Written By:


George Durant*

Brian Swimme has written a remarkable book, unlike any other book I have ever read. It is, to be sure, a book about the origin and evolution of the universe—cosmogenesis—but it is far more than that. It is the story of how one person, an accomplished physicist, took the journey down his own road of life which led him from Tacoma, Washington, to Chicago, to New York City, and, through many failures and successes, to the ultimate truths contained in this book. It presents a personal journey of discovery of the meaning and significance of life itself and, as such, it borders on philosophy.

  • Philosophy has been defined as the study of ultimate reality and of the general causes and principles of things.

                              —David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought

Though it is a book of science, it is not a treatise or a study of anything in particular but rather of the author, himself; there is no bibliography, for example, or footnotes, for the student who wishes to pursue some of the ideas put forth, and there is no index so one can refresh one’s memory about who said what and where it occurred in the author’s life. There are only sections, each one mercifully short, so as to allow the reader time to pause and take it all in, to reflect upon what he or she has just read. It is primarily a story grounded in everyday places and experiences in the author’s life—like the swimming pool at the Lakewood Racket Club, where young Brian worked as a lifeguard; the restaurant in Tacoma near the park where he played when young; the frustrating and stifling years as a teacher at the University of Puget Sound; the long, almost wild, drive one evening to Berkeley, California and back in time for his class the next morning in response to “Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cry”; and the sitting with Matthew Fox at a lecture by Thomas Berry, soon to be Brian’s mentor, on the “many different forms of revelation.” It is the story of one man’s response to a unique “calling,” a calling which, as with Joseph Campbell’s, he had to define and create for himself. As Etienne Gilson wrote about St. Augustine, Brian “was condemned to being original.”

“The spirituality of a galaxy is the galaxy’s intrinsic creativity,” he says. “We are not separate from the universe, the universe . . . has constructed us.” We are all connected, it would appear, past and present and to come. “The origin was here, every moment of time in between was here, the temporal had become eternal, wedded together.”

“The world arises fresh and new in each moment,” Brian writes. It is an idea that he has been preaching for a long time. Having been raised Catholic, he has deep respect for the mystical tradition of that faith. Brian is, indeed, a deeply spiritual man, a reader of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, as well as Emerson, Teilhard, and Matthew Fox, with whom he has written and taught. “I believe so I can understand,” said St. Augustine. That—the desire to understand—is what made Augustine a great philosopher, and it is what makes Brian Swimme a brilliant and original thinker. He writes:

  • A review of the fourteen billion years of universe activity leads to an alarming insight: the universe does not ask for permission when it decides to invade you for its own creative process . . . . When the stars had dispersed their elements throughout the Milky Way galaxy, the next step of the universe’s evolution, life itself, was at hand. (264)

It is something that I had been thinking recently, myself, though on more of a literary, not scientific, level, and trying to understand what it all meant. It was a vague perception, at best, more than anything else. Brian’s book came along to solidify it. What I have come to feel now, which I had not realized until Brian’s book made it clear, is that all our hearts beat as one with all of humanity, with those who have preceded us, and with those who are with us now. We are connected to persons of the past, not just our own individual pasts, but the past as described by history, the far past, the past of the Peloponnesian War, of the Battle of Hastings, of Charlemagne, even, as Brian implies, of the Cro-Magnons with their “scratches on the wall.” It is as if our stories and theirs are connected—almost as if, astonishingly, they are going on at the same time, if not literally, then in our hearts and memories. (This idea reminds me of Gary Wills’s writings on the meaning of memory in St. Augustine, and of Henry Adams and his eternally current The Education of Henry Adams.)

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

I wrote a book of essays some time ago patterned after those of Michel de Montaigne, the purpose of which was to understand who I was. Montaigne was my mentor. Brian’s book is similar except that Brian already knew who he was; what he needed to find out was how he got that way and where he should go from there. He needed to figure out how to get from being a “professional mathematician at the University of Puget Sound” to where he should be. “You will find a guide,” a colleague at the university said with assurance. He did have his wife, Denise, a pillar of his life, who sometimes seemed to know better that he did what he needed. But his was, as I say, a unique calling, as are all of ours, and he needed to find his way himself, as all of us need to do.

Though the book is about Brian’s journey, it is also about the origin and structure of the universe. “The new cosmology is not science,” says Thomas Berry, Swimme’s guide on this journey. “It is an interpretation of the data science has given us.” This is the essence of Swimme’s work, his vision. As such, the book is both a fascinating and convincing scientific treatise and a personal story of the development of a remarkable scientist and thinker. It is a story filled with hopes and dreams, false-starts and disorientation and aggravation, and, ultimately, victory and success. It is, like all good writing should be, especially of this kind, a personal statement of the author’s vision and of the truth which lies therein. I am reminded of a scene from the musical play 1776 when,prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a discouraged John Adams wonders aloud, “Does anybody see what I see?” Swimme can ask the same.

Cosmogenesis is a profound and moving book, but most of all, it is a hopeful one. We can learn a great deal from it and start off anew in the right direction. The universe moves on, it continues to grow, to create, and to expand. “Throughout the day and in a hundred different ways,” Swimme writes, “we will experience our existence as taking place within the whole, complex, intelligent, living universe.” Brian carefully and convincingly explains the vision he has held for much of his life. It is not exactly a new vision—much of the world’s great religions are based on similar notions, only differently focused and expressed, which if anything, adds to the validity of the argument.

  • We are not separate from the universe, the universe [has] constructed us . . . . it is the supernova’s extravagant gift-giving.

—Thomas Berry

  • In some sense, the universe must have known from the beginning that we were coming.

—Freeman Dyson

Still, it is a radical vision, and, as such, it carries with it a new explanation of who we are and why we are here. It is what everyone wonders about at some time or other, but only what the most brilliant of thinkers—Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Emerson, Whitehead, Einstein, George Santayana, Edith Stein, Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, George Gamow, Thomas Berry, even, in his brilliant volume, The Modern Temper, Joseph Wood Krutch—ever fully understood or addressed. To this list now is added Brian Swimme.

Brian has written a splendid book, an important book, a book ostensibly about himself and his journey but ultimately about an exciting and profound way of looking at the universe and at life. It is a remarkable book, though difficult to follow at times and, as such, not an easy read, funny, aggravating (especially when considering Brian’s dead-end runs), disturbing, enlightening, and hopeful. Brian’s vision is more than just remembering past events. It is seeing into them and catching a glimpse of their significance, a significance that, in a mysterious way, becomes real by the act of writing about it. Well done!

* George Durant is the author of a privately printed book of essays called “Essais: A Life Examined in the style of Michel de Montaigne,” and is currently at work on a second volume.