WHAT DOES THE UNIVERSE STORY SHOW US?
The story of the development of the Universe is not only a magnificent story which could be told for its own sake, but a story with some specific and important implications. These “lessons” of the Universe Story are all things we might believe anyway without ever hearing the story, but it does seem to me that the story makes these principles seem more grounded in truth and less like “just nice ideas”. The Universe Story shows:
(a) Our kinship with other things in the Universe, both living and non-living, through our sharing of a common ancestry (ultimately in the Big Bang); we are therefore living surrounded by things we have a connection with.
(b) The nature of our dependence on the rest of the Universe, even reaching to the extent of our bodies being made out of elements such as carbon and hydrogen which themselves have an origin and history; this can be seen as a sort of factual basis for “thankfulness”, not taking life for granted.
c) The universe story tells us about creativity – the Universe has manifested tremendous changes and incredible diversity in a continuous process which we are all products of, contributors to, and expressions of.
(d) The story explains the responsibilities we each have as members of the dominant species on our planet, with the enormous impact we have on other species and the significance which our species has for the evolutionary process as a whole.
(e) It explains the nature of the existence of different levels of organisation (sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, multi-celled organisms, etc.), and enables us to use this as a way of understanding the current stage in the process, which is the development of globalisation in human organisation.
WHAT DOES THE SCIENTIFIC NATURE OF THE UNIVERSE STORY IMPLY?
What follows from the fact that the Universe Story is a scientific story?
(a) It is more likely to be true than the creation myths of the past. Of course the myths of Egypt, Palestine, India, and so on, conveyed and still convey important truths, but in a literal sense there is far more evidence that the current scientific Universe Story is true as an actual account of how the Universe, the Earth, the human species, etc., came into being. It may be a worse story in some other ways – it may be less emotionally compelling, less clear as a basis for organising society – but in this respect at least it has an advantage, which must matter to us if we are concerned about truth. I don’t therefore think the universe story simply takes its place as one creation myth amongst many.
(b) As a scientific story, the product of a global scientific community, the Universe Story can be widely accepted as true by people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and parts of the world.
(c) At the same time, it is a story which can be complicated and difficult to engage with, both emotionally and intellectually. Parts of it are difficult to understand.
(d) It is also not a clear-cut and finalised collection of objective truths: the story is a provisional one, continually being changed, and always a field of debate, including significant disagreements and uncertainties. This is in the nature of a scientific account.
(e) But at the same time, we need sufficient tough-mindedness to – provisionally – back particular theories, views, and generalisations, and not get so drawn into the uncertainty that we find the story just comes to pieces in our hands and turns out to be nothing we can do anything with.
(f) It is also right to be critical of science as it has developed in the West, and sceptical about the way the Universe Story has been told, because Western science has grown within a particular historical and social context, and therefore bears the marks of that in the form of the impacts of imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, etc., on science. Evolution is one of the aspects of science where this can be seen most clearly, especially in views about which particular types of humans are at the top of the evolutionary tree. I remember as a child a book my uncle had, which included a picture summing up the evolution of life. Right at the top of the tree, above the savages and fishes and primitive blobs, there sat a white man in an armchair, reading, looking remarkably like my uncle.
(f) Western science has also developed with a particular psychological style which has emphasised the factual/intellectual content of science but very often (though by no means always) played down any sense of awe and wonder, or emotional involvement with what has been discovered. This legacy is one of the things which makes it difficult for us now to move from an intellectual engagement with the Universe Story to an engagement which is also an emotional one.
HOW CAN THE UNIVERSE STORY BE EXPRESSED THROUGH RITUAL?
One of the ways in which the Universe Story might be engaged with in our hearts, and embedded within our ways of looking at things, is through its expression in ritual. This works for some people a lot more than it does for others. Here are a few thoughts which might be explored in practice.
One form of ritual which has been done is the cosmic walk, where participants walk perhaps 1.5 kilometres to represent the past 15 billion years, contemplate the formation of galaxies and Earth as they walk along, and are then struck by the tiny distance which represents the entire lifetime of the human species.
Celebrations of the seasons could be adapted to explicitly emphasise the astronomical movements which produce them.
Another basis for ritual is to take a limited set of key events from the Story and arrange them spatially, linking them with the directions marked out in a neopagan circle. This works well if we start in the South-East with the Big Bang as a transition to Fire (South), the fire of the initial fireball, from the Air (representing in this case emptiness, absence) of the East. Then after the formation of atoms and then galaxies, the South-West is the formation of the Earth, which is a process of Fire (South) from the Sun being turned into a planet covered mainly in Water (West). Water is then the element in which life develops, with the Cambrian explosion a key stage in that process, and then in the North-West, what could fit better than the transition from the Water (West) to Earth (north), in the form of the first amphibians? Then after dinosaurs and monkeys along with North side, the North-East is the transition from Earth-bound (North) creatures to the Air (East), representing human consciousness and creativity. Then we have the industrial revolution and the potential future ecological revolution along the East side, reflecting the development of human consciousness through history.
Something else about evolution that we experience physically is the existence of our backbones, which are simultaneously central to the story of the evolution of life on Earth and central to our own bodies. In between the worms and the fish in the evolutionary process, something began which is within us now whenever we walk, dance, or lie down. In ‘Acrobats of the Gods’, Joan Dexter Blackmer says: “A dancer’s training is an investigation, a venture into one’s animal ancestry …”
MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT THE STORY
Question 1: What is the relationship between the science and the myth?
In order to connect emotionally with the Earth Story (or the wider Universe Story) it is necessary to “translate” it from a purely scientific form into something that people can grasp and feel. This wasn’t so difficult with creation stories from earlier cultures, which relied on easily understood concepts about the actions of different animals, or gods working in very human-like ways. But can we emotionally grasp the Earth Story without falsifying it? This falsification (or oversimplification at least) might be generated through seeing what happened to different species as though these were things which happened to humans, or importing human ideas about meaning and purpose where they do not belong.
Question 2: How can we derive ethical conclusions from an account of what has happened?
The Earth Story is an account of what has happened. But can we derive from that any ethical conclusions, about right and wrong? Isn’t it possible that what ought to have happened is different from what actually did happen? We are jumping to conclusions if we simply endorse the long-run direction of what has happened and what we might guess is likely to happen in the future. Perhaps as human beings we should be able to make judgements that stand outside that: for example, animal life and its evolution have involved a great deal of pain and suffering, eating and being eaten. How can that provide any ethical standard by which to determine how things should be taken forward by human beings?
Question 3: Is there a single Earth Story?
A large part of the attraction of the Earth Story is that it is a single story which can provide an overarching narrative within which a multiplicity of different projects and decisions can be located. Because of its basis in science, and because it is a global story, it can provide a focus for unity amongst different peoples in different parts of the world. However, is it as simple as that? Can’t we tell the story in different ways, with different emphases, different interpretations, different conclusions? Won’t we in fact have (and perhaps this is what we already have) a Roman Catholic version, a Marxist version, a New Age version, a Social Darwinist version and so on? Isn’t this just another field of debate between different people with many conflicting perspectives, rather than a unified grand narrative?
Question 4: Is later better?
If we think we can derive some sort of ethical, political, or spiritual guidance from the Earth Story, this is probably because we are happy to go along with the direction evolution has taken up to now. We are therefore implicitly accepting that “later is better”: for example human beings are an advance on fish, which are an advance on bacteria, and so on. What do we do then about extinction crises and their aftermaths? Were the periods directly after an extinction crisis an advance on the periods just before, or do make an exception to the “later is better” principle in the case of extinction crises? If our species destroys itself, can we say that what replaces it will inevitably be better? Would we say that, in the aftermath of a nuclear war, a takeover by lichen which could withstand radioactivity was an advance on what human beings created in the Renaissance, simply because the lichen-dominated world came later in the evolutionary process? On the other hand, if we don’t accept some sense of “progress” based on some judgement about what in the Middle Ages was called “the Great Chain of Being”, how do we avoid the sort of ultra-egalitarianism which says that the life of a human being suffering from malaria has no more value than the life of a mosquito?
Question 5: How do we apply the lessons of the Earth Story to human history?
Teilhard de Chardin was clear: there is a definite “principle axis” of evolution, which for the past three thousand years can be summed up as “the rise of the West”. Does this mean “West is best”? Teilhard says (in ‘The Phenomenon of Man’): “we would be allowing sentiment to falsify the facts if we failed to recognise that during historic time the principle axis of anthropogenesis [the development of the human species] has passed through the West… It is not in any way naïve to hail as a great event the discovery by Columbus of America.” However, another way to tell the story is that the West conquered through violence and ruthlessness, and therefore it was not the morally best culture which won out in the conflicts between cultures, but simply the one which was best at conflict. And what happens to the analysis now, with the economic and cultural rise of Islam, India, and China? Does this reflect a wrong turning taken by evolution, the disastrous spread of unsustainable production and consumption, or the development of a fairer world resulting from something positive about globalisation?
These questions all create difficulties for the Earth Story. However, so powerful is the attraction of the Story, in my view, that we will be better off finding answers and moving ahead on the basis of them than simply abandoning the idea that the Earth Story has anything useful to tell us. And how can we possibly imagine that an account of the development of life on Earth, and human history within it, has nothing to tell us about the choices which are open to our species in the future? It would be a strange world indeed if we could derive nothing of value from all this, and we could safely ignore it and choose our ethical judgements, religious practices (or rejection of them), political projects, and so on, paying no attention to the long-term big picture story of what has happened on this planet up to now.