Written By:



Don Hanlon Johnson*

On the day that I received the invitation to participate in this publication, I read of the successful launching of the Euclid telescope on a mission to make an immense 3D map of the cosmos to better understand dark matter and dark energy. It was reported that researchers know virtually nothing about these phenomena, which appear to control the structure and expansion of the universe. This big gap in knowledge means we cannot really explain our origins, stated one of the astronomers on the project, Professor Isobel Hook: “It will be like setting off on a ship before people knew where land was in different directions. We’ll be mapping out the Universe to try to understand where we fit into it and how we’ve got here—how the whole Universe got from the point of the Big Bang to the beautiful galaxies we see around us, the solar system and to life.”[1]

There are two important aspects about this small moment of reading the news. The first is how ordinary this kind of material has become. For the past several months since the successful launch of the James Webb telescope, I have become inured to the startling revelations that are emerging forth from cosmologists scattered over the planet. Not too long ago, that BBC report would have seemed like science-fiction unworthy of serious attention.

The second aspect, which is related to Brian Swimme’s recent book, is that this flood of engaging news announcements about the cosmos is detailing one of the most dramatic revolutions in human thought whose consequences are easy to pass by in contrast to all the ceaseless torrent of conventional worldly dramas. What is at issue here is a cataclysmic break with the calm and orderly picture of the cosmos that we have grown used to since the Copernican revolution nearly 700 years ago.

In digesting the early photos captured by the Webb, I found a strange calm arising in my chronic complaints about the mess we humans have made of things, ranging from our intimate relations, to relations among peoples, to relations with Earth itself. Yet when I contemplate these new images, what I see is unimaginably vast chaos with only the fewest hints of order: colliding galaxies, black holes, crashing asteroids, stars coming and going, nebulae boiling. And perhaps most startling is the information coming from the Meerkat infrared arrays that there are as many as five thousand planets with atmospheres similar to ours. This is a long way from the biblical Genesis accounts of what Yahweh made at the beginning—all very neat and paradisical were it not for the Fall. And we are here by ourselves on this amazing home that managed to evolve through these unimaginably powerful forces so that it turned out just right for our subsistence needs.

One now wonders about the Roman Cardinals who imprisoned Galileo for refusing to deny he made calculations through his telescope that indicated what is now a homespun fact that Earth revolves around the sun.

Hence the subtitle, “From Genesis to Cosmogenesis.” We now know that the emergence of order, beauty, peace, and other such longed-for realities, are slow in the coming, slow beyond comprehension. They were not handed to us a few millennia ago by Michelangelo’s God the Father: They are realities waiting to be shaped both by the dynamics described by Einstein and Darwin and by the creative work of humans dipping into the various wisdom traditions that have eventually emerged from the primal chaos. No surprise that we have constantly to negotiate extreme difficulties. Here, I believe, is where our personal work in digesting the meaning of our place involves cultivating the countless challenges of our inner lives and experiences. In addition, we are now apocalyptically confronted with the challenges of learning to appreciate this more fully articulated WHERE we are in the currents of generation and what we need to do to navigate the challenges hurled at us to assimilate the gifts that we have been given.

I began this essay with a reflection on the launching of the Euclid telescope. I end with an equally startling account of discoveries of the NANOGrav team, a twenty-five-year-old collaboration of scientists around the world gathering measurements from 115 pulsars to examine the phenomena of gravitational waves. They have found that there exists a low-pitch hum of these waves reverberating across the universe, seemingly the collective echo of thousands of pairs of supermassive black holes—some as massive as a billion suns—sitting at the hearts of ancient galaxies up to 10 billion light years away.[2] In addition to the dramatic nature of these scientific discoveries, this project is yet another extraordinary achievement in worldwide collaboration where even to the end the large and diverse team of scientists held off reporting on their slowly emerging findings until all had come to agreement. Nearly a century ago, Edmund Husserl, ejected from his professorship and home at Heidelberg because he was Jewish, predicted that unless we can find a way to develop a science based on experiential knowing that equals in efficacy the checks of self-deception and bias that one finds in the experimental sciences—the foundation for these amazing collaborations—we are doomed in our efforts to stem the growing tides of human pathologies of self-destructiveness, violence, addiction, and other darkness.

Teilhard de Chardin. Phillippe Halsman. Wikimedia Commons, CC by 3.0

Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, in the wake of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, have taken the healing route of working with these discoveries to create a new and more shareable story of the universe. Would that politicians, social thinkers, activists, and all those who think about the structure of political organizations take the time to quietly examine the planetary results of their various theories of how economy and national institutions might be reformed before rushing to take the many destructive measures ready-at-hand.

* Don Hanlon Johnson is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco and the founder of the first graduate degree program in Somatics. He is the author of a body of literature on the intersections among bodily experience, the natural world, spirituality, social justice, and health.

[1] Jonathan Amos, “Euclid: Europe’s ‘dark explorer’ telescope launches,” BBC, July 1, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-66066710.

[2] Katrina Miller, “The Cosmos is Thrumming with Gravitational Waves, Astronomers Find,” New York Times, June 28, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/28/science/astronomy-gravitational-waves-nanograv.html.