Joyful Living with a New Narrative
The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Launch a Global Society, Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack (Yale University Press, 2011).
This book is in every sense of the word a prophetic book. Its message ranks right up there with those of Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Joel. It is at times poetic (as the prophets were), demanding, grounded, soaring, empowering, and always awe-inspiring.
Rabbi Heschel says the essence of the prophet’s work is to interfere, and Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams are doing nothing if they are not interfering. They are interfering with apathy and couchpotatoitis, with anthropocentrism and despair, by inspiring us with the newly found reasons we have for waking up, getting involved, resisting dumb media and amoral education and frozen religious ideologies, and do what prophets do: give birth to justice from a newly born heart, a newly born consciousness. And to shout the dangerous paths, the ways of folly, we are on. This book does all that and more.
I should offer a disclaimer here. I know and truly love Joel and Nancy. I know their marvelous book, View from the Center of the Universe (2006) and recommend it to everyone I know. I know their sterling credentials as teachers of the new cosmology and the great respect Joel carries in the scientific community. Above all, I know their humility. While helping us all recover our sense of the cosmos as science is newly learning it, they also show up at spiritual events, dance circle dances, laugh with us lay people (meaning non-scientists), chant, meditate, make music, write poetry, and just plain participate.
The Evolution of Consciousness
Wisely do the authors point out that human consciousness evolves from self awareness to tribe to religion to nationality to species, to Earth, and ultimately to Cosmos. We, like the universe, need to keep expanding. (I think of Meister Eckhart; “God is delighted to watch your soul enlarge.”) We can so easily get stuck in any one of these smaller groupings – self (narcissism), tribe (tribalism), religion (my God can beat up your God/goddess – let me show you the way), nation (who is the empire de jour? We are Number one and the Exceptional One). But Gaia and her pain is calling us beyond all these earlier identities to embrace Earth which needs so much embracing today; and now Cosmos as well.
We don’t have to abandon the earlier soul periods; we can incorporate them into this great act of growing our souls, expanding our consciousness. We can love self without being narcissistic; we can love our tribe without being tribalistic and haters of other tribes; we can embrace a religious path without denying others theirs; we can be Americans (or Egyptians or Argentinians) without having to go to war to prove we are superior. Of course we are on a path of consciousness expansion. After all, this universe is biased in favor of expansion. This is a scientific fact.
Joel and Nancy are clearly in love with what science is learning today. Their love is contagious. Their enthusiasm ignites all who drink it in. They have the children in mind when they say “today’s children could be the first generation ever raised in the universe they actually live in” and they urge us to teach the “power of ten” to the kids and resist teaching the easy metaphors of selfishness, cynicism or despair (103f). “Earth itself is not a mess but a jewel of the cosmos, rich with life and potential, and possibly unique in all the heavens,” they declare, like twenty-first century Davids singing new psalms.
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.” 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,” pessimism – all of which is so often a cover-up and escape from responsibility.
Getting Ethically Grounded
This book is a book on ethics, about renewing our foundation for ethics. This is why the authors can talk so passionately about the folly of our race as we face our own potential extinction and that of this marvelous and unique planet as we know it. 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.” (63)
With our uniqueness comes a special responsibility, for if we 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.” (66)
The authors recognize our moral obligations to change as a species. With the human race now at seven billion people, the inflation we have been undergoing is not sustainable. We could – and are – destroying our special 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 and “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 must move beyond the inflationary period of economics, judging things by growth of GNP. We have to realize that spiritual relationships can grow continuously but not economic ones.
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 when they say: “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.” (89)
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 eternality,’ 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.” (91)
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. 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. 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.