Reimagining Our Story
with Brian Swimme
At this moment, light is reaching me from not long after the birth of the Universe. If I look far enough into the past, I can see that this moment, this Self, is the culmination of a 13.7 billion year gestation process. And in the time it took me to write this, something new has already been born.
The first intellectual interest in my life was space. Even before I entered school, I begged my parents for a telescope, took classes at the planetarium. I dreamt of the stars. In this way, I cultivated awe as only a child can, as only an encounter with such immensity can. And at the same time, my most terrifying nightmares came not in the form of bogeymen waiting in my closet (although they occasionally did) but from this encounter with the immensity of the cosmos. Without any spiritual, cosmological framework in which to place my study of the Universe, I was terrified of the vastness of space like Blaise Pascal, who once wrote of this seemingly meaningless void, “I feel engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing and which know nothing of me. I am terrified” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees). The science I learned in school was equally bereft of meaning, and lacked even the awe-inspiring quality of my early childhood. I turned away from science, from the cosmos, to find more meaningful fields of study, such as religion and literature.
My journey, however, was not so simple. While the notion that meaning was found in the humanities – the exclusive realm of the human mind – kept me occupied, I never quite let go of the stars. There was always, somewhere, an intuition that meaning could not merely be found in the human mind, that there was something not-quite-right about the idea that the human world of meaning and the cosmos were entirely separate realms. The idea that the human created wisdom separately from the cosmos seemed suspiciously hierarchical, dualistic. If we, like the dolphin and the mountain and the insect and the stars, emerged from the same process, did our wisdom not come from the same source?
Our ancestors sat by the fire under the stars and told stories, stories that connected us to the world in which we lived, and enabled us to be compassionate to one another. The earliest humans had few defenses against the harsh world in which they found themselves. As they wandered out into the dry plains of Africa, there would have been less plentiful food than in the lush jungle; the prey they encountered would have often been bigger, faster and stronger. Many predators would have found the human an easy target. While it is undoubtedly true that humanity’s greatest tool for survival was our intelligence, intelligence alone would not have sufficed. Humans required cooperation and compassion for survival. They connected to one another in loving relationship and worked together to ensure the survival of the group. They sang songs and performed rituals to give creative expression to these relationships. The clan and the ecosystem was the womb in which the first humans lived. This is wisdom. This is how we learned to be human.
At each moment in human history, we have had to ask ourselves how we can be fully human in our current situation. At each moment, we have had to figure out how to connect to our world. Today is no different. But for the first time, humans have failed to come up with meaningful new stories to replace those that no longer give us meaning. The great emptiness of the cosmos is not because the world is meaningless, but because we are failing to fulfill the central role of the human being in the world – to find meaning in the world in human terms.
Like the earliest people, we were at the edge of our world, bringing forth the connections of the past and called upon to create a meaningful future. We are poised between these depths, at the chaotic matrix of the birth canal of the cosmos. Perhaps they saw this when they painted their hand prints on the caves – among the earliest great works of art. Surely, they had seen their children’s hand prints on the womb and recognized that they too were in a womb – the womb of the cosmos.
The story of the Universe is the story that ends as it began: the spark of the Big Bang is in each of us; we have, at this moment, through our creativity, the capacity to create anew the Universe, to become compassionate to the whole of creation. Chaos – and surely we live in chaotic times – is the mother of creative transformation. Even as our individual interiority emerges, our imaginative capacities allow us to return to embeddedness in the cosmic womb. This return requires more than new knowledge, but a new myth, a way of connecting us to one another, to the rest of Earth and to the cosmos. The new myth will not be created by science or philosophy, but by the collective creativity of humanity. We will need more than mere ideas; to be remade and renewed from our very roots, to become “pure and ready to climb to the stars,” we need poets like Dante. We are, at this moment, like my unborn daughter, putting hand prints on the edge of our world, our womb – not unlike the earliest humans did on the interior of the cave – unsure what lies beyond.
An excerpt from Cosmosophia: Cosmology, Mysticism, & the Birth of a New Myth.
By Theodore Richards
Brian Thomas Swimme is the Director of the Third Story of the Universe at the Human Energy Project and professor of cosmology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Mathematics at the University of Oregon in 1978 for work in gravitational dynamics. He brings the context of story to our understanding of the 13.8 billion year trajectory of the universe. Such a story, he feels, will assist in the emergence of a flourishing Earth community.
Swimme is the author of The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos and The Universe is a Green Dragon. He is co-author of The Universe Story, which is the result of a ten-year collaboration with cultural historian Thomas Berry. His most recent book is Cosmogenesis. Swimme is also the creator of three educational video series: Canticle to the Cosmos, The Earth’s Imagination, and The Powers of the Universe. With Mary Evelyn Tucker, he co-wrote and hosted the 60-minute film Journey of the Universe, broadcast on PBS television stations nationwide. His most recent media work, written with Monica DeRaspe-Bolles, is the popular 34-part “Story of the Noosphere” series available on YouTube.
He lectures widely and has presented at conferences sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The World Bank, UNESCO, The United Nations Millennium Peace Summit, and the American Museum of Natural History.