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The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era - A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos.

"Once upon a time, in a land far, far away...." Those magical words introduced most of us to the delicious world of "story" in our childhoods, a world more real than anything we actually saw or touched. Gradually, as we grew into adulthood in a Judeo-Christian world, a second story took hold, one that set the stage for our understanding of who and what we were, where we came from and where we were going, our understanding of life, death, purpose and meaning. That story began with equally magical words: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...and God's spirit hovered."

A new story is breaking into human consciousness, a story so enticing, awesome and wondrous that we can again be held captive, finding meaning and renewed zest for life. This new story, told by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in their landmark book The Universe Story, is not a fairy tale -- although at times it almost sounds like one -- nor just another telling of our biblical story.

Instead, the new story sets the context for all other stories, whether personal, social, cultural or religious. It is a setting so vast it encompasses them all, a "context without a context," as Berry says, the very universe itself.

Swimme, the scientist, and Berry, the cultural historian, investigate with great care and deep respect the significance of the amazing discoveries being made by modern cosmologists, physicists, biologists, geologists and anthropologists.

They do that not by just telling about stupendous happenings in the world of science. Rather, they write as from within the very journey itself, within the heart of the universe, within its unfolding power, within its creative potentialities and surprises so that you, the reader, are carried along and, in the end, come to an immense discovery.

The Universe Story is our story, the human story, the life story, the earth story, all wrapped into one sacred whole. We do not know who we are, how we got here, where we fit in, what we are called to be at this moment on the journey without the full story, the universe story. It is a revelatory message filled with power to allure the human spirit and sustain us for the times to come.

Chapter by fascinating chapter, the authors explore the unfolding cosmic journey as we can now know it through empirical evidence, in ways not available to people in earlier times. Precision instruments, sophisticated computers, space exploration and mathematical formulations allow the major outlines of the story to be traced from the initial "flaring forth" of some 15 billion years ago, when it all began, through the formulation of galaxies, explosions of supernovas, emergence of the sun and our galaxy, our living earth, living cells, plants and animals and on to the latest expression of the universe, the human species itself.

And our journey, too, is part of the story, from the earliest Paleolithic developments some 2.5 million years ago through, the Neolithic settlements, the classical civilizations, the rise of the nation-state, the scientific period and now the ecozoic era dawning within and around us.

What Swimme and Berry help us grasp so clearly is that the story of the universe is not a cosmic history we study from the outside but a cosmogenesis in which we humans have been involved since the very beginning. This book is unique in bringing it all together into a single tale of such holy and mysterious content as to capture the soul -- "scientific in its data, mythic in its form."

Swimme and Berry are eminently successful teachers. The want you to learn. But I think it is fair to say the book is not easy going. Certain chapters seem to carry more seminal material, and I found myself underlining sentences, starring whole paragraphs, knowing I'd have to return again and again.

For instance, in the chapter titled "Sun," the authors lay out the "cosmogenetic principle," the dynamic of the universe that builds order -- its form-producing power, as distinct from the second law of the thermodynamics, which breaks down order. They give examples of the principle's operation in the formation of the galaxies and our sun and the emergence of the primordial atoms and amino acids.

A feature of cosmogenesis is the relationship between this form-producing power and time. A certain sequence of transformation has to be in place before the next unfolding can happen. There is freedom but also a certain determination; perhaps, more correctly, creative possibilities at every microsecond of the journey, but they can only be known after the fact. The story is shot through with mystery and magnificence.

Or take the three "central ordering tendencies" that permeate the total evolutionary process of the universe: differentiation (diversity, complexity, variation, disparity); autopoiesis (subjectivity, sentience, identity, self-manifestation); and communion (interrelatedness, mutuality, kinship, complementarity). In language that is more often poetry than prose, Swimme and Berry demonstrate how these three governing themes have operated and continue to operate throughout time and space.

With reference to differentiation, they point to the "seemingly infinite power for transfiguration in every region of the universe (that) speaks of an inexhaustible fecundity at the root of reality." Autopoiesis refers to "the power each thing has (not just living beings) to participate directly in the cosmos-creating endeavor." Stars and atoms as well as whales and humans are self-organizing systems contributing to the whole. And with regard to communion, "relationship is the essence of existence. Nothing is itself without everything else."

The gift throughout this remarkable book is the power it evokes to grasp something of the psychic-spiritual dimension of the physical events that unfold through its pages and the consequent shift in human consciousness called for in this ecozoic era. It is not enough to address the devastation of the planet; more urgently, we humans must understand ourselves anew and embrace our role within the community of all life forms if the planet is to survive.

Our times are filled with peril and possibility. The Universe Story suggests not only a viable path into the future. It also entices one to embrace the journey with energy and commitment. This is a book that immediately should be adapted for kindergarten through high school and required reading at every college, university and seminary. It is that important and ground-breaking.

Even our children must be told the new story. It might begin this way: "Once upon a time/space/energy/matter/motion, at the beginning, in the primordial flaring forth, a celebration was unfurled...and so we dance and sing this day and every day the astounding diversity and our intimate communion with all of creation."
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Author:Blewett, Jane
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 5, 1993
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