On the other, it is a reflection on the process of representing those discoveries in symbols, specifically in mathematical equations. Brian’s education bore for him the promise of furthering the scientific discoveries as a post-graduate hired to teach at the University of Puget Sound. Early morning on his first day on the job, he wrote his aim in his notebook: “To Understand the Origin of the Universe.” He comments, “It sounds pretentious to admit to such an ambition, but someone was going to do it. Why not me?” (9). Even at this early stage, however, Brian was interested in interdisciplinarity and how disciplines beyond mathematics were required to truly understand cosmogenesis. The University of Puget Sound was set on a course to increase interdisciplinarity and this was exciting to him. The early chapters of his account relate breathtaking dashes across large swathes of the continent to attend significant lectures or meet significant thinkers, daring interventions in scientific seminars, and efforts to inspire his students.
All was not what the young professor envisioned it to be, however. His efforts, inspired by his fascination and growing intimacy with cosmogenesis as present in his own life, were not exactly welcome among some of his colleagues. Most disturbing to him was the increasing involvement of the industrial and military powers in the scientific work of promising scientists and the university in general. Furthermore, something else was brewing in the mind and heart of the young scientist. We are privy to his many musings about the relationship between equations and the realities of cosmogenesis, about ideas and experience. One of the most poignant moments occurs when Brian muses to Denise that it is ideas and the continual generation of new ideas that enhances human presence within the universe. Denise, who is holding their young son, responds that for her it was the experience of birth that changed how she saw the world. This is a theme that will recur throughout the book. Brian muses on the results of discoveries related to the generativity of the quantum field: “The challenge for entering reality included this massive figure-ground switch, from space as container to space as an infinitely creative womb” (112). Does the universe obey the equations, the representation of our ideas, or is it the universe as we experience it that is primary? The experience first, the symbols later?
Eventually exhausted, disheartened, and bewildered from his self-judged failed efforts at Puget Sound, Brian resigned.
After several quickly laid and quickly changed plans, to the consternation yet generosity of his young family, Brian found his way first to Matthew Fox and through him to Thomas Berry. For those not familiar with the thought of Thomas Berry, Brian’s account of his eleven months of conversation and learning with Berry is an excellent introduction to Berry’s ideas. It is also an entertaining and even humorous, at times, insight into Berry’s personality. The re-telling of Dean Jim Morton’s account of watching the Super Bowl with him (itself a victory of persuasion) is bound to produce smiles from all who knew him. Morton notices a “far-off look in his eyes.” “Was he disturbed by the last play?” Did the official make a bad call?” he asked Berry. Berry’s response: “I’m thinking about the downfall of Western civilization” (272).
Primarily however, Brian’s account of his time with Berry is an intimate engagement with the enhanced development of Brian’s cosmic consciousness. Berry is initially both attractive and foreboding, and also mesmerizing, to a neophyte. To those of us familiar with Berry’s prodigious learning and creative thinking, and to his style, it is a moving and dynamic re-introduction to the very basic tenets and grounding of the meaning of cosmogenesis and the role of the human within it. Familiar and well-worn refrains such as: “Industrial society sees the universe as a collection of objects” (221), or “To devastate a beauty [a species] that required billions of years to emerge is an act of what we call biocide,” appear fresh and newly dynamic as Berry challenges the young Brian on the power of equations/theory. “Einstein’s equations help us in our quest to understand reality, but his equations are not primary,” Berry tells him. What is primary is “Life itself. The actions of the universe” (195-96). The conversation that follows affirms Brian’s haunting sense of the meaning of cosmogenesis that had led to his troubles at Puget Sound. “My mind lit up,” he writes, “I understood the error” (196-97). Beyond that, even the enlightenment itself was the action of the universe. The universe is ever-acting within all its modes of being, including the human.
A very significant facet of Berry’s thought as he reveals it to Brian focuses on the limitations of our languages at present in trying to describe our scientifically informed experience of the universe. The universe acts with what looks and feels like “intent” (235); the initial particles and subsequent beings of cosmogenesis seem to “give generously” (226-27). We experience these particularly on our own planet. Part of the contemporary responsibility is to ponder the profound meaning of this relatively new experience for modern cultures which have so gone astray. Early humans and many Indigenous (or aboriginal) peoples lived in intimacy with the rest of the natural world as they knew it. Because of the revelations of modern science, we know the universe differently now; part of our task is to give adequate expression to this reality.
While Brian’s sensitivity to the meaning of cosmogenesis was re-enforced in Berry’s notions of the universe as primary and cosmogenesis as story, Berry’s account of human devastation of planet Earth disturbed him deeply: “I felt horribly confused. What could be more ludicrous than someone telling the story of the universe without mentioning the unraveling of the Earth’s life? . . . I felt only deadness” (222). It would take a series of profound conversations with Thomas Berry regarding the necessity of a change of consciousness at a wide scale to awaken Brian’s hope of making a difference in the world. We must tell the story of cosmogenesis in a way which will empower us to overturn the destruction we have wrought. As humans we are modes of cosmogenesis, the universe arriving at a consciousness of itself. In all aspects of our being, from the involuntary flow of breathing to the contemplation of the stars, to acts of adoration we are, with everything else that exists expressions of a universe “on the go,” doing what it has always done and continues to do.
Having found his grounding in his engagement with Thomas Berry, Brian wrote The Universe is a Green Dragon and set about creating the context in which others would be enabled to experience cosmogenesis.
If this were an academic review, no doubt one would find questions to raise, or perhaps even inadequacies related to a discussion of the cosmic gift of human intention and its relationship to human failures in the poignant issues of our day. In fact, sensitivities to these are addressed if one reads carefully. Most importantly, Brian has gifted us (or more accurately, cosmogenesis has gifted us through Brian) with a way forward. Only a radical revision of what Western civilization has wrought, a deep and sometimes searing encounter and contemplation on the real meaning of human presence in cosmogenesis with all its poignant responsibility to each other and to all beings, will do.
Meanwhile, outside the tiny corner of my sister’s art room, a junco is defending her nest from a curious grey jay. The dark green spruces, larches, and firs of the temperate forest sway in a gentle breeze. Sphagnum mosses and royal ferns soak up the moisture from the wisps of cooling Atlantic fog that float overhead. The Sun is not visible, but its light and warmth are in generous supply. I conclude my reflections on Brian Thomas Swimme’s auto-cosmology. Cosmogenesis all around. The infinitely creative womb . . . .
* Anne Marie Dalton, PhD, is a professor emerita of Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s University, Nova Scotia. She received her MA from Fordham University during which time she studied under Thomas Berry. Her PhD in religion and culture is from Catholic University of America where she completed a dissertation on the work of Thomas Berry and Bernard Lonergan. She has worked on Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) projects dealing with the environment in Uganda, China, Vietnam, and Mongolia. She is the author of A Theology for the Earth: The Contributions of Thomas Berry and Bernard Lonergan (1999) and Ecotheology and the Practice of Hope, (co-authored with Henry Simmons) (2010).