Linda Gibler, OP*
It seems to me that this book, Cosmogenesis: An Unveiling of the Expanding Universe, is comprised of three parts: Resonance, Reverberation, and Radiance. Readers familiar with Brian’s Powers of the Universe will recognize these as the aspects of the tenth power, Radiance. The first part of the book, stories from Brian’s first teaching position as a mathematician through his first encounter with Thomas Berry’s work on Whidbey Island, draws us to consider the resonance between our own journeys of recognizing and following passion. The second part, Brian’s first meeting with Thomas and the subsequent year at the Riverdale Center, draws us into reverberation with the insights and teaching of Thomas. Rather than resonating with someone else’s story, in these pages, we are invited to be moved by the same ideas as the students at Riverdale. The final part, only a few pages long, is a composition of the four points Brian wants us all to take in. He gives us four “candidates for inclusion in a core set of experiences in a time-development universe” (313). To the extent we experience these, we will recognize ourselves as part of the radiance of the unfolding Universe that is Cosmogenesis. With Radiance as an organizing principle, I will sketch out the highlights I found in each of these three sections.
Brian’s story is both unique and universal. Unique because it is his personal story. Universal in that it is the story of a “mode of the universe” becoming aware of itself and so is part of the Universe Story. And because it is part of the universe, we can resonate with it as part of our shared story. Brian’s story is a microcosm of what’s happening in the species as a whole (88). Thomas would say that it is the story of the individual human being and the Earth Community. Our questions and passions may differ from Brian’s, but we will likely find shared insights and revelations along the way.
This is also a vocational story. It is a story of following a path with fidelity, encountering setbacks and delusions, as well as celebrating breakthroughs and hidden joys, all the while being accompanied by certainty and faithful companions and finding sages and guides along the way. Those of us called by a passion will be able to resonate with many of the vignettes that fill the first part of the book.
As with many vocational stories, Brian’s expression of his primary passion develops and deepens throughout the journey. At one point, his passion is about breathing the life of the pre-Socratics back into scientific history. However, even at that point in the journey, when asked about the meaning of life by a precocious student, he tells them an enduring truth: “We are universe. The universe made us. In a most primordial way, we are cosmological beings.” “If you want to know the meaning of life, look at your hand. . . . The universe’s creativity is happening now” (24, 25). Later, Brian speaks of the desire to offer the world an original relationship with the universe (93). And then, after walking on a snowy night and having an original encounter with the quantum reality of the universe, Brian hones down further on the expression of his vocation as “one way or another, sharing this with the bright young students at the University of Puget Sound was what I was here for” (116). Eventfully Brian encountered Thomas’s idea of a cosmological myth and new cosmic story, and he knew this would direct his journey. He says, “I did not have any sure hold on what these might mean. That didn’t matter. What I knew beyond doubt was that my destiny was tangled up in those words” (151). The truth we speak may “boomerang back” on us at times, as it did on Brian in that lecture. With sustained attention or flashes of insight, the universe finds a way to express itself in our words with ever-deepening meaning.
This is also a series of stories about fascination. Brian’s fascination with a lecture taking place hundreds of miles away, with white dwarfs, supernovae, and exploding galaxies, as well as all the scientific breakthroughs that had to happen to bring these to his mind. Brian is fascinated by ideas as well as with colleagues, close friends, and the possibility of meeting the woman across the room. Following fascinations lead to the “dense experience of a universe hoping to come alive within human consciousness” (45). What are our passions? What earliest memories might hint at our great call or ongoing fascination? Would we trade our five-year-old dream for gold doubloons? (97).
Dissonance is the twin of resonance. Pursuing dreams is not without its struggles. Brian also tells stories of thinking he made a significant breakthrough when it turned out to be a trap, such as his encounter with Arthur and Ruth Young, whose vision of the universe was too small. Paying attention to his own energy, he saw the trap despite the temptation and came to trust that “The universe itself would have to tell us what it was about” (59). At one point, when all doors seem to close in a way that affects his health, Brian hits a low point, but even still is able to say his “dreams were swirling down the drain, yes, but there had to be a creative remnant somewhere” (152). Faith in the ever-generative universe was strong enough for Brian to see past the darkness in the basement. The remnant within chaos holds within it unpredictable possibilities and sudden reversals.
Throughout these stories, Brian ultimately relies on his resonance with the truth of the universe to guide his path. These stories call us to ponder our own vocation and fascinations. What truths do we follow? What are the sudden reversals? Do we trust that the remnant of the dream will continue to guide us? What is our particular Great Work?
This second part of Brian’s book moved me more deeply, into reverberation, perhaps, but in a way that I found difficult to take notes on or to express here. In a sense, the Riverdale stories become part of my own experience. They are no longer Brian’s alone but stories of a shared encounter with Thomas and the universe.
One thing that occurs to me is that Brian’s quest for a new cosmic story has something in common with theologians’ recent interest in developing a non-anthropocentric theology. Like Thomas’s insistence that the universe is primary, theologians are struggling with a way to express divine truth that does not begin with the human subject or any particular religion’s doctrine. Perhaps one way is to look to the other-than-human beings surrounding us, learn their story in the cosmic unfolding, and draw insight from them. Thomas helps us think about this as he gives a conference at St. John the Divine. Thomas concludes his lecture with supernovas: “This extravagant gift-giving is the spirituality of the Universe. It is a form of cosmic love that enables the future to emerge. . . . What I have to offer is simple in the extreme: My trust is in the star’s bestowal of grace” (295). Irreversible, extravagant self-gift is the nature and, therefore, the spirituality of the universe. Brian sums it up like this: “Erotic attraction that leads to life-ending sacrifice. That and that alone at the heart of the universe” (299). This is a bold starting place for theology.
As we move from place to place in our journeys and re-articulate what we are about, “the pathway into the future becomes clear” (198). We see the path unfold as we walk it. And as we grow in our faith in the journey, we can trust that we are indeed guided. Thomas says to Brian: “We find our way into our destinies when we feel we are being commissioned by the whole of things, by life itself” (205). Our vocation as a species is found in this: “The universe is coming to know itself. This is the meaning of the human species. The meaning of our existence is to provide a space in which the universe can reflect upon and activate itself in conscious self-awareness” (207). Regardless of our personal vocation, this is what we are called to for the sake of the whole. And it is happening with or in spite of our consent. In his first meeting in New York with Thomas, Brian “learned who I was and what I was about” (208). All the honing and re-articulation come together in clarity. We live in a cosmogenesis, so it only makes sense that our call and central role will take on new meaning as we journey. At the heart of it, our task is to follow the passions we are given and allow the universe to direct us. Our preconceived notions are too small to address the vastness of the cosmos.
In a way, Brian’s story reads like a hero’s journey, as it should. Thomas says, “In the new cosmic story, the hero is the Earth Community itself. And the hero is the individual human” (217). A hero’s journey generally begins with a goal of something good or beautiful. In pursuit of the goal, the hero is given tasks to complete and encounters obstacles. Eventually, the hero overcomes all odds, is awarded the goal, and brings it back for the benefit of the community. In the adventure, the hero is forever changed. Brian’s story has all these elements, and so do most of ours. Each individual is invited into the hero’s role at some point. In accepting the role in whatever way we are challenged, we serve the Earth Community.
In a sense, part of the hero’s journey is one of sight, habituating our sight to cosmogenesis. Thomas gives the example of a red-tailed hawk. “From our perspective of the individual, we see a particular hawk flying above us. From the perspective of the time-developmental universe; we behold fourteen-billion years of creatively taking flight” (218). Calling ourselves back time and again to this primary insight is one way to see our-way into cosmogenesis. A hero’s journey is no small task, “taking in a new cosmology amounts to becoming a new person” (301). The universe is emerging consciousness in and through us.
And now to the final five pages of Brian’s book. So far, we have been invited to identify parts of our journey with Brian’s; then, we were encouraged to sit with him at the mahogany table and learn from Thomas. Now Brian, as a good teacher and writer, tells us the most important points he’d like us to take from his stories. Brian hopes to entice us into participating in the transformation into time-developmental awareness by offering a list of four “Candidates for Inclusion in a Core Set of Experiences in a Time Developmental Universe” (312-315).
1. We humans come forth from the universe the way acorns come forth from the oak tree.
Here Brian reminds us that “the universe created humans. The Milky Way galaxy created humans. Our solar system, with its Sun and planets, created humans. Our Earth, with its rocks and oceans and clouds, created humans. . . . A form of cosmological intelligence drew stardust together and laid down a pathway to human intelligence. . . . We ourselves are constructions of the universe’s process.” Yes, with our particular lineages and histories, we are the universe in the form of a human reading a magazine article.
2. Rooted in the birth of the universe, humans are cosmic persons drawn toward the future by their fascination.
“The future of the universe is rooted in our creativity, just as we are rooted in all past achievements of the universe. . . . Fascination is how the future speaks. Awakening to, and pursuing our deepest fascinations is to participate in the joyful difficulty of creating the future.” Yes, like the attractions felt by the primordial dust and every cosmic development since, what we are drawn by, give our attention to, and pursue will become the future.
3. The universe rests on relationship.
“[Primordial] particles constructed the galaxies by doing one thing: deepening their relationships. . . . There is the great mystery. In relationship with another, your deeper identity is ignited.” Yes, the people we know, who share our life’s journey, who serve as guides, and the sage we follow all activate our deepest selves. As also does other-than-human creation: The Olympic Peninsula, the Hudson Palisades, the red oak tree, the red-tailed hawk, and the sparrows on my porch. Our relationships inspire our fascinations and help bring them to birth. They also remind us how implicated we are with each Other and how we all share the same fourteen-billion-year story.
4. The universe offers an endless source of energy for our challenge of becoming cosmological beings.
“We too will be inventing new ways for drawing into our lives the creative energy of the universe. . . . As we integrate [the revelations of cosmogenesis] into our lives, we ingest an ocean of energy.” Awareness of these revelations allows us to “leave behind our cramped mind and feel ourselves expand into vast, bottomless energy.” Yes, the universe is enveloped in inexhaustible energy. The ongoing creativity of the universe infuses our fascinations and relationships as we are invited to ride the wave of endless energy as we become ever more deeply aware of cosmological being.
If we get what Brian tells us in these final pages, we will no longer simply resonate with a good story or reverberate with insights in our hearts. These concluding messages might break open our small, simply-located selves and release our radiance for the benefit of the whole, in symphony with the radiance of the universe.
* Linda Gibler, OP, is a Dominican Sister of Houston. She studied with Brian Swimme for eight years at the California Institute of Integral Studies, earning her MA (2001) and PhD (2007) in Philosophy and Religion. Her dissertation was published by Liturgical Press in 2010 with the title, From the Beginning to Baptism, Scientific and Sacred Stories of Water, Oil, and Fire. Linda was the associate academic dean and associate professor of science and religion at the Oblate School of Theology for fourteen years. Linda lectures widely as she serves her congregation as vicaress.