Cosmic Wonder, Human Opportunity
by Nancy Ellen Abrams and Joel R. Primack
Yale Press, 2011
This book is in every sense of the word, a prophetic book. Its message ranks right up there with those of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Joel. Like the prophets, it is at times poetic, 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, couch-potato-itis, anthropocentrism, and despair by inspiring us with the newly found reasons we have for waking up, getting involved, and resisting dumb media, amoral education, and frozen religious ideologies. They inspire us to 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, The View from the Center of the Universe 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 access new scientific knowledge to recover our sense of the Cosmos, 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. I like that about them. They are human beings as well as scientists. They are not preaching from an ivory tower or to the scientific choir alone (though they have the courage to take on the cynics and pessimists in that circle). Their message is for all of us: “Wake up before it is too late. Drink in the new good news of the universe. Join and build up a ‘cosmic society.’”
Wisely 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), 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 hating 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 “powers of ten” to the kids and resist teaching the easy metaphors of selfishness, cynicism, or despair. “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.
What Hubble Could See
Joel and Nancy have looked hard and analyzed deeply the amazing findings of the Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments from the past two decades of explosive findings in cosmology. Here is one metaphor that they put forth for our understanding:
Imagine that the entire universe is an ocean of dark energy. On that ocean there sail billions of ghostly ships, made of dark matter. At the tips of the tallest masts of the largest ships there are tiny beacons of light, which we call galaxies. With Hubble Space Telescope, the beacons are all we see. We don’t see the ships, we don’t see the ocean — but we know they’re there through the Double Dark theory.
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.
I have often said that the most important things in life are metaphors, whether we are speaking of life or death, spirit or sex, love or body. And 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,” and pessimism — all of which is so often a cover-up and escape from responsibility.
This is a book on ethics, a book about renewing our foundation for ethics. The authors talk passionately about the folly of our race as we face our own potential extinction and the extinction of this marvelous planet as we know it. They see our uniqueness not just in terms of this planet but also in terms of what we know about the universe. They urge us to “crack open our imaginations” and to wake up to the “accident” of our being “born at the turning point.” And what turning point is that? 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.
We Are the Self-Consciousness of the Universe
With our uniqueness comes a special responsibility, for if humans 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.
We are living at a “pivotal” moment in the history of the universe for today we can “see” the entire history of the universe, but there will come a time when, because of the expansion of the cosmos, the past will no longer be visible; distant galaxies will disappear over the horizon. We are able to take in more galaxies today than ever will be perceived in the future. And, in our own local group of galaxies, because of gravity at work, there will be a blending of the Milky Way and Andromeda that will shut our descendants off from the rest of the universe. No wonder Joel and Nancy feel so called to sing the universe’s story at this time.
The authors recognize our moral obligations to change as a species. With the human race now at almost 7 billion people, the inflation we have been undergoing is not sustainable. We could — and are — destroying our 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. Moreover:
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 need to adjust to realities as we now know them. For example, talk of “space war” is beyond dangerous because if we launch just a truckload of gravel into space we will destroy not only all sophisticated weaponry but also the satellites that we all depend on for weather information, global positioning systems, and communication.
Enough Is a Feast
We must move beyond the inflationary period of economics, of judging things by growth of GNP. We have to realize that spiritual relationships can grow continuously — but economic ones can’t. Joel and Nancy write:
Our drive for meaning, spiritual connection, personal and artistic expression, and cultural growth can be unlimited … if we valued them above consumer goods, then we would have a new paradigm for human progress. For our universe the most creative period, which brought forth galaxies, stars, atoms, planets, and life, came after inflation ended, and this could also be true for humanity. A stable period can last as long as human creativity stays ahead of our physical impact on the earth.
If this isn’t a call for a simpler lifestyle I don’t know what is.
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:
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.
Just as our Earth is an “incredibly rare jewel,” so too is our universe, whether it has happened alone or is one among many. The authors of this book have not grown numb to awe and wonder.
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 eternity,’ 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.
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. It’s a call for 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 and even dark ships sail. 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.