Posted by: environmentspirituality | July 19, 2009

Ecology: A New Story

For one of the very first activities of my inquiry project, I attended a talk on July 10th given by cosmologist Brian Swimme as part of Seattle University’s Institute for Ecology, Theology, Spirituality and Justice. The title of his talk was Ecology: A New Story, and I’m pleased to report that it was recorded and is available as a download on the Seattle University website (look in the upper left) and as an online video.

Swimme opened by letting us know that he has been influenced by his mentor, Thomas Berry. Berry’s message that the environmental destruction around is happening because we have forgotten the sacred dimension of nature was a key part of the talk. Swimme, as a scientist, has explored how science has contributed to this forgetting. Rooted in 18th century thought, science sees the universe as a machine, and its parts as lifeless (mechanism). Religion was also affected by this form of thought, forgetting the presence of the divine throughout the natural world.

Swimme called this a tragedy, and I would certainly agree. “If the universe is just stuff, then it’s there for us to manipulate – a resource.” Viewing everything that makes up our planet – sparkling rivers running through a forest, salmon returning home, the skin of sea otters, trees older than human memory, a mountain created millions of years ago, the muscles and milk of herbivores, the labor of humans – as a “resource” belies its sacredness, its divine presence, its life. The use of the word “resource” shows how the universe is viewed – something Swimme suggested would amaze and disgust future generations – and he preferred to call it the “r-word.” Every time I have come across that word since his talk has given me a moment’s pause, and something to reflect on. Try this yourself, and see how pervasive it is.

Swimme mapped out the challenge that we now face:

  1. To awaken to the current unraveling, to re-evaluate what we are about. He noted that it is not easy to eliminate a species, and given how often that is happening, there is something deep and pervasive going on.
  2. To find a way to experience directly the immanent presence of the divine. The universe, Swimme argues, is permeated with divine light, that wants to create, to do something.
Spiral Galaxy M74 (Hubble)

Spiral Galaxy M74 (Hubble)

Swimme then showed us a slide show full of images from the universe, from cave paintings to a starry sky where each point of light was actually a galaxy, from the spiral galaxies looking like hurricanes to a monkey covered in red fur. Each image helped bring home his message that “we are living in a miracle. We are constantly interacting with the miraculous, the immanent presence of the divine.” He mentioned Stephen Hawking’s conclusion that the speed of the universe’s expansion is exactly as fast as it needed to be to create a universe this complex – any slower, and everything would have fallen into a black hole, any faster and gravity wouldn’t have been strong enough to form galaxies. Which to me rather epitomized the meaning of miracle. Per Swimme, “the expansion rate is sacred because the universe is sacred,” and he described this as “an amazing wisdom” of the universe.

Swimme’s talk resonated deeply with me. I have never trusted the idea that our planet can be easily reduced to a bunch of inanimate pieces that we can do with as we please. My experience of my place in ecology is that I am – we are all – part of a swirl of life and sacredness all around us. This awareness is not with me every day, not all the time. I too get caught up in the daily commute and life in little boxes, days filled with meetings and homework and not enough sleep. But, to me, rocks are alive. Soil is alive – it is teeming with life. Plants and animals (including those other than human) have consciousness. There has always been more there to me.

I have had experiences of the divine, but I know that not everyone has. So I will just say, if there is a God, if divinity exists, then it is everywhere. On the other hand, if divinity is just a creation of human mind to make sense of something that could not be otherwise understood, then the idea of divinity was created to explain how there is, in fact, something larger, bigger, something more. I will call it a Mystery, but the secret of the mystery to me is that the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Swimme’s talk was a lovely exploration of this mystery in the universe.


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