Review: The Universe Story by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme

Until we know our common story, until we are in communion with the rest of nature, we despair. We feel alienated.

Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry contend in The Universe Story : From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era–A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, ours has been a technical Wonderland, but it threatens to become a wasteland. We face a choice. After 67 million years, the Cenozoic era is ending. Humans are establishing a new relation with the rest of the universe. Will it be the Technozoic era or the Ecozoic era? If we choose to align with nature rather than fight it, ours is the universe story. (As Geddy Lee sings, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.)

Most of the book is chronological. It tells our story from the beginning to the present. Our story begins with the primordial Flaring Forth (the Big Bang), the beginning of time. For eons nature has appeared eternally cyclical: the daily rising and setting of the sun, the monthly lunar cycles, the annual harvest celebration and other seasonal festivities. Even birth and death were seen as part of the cyclical wheel of life.

Humans appeared on the scene a relatively short while ago. We reached a high watermark during the Neolithic age. We invented pottery and weaving. Language allowed us to develop new knowledge within a generation and pass it on to the next, faster than genetics would allow. We domesticated plants and other animals, yet we continued to celebrate our cyclical communion with nature. We worshiped a fecund Earth goddess. We lived together in villages peacefully.

About seven thousand years ago invading horsemen brought with them patriarchy and civilization–the eventual nation-state, empire and colonies, trans-national corporations–and chronic warfare. Now we worshiped a male sky god. Yet still we celebrated our cyclical communion with nature.

However, since 1347, the year the Black Death struck Europe, we have turned our back on universal creation, seeking personal redemption instead. Descartes sealed the deal in the eighteenth century, splitting mind and body completely in two and allowing generations to treat matter as inert and lifeless, a collection of objects.

No longer. Calling it the Scientific Revelation, Swimme and Berry say that the great scientists dream and envision their discoveries. They may speak in mathematics and methodologies, but they start with yearnings and imagination. Scientific discoveries since Einstein prove everything is interrelated, and just as light is both particle and wave, time is both cyclical and linear. Linearity is our story, and we need to truly understand it.

Now that the universe has a beginning, and the celebrations of life have a new dimension, linearity, we need a new story to go with it, or else we are lost, unable to decide properly. We have important decisions to make about our role in this universal celebration. But we ignore at out own peril the eternal cycling. We prefer to go from point A to point B, from mineshaft to dumpsite. Along the way, like tossing fast food packaging out the car window, we create waste, forgetting that nothing in nature is wasted. The universe is both benign and violent, but it is all a dance of energy, a party.

For the universe celebrates itself, in every atom and every second. We are invited. More than that, our ultimate purpose is to be part of that celebration, to be the universe’s consciousness.”It is the special capacity of the human,” Swimme and Berry write, “to enable the universe and the planet Earth to reflect and to celebrate, not simplify the present moment, but the total historical process that enables this moment to be what it is.”

This story, this creation myth, is the best of our science and our arts–as befits a book co-authored by a physicist (Swimme) and a historian (Berry). Our future is bereft without both, just as it is bereft without the equal voices of men and women, bereft without all cultures, bereft without humans and non-humans. However, the book’s writing is rarely inspiring. Precise and pedantic, yes. Poetic and impassioned, hardly.

Too bad. This story needs to be at the root of our stories and songs. Every kindergarten kid should know it. The authors hope the Neolithic cultures of the past can serve as models for sustainable eco-villages of the future. Furthermore, when “the plundering industrial cities dissolve” we will need what we have learned of ourselves, the Earth, and the universe from our science, and the insight, vision, and imagination from the classical Greek and oriental and native North American cultures. In this age of globalization, as we reach or exceed planetary limits, “there is emerging a different kind of authority … a common destiny.”

The universe is 13.7 billion years old already, and has billions to go. What’s next? Who knows? The path before us is neither random nor determined but creative, write Swimme and Berry. Our past decisions give rise to yet narrow our future options. This common story is our map. Without it, we have no use for the wake of the past or the compass of the future.

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