The final third of Journey of the Universe doesn’t say anything about the environmental crisis that you don’t already know, but the authors’ conclusion is quite interesting and could even be described as the basis of a nature-based spirituality. I wrote a few days ago about their incredibly moving meditation on how living things experience value in the universe; today I’m plagued in response to my reading by questions of crisis, apocalypse, “end times.”
Maybe that’s a natural feeling on 9/11. I still remember the horror I felt that day when, stumbling into sunlight after hours of shepherding stunned patrons of the Willamette University library past a makeshift television, I was accosted by a newspaper boy who tried to sell me a grainy photo of a man suspended mid-fall before the burning towers. From there I made my way to the “safe zone,” WU’s central auditorium, and listened to a seemingly endless buzz of voices that couldn’t seem to speak past themselves. Honestly, I was shocked this morning to read in Frank Rich’s 2011 article, “I discovered that the farther west I got, the more my audiences questioned me as though I were a refugee from some flickering evening-news hot spot as distant and exotic as Beirut.” After all, I was as far West as I could get in the continental U.S., and we were all walking around like zombies for weeks. Did he miss our stop?
This is the part of the ecological story most of us know. In the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century, humankind underwent a transformation, from awestruck serfs in a mysterious universe into enterprising kings of a mechanized one. Following upon the discoveries of individuals like Galileo and Newton, human beings for the first time allowed themselves to believe that we “with our vast intelligence had only to determine the laws governing matter for us to gain control over the entire affair” (105). A few hundred years later, we’re suffering the consequences of believing we could dominate and manipulate the very ground of our being.
That has a lot more to do with 9/11 than I think we want to admit. Sometimes terrorist acts are described as “symbolic” in the sense that the violence comes with a message, usually to inspire fear. Doesn’t that just scream mechanistic thinking? It is as though we become—as once befell the planets—no longer gods but mere “dead balls of matter” available to the scrutiny of more penetrating beings (104). At the same time, a terrorist act remains in keeping with the vast working of the universe, if in a disturbing way. Such violent acts do make room—real physical space but also a vacancy in the brain—for something new.
I occasionally have conversations with Westar’s academic director, David Galston, about human beings’ obsession with crisis thinking. We can’t seem to motivate ourselves without a crisis to address. So I naturally wondered how Tucker & Swimme would handle the natural crisis language that emerges from talk of the environment today. Yes, they employ crisis language, but they also make sense of it in terms of the dynamics of the larger universe:
It is in the nature of the universe to move forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces. If the creative energies in the heart of the universe succeeded so brilliantly in the past, we have reason to hope that such creativity will inspire and guide us into the future. (118)
This led me to wonder what can be learned by exploring this dynamic in other points of crisis. I wonder if 9/11 and other moments in today’s “age of terror” aren’t too close to home still, both chronologically and emotionally. For me at least, I can’t go there, not yet, so I turned briefly to the Great Depression instead.
Miles Orvell, professor of English and American studies at Temple University, has described the Great Depression as “one of the great creative periods of our time.” This might seem counterintuitive. Until the day she died, my grandma stored ten times as much food as she would ever need, a consequence of the hungry years she survived as a younger woman. Similar pangs no doubt run through your family history. But Orvell points out that “the period … birthed several new genres, such as the melodrama, which laid the foundation for today’s soap opera, and it brought the detective novel to fulfillment, with the heroic detective stoically dealing with corruption and the underside of life in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.” More obvious acts of creation came in the form of New Deal programs. Dr Charlie Wildman of the University of Manchester offers similar stories of creativity on British soil during the Great Depression: new housing, new transportation lines, a major renovation to the Manchester library that “accommodated one million volumes and seated over 300 readers in the Great Hall, making it the largest after the reading room of the British library.” Such activities on both sides of the Atlantic were by no means restricted to physical works, either; they included programs in the arts. You see how we reach for symbolic language to modulate our despair.
I think what’s tough about this—what we hate about this—is that none of the creativity can guarantee our personal survival. Sure, crisis language equals “important” and “worth your time” in a world full of distractions. But nothing we do is a total fix. As any Buddhist will tell you, the universe with its beautiful, terrifying creative-destructive nature cares not whether your molecules remain arranged as you. It will never reject you, but it will completely and unrelentingly remake you.
I’m not arguing with Tucker and Swimme, at least I don’t think I am. I’m wondering aloud how I feel about seeing myself as a collusion of vast patterns instead of a unique and enduring monument (in a word: a soul).
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.