Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
We have talked recently on the forum about story and "Big Stories," so I wanted to post something on a new book I just picked up: The New Universe and the Human Future. It's in a similar vein to the work of Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, and Michael Dowd: telling the story of the universe from the perspective of cosmological science, and issuing a call for renewed human self-understanding and ethical relationship to the planet and to each other. I'll post some of my own thoughts on the book -- and on the role of "Big Stories" in postmetaphysical spirituality and the current movement to give "mythic-quality" voice to the scientific picture of the cosmos that has emerged through the collaborative efforts of individuals across the globe -- in a future post. For now, if you're interested, I invite you to check out the authors' website, or to read the following excerpt from a review by Matthew Fox.
A photo of the Andromeda Galaxy by NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler (GSFC) and Erin Grand (UMCP).
"Joel and Nancy have looked hard and analyzed deeply the amazing findings of the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments from the past two decades of explosive findings in cosmology. Here is one metaphor that they put forth for our understanding:
Imagine that the entire universe is an ocean of dark energy. On that ocean there sail billions of ghostly ships, made of dark matter. At the tips of the tallest masts of the largest ships there are tiny beacons of light, which we call galaxies. With Hubble Space Telescope, the beacons are all we see. We don't see the ships, we don't see the ocean — but we know they're there through the Double Dark theory.
They take on the literalists of science (who have so much in common with the literalists of the Bible) when they say:
If taken literally, scientific cosmology is completely misleading. There was no loud bang at the Big Bang, and it wasn't big. (There was no size to compare it to.) Metaphor is our only entrée into invisible reality.
I have often said that the most important things in life are metaphors, whether we are speaking of life or death, spirit or sex, love or body. And the universe too is metaphor and accessible by metaphor. All the prophets knew these things. Metaphor carries us on wings larger than despair, self-pity, talk of "selfish genes," and pessimism — all of which is so often a cover-up and escape from responsibility.
This is a book on ethics, a book about renewing our foundation for ethics. The authors talk passionately about the folly of our race as we face our own potential extinction and the extinction of this marvelous planet as we know it. They see our uniqueness not just in terms of this planet but also in terms of what we know about the universe. They urge us to "crack open our imaginations" and to wake up to the "accident" of our being "born at the turning point." And what turning point is that? It goes back to the fact of the rediscovery of how unique we are as a species: "It took a series of outrageously improbable events on Earth, plus multiple cosmic catastrophes to earlier species like the dinosaurs before humans could evolve.… Our level of intelligence (and higher) may be extremely rare" in the universe.
We Are the Self-Consciousness of the Universe
With our uniqueness comes a special responsibility, for if humans go down, like many primate species before us have, then something very precious will be lost in the universe.
From the point of view of the universe as a whole, intelligent life may be the rarest of occurrences and the most in need of protection…. We — all intelligent, self-aware creatures that may exist in any galaxy — are the universe's only means of reflecting on and understanding itself. Together we are the self-consciousness of the universe. The entire universe is meaningless without us. This is not to say that the universe wouldn't exist without intelligent beings. Something would exist, but it wouldn't be a universe, because a universe is an idea, and there would be no ideas.
We are living at a "pivotal" moment in the history of the universe for today we can "see" the entire history of the universe, but there will come a time when, because of the expansion of the cosmos, the past will no longer be visible; distant galaxies will disappear over the horizon. We are able to take in more galaxies today than ever will be perceived in the future. And, in our own local group of galaxies, because of gravity at work, there will be a blending of the Milky Way and Andromeda that will shut our descendants off from the rest of the universe. No wonder Joel and Nancy feel so called to sing the universe's story at this time.
The authors recognize our moral obligations to change as a species. With the human race now at almost 7 billion people, the inflation we have been undergoing is not sustainable. We could — and are — destroying our planet as we know it. This is why they call for an ethic of sustainability that is itself sustained by the wonder of the world we now know we live in, the universe at its pivotal moment. They point out how we do not know if there is other intelligent life out there but we do know what we have here. Moreover:
We randomly-alive-today people actually have the power to end this evolutionary miracle, or not…. Without human beings, as far as anyone knows, the universe will be silenced forever. No meaning, no beauty, no awe, no consciousness, no "laws" of physics. Is any quarrel or pile of possessions worth this?
We need to adjust to realities as we now know them. For example, talk of "space war" is beyond dangerous because if we launch just a truckload of gravel into space we will destroy not only all sophisticated weaponry but also the satellites that we all depend on for weather information, global positioning systems, and communication.
Enough Is a Feast
We must move beyond the inflationary period of economics, of judging things by growth of GNP. We have to realize that spiritual relationships can grow continuously — but economic ones can't. Joel and Nancy write:
Our drive for meaning, spiritual connection, personal and artistic expression, and cultural growth can be unlimited … if we valued them above consumer goods, then we would have a new paradigm for human progress. For our universe the most creative period, which brought forth galaxies, stars, atoms, planets, and life, came after inflation ended, and this could also be true for humanity. A stable period can last as long as human creativity stays ahead of our physical impact on the earth.
If this isn't a call for a simpler lifestyle I don't know what is.
What is right action? "The goal should be sustainable prosperity, which is perfectly defined by the Zen saying 'enough is a feast.'… Nonstop creativity will be essential to maintain long term stability."
This is a daring book. The authors take on the hypothesis of multiple universes and draw a stunning conclusion:
If the theory of Eternal Inflation is right, then our universe — the entire region created by our Big Bang — is an incredibly rare jewel: a tiny but long-lived pocket in the heart of eternity where by chance exponential inflation stopped, time began, space opened up, and the laws of physics allowed interesting things to happen and complexity to evolve.
Just as our Earth is an "incredibly rare jewel," so too is our universe, whether it has happened alone or is one among many. The authors of this book have not grown numb to awe and wonder.
The authors also take on the subject of God's causation when they ask this question:
Is this then at last the place to credit God as the literal first cause? That's an option. But rather than skipping lightly over eternity itself to paste in the idea of God 'causing eternity,' we might do better to think of the beginning as being just as unknown as the distant future, and ourselves, as true explorers, moving outward from the center in both directions. In cosmology both the distant past and the distant future are in a real sense ahead of us, the one waiting to be discovered, the other to be created.
As a theologian, I hear this as a clarion call to rediscover the apophatic Divinity, the God of Darkness, the pathway of letting go and letting be, the God who "has no name and will never be given a name" (Eckhart), where the alpha (beginning) and omega (ending) are both bathed in mystery and in darkness — a double darkness, we might say. It's a call for a transcendence that is not "up" so much as deep down, into the depths of things where all is dark, and all is silent and beyond naming, but where creation and new birth gestate in the invisibility of the cosmic womb, where all that dark sea and dark energy and dark matter dwells and even dark ships sail. A call to silence. A call to depth; a call to divine Nothingness. No-thingness. Only relations. Some micro, some macro. How amazing that we have the minds to study them! How grateful we all should be. John of the Cross: "Launch out into the depths."
There is wisdom and passion in these pages. There are sacred cows to let go of, inner work to do, and outer work to accomplish. But we have the tools. Do we have the will and the heart? Anyone who studies this book will be deepening and strengthening both. Read this book and grow your soul. Right behavior can and should follow." ~ Matthew Fox.
[Read his full review here.]
this stuff strikes me as arrogant and vapid and as in the same vein as the way of thinking that it would seek to save us from. it is the personalistic universe, a view that sees the universe as populated by personifications and as only having meaning by virtue of those persons. well that is not too far from seeing the sun as a living being, tornadoes as having wills, stars as creatures. etc.
onanistic fairy tales. juvenile fantasy. self indulgent, narsissitic 1st person nonsense. the buddha and all the great greek sages taught us to move away from this.
what the hell. did matthew fox just jerk off in front of us? is this where theology has come to?
this is the very same view that not too long ago put man at the center of the universe. and look where that got us. you've come a long way pontiac.
"But given the enormous and pressing global issues that confront us, the modern world can no longer afford to maintain this historical fiction and see fact and meaning as automatically separate. We cannot afford to have an accurate scientific picture on the one hand while on the other being guided in our feelings, philosophies, and views of the future by ancient fantasies that stand in for fact but have long since been disproved—because that's in fact what we've been doing."
oh dear here we go lamenting the two cultures, and couching the one pole in terms of our "feelings" no less. gee where would we be without our all important feelings and intutions particularly about what is right and wrong, like that nasty charlie sheen guy. we are but one small step from thinking that sodom fell for a moral reason, from thinking that good thoughts can shape the universe and evils ones destroy it, fromn thinking that hurricanes happen because of sin.
this is consolation at best, and rationalitzation at worst.
kela, kynic, skeptic and vulcan
Wow, kela, this touched a nerve, eh? I think you forgot to add "burnt dreamer" to your sign-off.
With that said, I share some of your reservations about efforts like this, though not all. I posted this topic on this forum because I think it's a good place to explore some of those reservations, but also because I think, in the space of second naivety or beyond, there is room for, and value in, telling Big Stories. Something you seem to reject out of hand.
I wanted to start a thread on this topic for a couple reasons. One, as I mentioned above, we'd just been talking about "big stories" on some recent threads, and the work of folks like Berry, Swimme, Dowd, Barlow, and now Abrams & Primack, is certainly in that vein: an attempt to give "mythic" voice to the emerging "Big Picture" arising out of modern cosmological and ecological science. From the very little I've read of the Abrams and Primack book (a couple pages so far), I think Swimme may be better at this than they are. I'll comment on that a little more later, once I've read more.
In another book I read recently, The World Is Made of Stories (which I discussed on this thread), David Loy does a sort of Buddhist-inspired (but multi-disciplinary) meditation on stories. Regarding Big Stories, he reminds us, of course, that the Buddha cautioned against indulging in metaphysical abstraction and speculation when we have an arrow piercing us, but Loy then appears to offer a counter perspective, saying that whether or not we like Big Stories, storying is inescapable -- that our choice appears to be, not whether or not we story, but how we story (including how we tell stories about stories).
Kela has pointed out the many ways that our impulse to tell stories about the universe serves narcissistic ends and consoling or rationalizing functions. I agree that is often the case. But does that mean we should not attempt to narrate our relationship to the universe of our perception -- to the new (and vastly enlarged) worldspace enacted by our modern practices? That doesn't seem like a viable alternative to me, if only because our refusal to tell such a story about the nature of the cosmos and our relationship to it would itself presuppose such a story.
I admit I have a personal bias that makes me sympathetic to the sorts of cosmological stories told by Swimme and Berry (in particular), but Dowd as well. (I'm still checking out Abrams and Primack). When I was a child, my parents talked to me more about the "universe" than about God -- not telling me anything in particular about it, but rather helping me to reflect on it, to ask questions about it, and just to consider its vastness. My father, in particular, was an astronomy and NASA buff, taking me to the planetarium, to NASA to view the rockets, and just out in the back yard to look at the stars and imagine how far away they were, whether there was any life out there, etc. So, my first sense of "awe" in relation to existence came from contemplating space, not from thinking about God or other theological or metaphysical questions.
I'm open to discussing this, if any of you disagree, but I personally don't feel it is narcissistic, indulgent, or juvenile to contemplate the vast scope and intricate beauty of the cosmos, or the incredible vistas of time such contemplation evokes, or the more recently emergent "narrative" of the development of gradual evolution of stars and planets out of hydrogen and other atoms, or of life out of stardust, and to feel wonder, awe, appreciation, or even a sense of kinship or relatedness.
I have read an earlier book The View from the Center of the Universe by these authors. I loved the book. It is well written, and deals with similar ideas as presented in this preview. This short summary does no right to the ideas and understanding the authors bring forth. In this book they step by step lead the reader to see what they see. I got totally captivated by that journey. I have read the book twice, plus occasionally later again checked out some ideas from it.
I think we need stories. This is one example of it. On some other threads we had stories about illuminatis and aliens. These are also stories. Some years ago, intellectuals in France, complained that we had no more myths. Now we're full of them and we're complaining again!
The risk with stories and myths is that we might not distinguish between reality and dreams, wishfull thinking and so on. But I think we need to take this risk. It's part of who we are. I'm personally willing to take the risk of letting a part of myself being changed by myths, stories and so on. In a sense, it's accepting not to have the big picture, the "right" one, the "true one". And this is the F.....g price we have to pay for being here.
I do not mean I'm now dissolving my reason in one myth, nore do I subscribe to one version. But I play with them and I interact with them.
In the end, I'm more interested at the moment of the implications these stories have on us, than on deciding if the aliens are real, bad or good, if the universe has an inbuilt genetical code in the forms of the laws of physics and so on (Tarnas).
Being right is not the issue here I think. It's more how we do to live and love with the stories. It's really the same as a in a relationship: stories, point of view, myths, but in the end how do you do to live with the other.
I'm reminded also that in the past, what we now call myths, were often not taken has myths but as reality.
Well, I love all this Story / story stuff (no surprise there!) And apophatic darkness, silence, mystery -- the wildly beckoning beauty of twilight as it deepens into night -- all that vastness, that beyondness radiating darkly: it is wonder-inducing, gratitude-evoking, and wholly humbling to me. Methinks narcissism cannot hold sway when cosmic awe and wonder take hold of our being.