Thomas Berry presented the main talk of the conference from the pulpit, each word echoing off the stone walls of the cathedral. He was reflecting on the development of the universe and was using the phrase, the spirituality of the universe. He said he used the word spirituality to correct a deformation in modern consciousness that imagined the existence of a “physical universe.” Such a conception no longer made sense. It belonged in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth, we discovered that the matter of this universe—the only matter we know of—constructs life. There is no such thing, then, as “lifeless matter.” Matter, in its very structure and dynamism, generates life.
A similar statement can be said about spirituality. If there is any spiritual dimension in any human throughout history, then spirituality is one of the potencies of our universe, a potency laced into the elementary particles of the primordial plasma. Our discovery of cosmogenesis has led to our realization that matter is spiritual as well as physical. Thomas predicted that his phrase, the spirituality of the Earth, would soon be discarded as unnecessarily complicated. Matter will be understood to be spiritual. No qualifying adjective will be needed. The spirituality of a galaxy is the galaxy’s intrinsic creativity. The most direct revelation of spirit is the creative synthesis that has given rise to every entity throughout time.
Thomas’s phrase had ignited an argument between him and others the day before at our speakers’ luncheon. Dean Morton’s prediction that Thomas would be attacked came true when Bob Reynolds, a theologian at Fordham University, accused him of pantheism. A couple dozen presenters crowded around a long mahogany table in the library of Diocesan House for our lunch of stew and sourdough bread. Speaking from the head of the table, Dean Morton started the conversation when he asked with bright enthusiasm that we formulate a statement expressing our common faith. He began with his own proposal: “All of us believe in a loving God.” This came under immediate attack. Why use God? Why not Allah? Why not Yahweh? Why not divinity to make it even more inclusive? What about Tao? What about Great Spirit? What about the hundreds of other names and conceptions for God?
Throughout these exchanges, which once or twice included harsh criticisms, Thomas sat quietly. When it became clear no phrase would work for everyone, Morton moved our discussion forward by asking each of us to present a synopsis of our presentations, signaling Thomas to begin. He was tentative, slow to start, as if still absorbed in the lingering disagreements. He detailed his talk by telling us it would highlight the four eras of cosmic evolution—the birth of the universe, stars and galaxies, living Earth, and human consciousness. Reynolds removed his dark sports jacket and black tie as Thomas spoke, several times glancing across at one of his colleagues with a “Can you believe this?” expression.
The instant Thomas finished, Reynolds spoke up.
“This is pantheism,” he said.
Thomas shrugged his shoulders, turned his palms up.
“I am only relating the narrative of the universe that science has discovered.”
“Yes,” Reynolds said. “I get that, but you’re calling it spirituality. Science has nothing to do with spirituality.”
“In one sense, that is true,” Thomas said. “Scientists have provided us with the data of cosmic evolution. What is required now is an adequate interpretation of the discoveries of science.”
“Without ever mentioning Christ?”
“The promise of our cosmic story is to provide a common context for discussion and understanding. We make that possibility remote if we insist upon sectarian language.”
“Sectarian language?” Reynolds looked at Dean Morton. “The last time I checked, this was an Episcopalian cathedral. Jesus Christ is the foundation of our tradition. Do you, or do you not, believe that?”
Thomas smiled and itched his eyebrow before responding.
“I’ve spent my life studying the world’s religions. I believe in each of them. I believe in Christ, certainly, as I believe in Kaang of the San Bushmen, in Buddha, in Krishna, in the Great Spirit of the Indigenous peoples. Each of these cultures offers wisdom.”
“Thank you for your confession of faith,” Reynolds said. “Even better would be an admission that Christianity is your own personal foundation.”
“It’s not,” Thomas said.
“Then what is?”
“The universe,” he said in his quiet voice.
Thomas Ian tapped my arm. “I’m hungry, Daddy.” I rummaged in our satchel until I came up with the cellophane bag crammed full of Cheerios. As soon as I handed it to him, he worked the flap open and started eating them one by one.
I turned back to listen. Thomas tugged on my shirtsleeve.
“What?” I asked.
He beckoned with his fingers, indicating I should bend down. He cupped his hand to whisper in my ear.
“Are Cheerios like nuts?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Do they grow on trees?”
“No, no. They’re, uh, wheat. They take wheat and scrunch it up and bake it and that’s the Cheerio.”
I watched him, waiting for his face to relax, indicating we were done here and I could get back to Thomas Berry’s talk. But no. He was still wearing the wrinkle on his forehead.
“Why do they have holes, then?”
Only because I did not have an automatic response to his question did I wake up to what was happening. If there had been a cliché answer in my mind for why there are holes in Cheerios, I would have tossed that at him as well. With Thomas Berry’s story from the Middle Ages in the air, I realized that same story had just happened. I had answered in the tradition of the man who said he was carrying a stone. He was not wrong in saying that, just as I was not wrong in saying the Cheerio was “wheat.” But what a stale and one-dimensional answer. Obviously a Cheerio is wheat, but it is also energy. Energy from the Sun, even from the birth of the universe. In my unthinking reply, I was putting him in a strictly human world. If he had asked me where Cheerios came from, would I have said, “The yellow box in the kitchen”?
I leaned over so I could whisper in his ear and not disturb anyone.
“Son, the truth is, your Cheerio came from the stars. Stars a million times the size of Earth blew up and scattered their atoms that would eventually become that Cheerio. Every morning when you have Cheerios for breakfast, you’re eating a star.” I watched him, wondering how he would take this in. Maybe it would be his moment of cosmic amazement, as when I learned a tablespoon of white dwarf star weighed fifteen tons. Or maybe it would be nothing to him, nothing but words.
“Daddy, at school they said God made the stars. But who made God?” He looked up at me as I stared down at him, waiting for something to come. The pause brought a look of alarm in his eyes. He was only five years old, but he was skilled at reading faces. Did he recognize the look in my eyes as an admission I had no answer? He squirmed in the pew, as if in physical pain. “It’s hard to think about,” he said.
Just six years ago he did not exist. Not even as an embryo. And yet it was all happening again, the profound questions of metaphysics. They seem to be woven into our DNA as deeply as the instructions for building our lungs. To become human, it is as necessary to churn with those questions as it is to breathe air. As much as I wanted to provide an answer that would take away his pain of not knowing, any pretend answer that I offered would only dampen his passion to forge his own perspective out of existence.
Thomas Berry turned to the central idea of his talk: “In the fourteen billion-year history of the universe, the event that carries the greatest spiritual significance of all is the supernova.” He paused and waited. The words filled the entire cathedral with vibrations that complexified as they echoed off walls and folded back into themselves, and then damped down to make room for the next wave of sound to emerge from his mouth. I was electrified by his notion that a supernova was the greatest spiritual event of all. There was no easy way for me to fit such an idea into the story I had learned from my religion and my school and my family.
Praise for Cosmogenesis
“The most personal of Swimme’s half-dozen books, a thought-provoking, humble memoir about a period when he stepped off the academic treadmill and forged a transformative intellectual friendship.”
—Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle
“Seldom, if ever, within the scientific tradition, has the excitement of the universe been expressed in such memorable phrasing.”
—Thomas Berry, Creation Magazine
“The overall message of the power of storytelling leaves readers with a new appreciation for how we view the universe’s history and ourselves within it … An invigorating perspective on how science and spirituality inform the history of human experience.”
“An immediate antid consciousness, Cosmogenesis will enlarge your conception of what a human is for. Swimme’s riveting autocosmology offers a direct, repeatable experience of intimacy with the universe.”
—Carolyn Cooke, author of Daughters of the Revolution and Amor & Psycho
“In this book, without warning, a star-inspired mathematician summons us, squabbling bipeds of an over-heating planet, to see ourselves as the evolving universe itself. The grandeur of that calling would seem ludicrously beyond our capacity were it not for the trust our guide elicits. Perhaps what moves us most is the wild generosity he helps us to see at work in the cosmos, and evident in the self-offering of the [super]nova that birthed our own solar system.”
—Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self
“What a wonderfully engaging book Brian Swimme has given us! So spacious and expansive, even cosmic, yet down-to-earth and deeply human. The lightness of touch, the exquisite care for detail, the honesty, the self-deprecating humor: every scene is described with such Salinger-like vividness it’s as if it is taking place now before one’s eyes. At one level, Cosmogenesis is a model of how to communicate epoch-shaping scientific and philosophical discoveries while narrating the unfolding drama of one’s own life story. But at a deeper level, it is the gradual revelation of how the life of the individual and the life of the cosmos are fundamentally intertwined within a single journey of self-revelation.”
—Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind and Cosmos and Psyche
About the Author
Brian Thomas Swimme is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where he teaches evolutionary cosmology to graduate students in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program. He is the cocreator and host of Emmy award-winning PBS documentary Journey of the Universe and coauthor of the companion book of the same title. He works with the Human Energy Project to produce the popular YouTube series The Story of the Noosphere. His other published works include The Universe Is a Green Dragon, The Universe Story written with Thomas Berry, and The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos.