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Writing the Story of Our Future

An interview with Mary Evelyn Tucker

As we speculate on the ways in which society will change in the coming decades, it is enlightening to situate our musings within the context of the greater, unfolding story of the evolution of humanity and the universe.

This interview was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Orion magazine and is reproduced here in part with permission.

[© Reign Voltaire/EyeEm/Getty Images]

What is it about our time that inspires a new story of the universe and our place in it?

Due to the discoveries of modern science, our generation is the first to catch a glimpse of the real dimensions of the universe, the unimaginable immensity of it, its origins, the glory of its unfolding. This glimpse changes everything.

When told in many different ways, for all age groups and cultures, this story has the possibility of giving us a perspective that almost nothing else does. This is a realization that we are part of a living Earth with its complexity and its beauty. This is an awakening to the wholeness of Life, with both its w and its h forms--both whole and holy. We don't have language to fully describe this insight. It's thrilling. It's wonder-inducing.

So where does the story start?

At the beginning there is a "great flaring forth"--a roaring force from one unknowable moment, this origin moment. It lights me up to think that from this emerge the first stars, the first galaxies, the first planetary systems. Any one of these alone would inspire a lifetime of meditation. That single moment gives birth over time to the elements--hydrogen, then oxygen, nitrogen, carbon--all from the explosion of supernovae. From the creative processes of galaxies and stars and finally planetary systems over 10 billion years, our sun, our Earth, our moon emerged, and eventually humans were born. This is staggering, indeed mind-boggling, and we are the first humans to begin to understand this.

It took another billion years for the first cell to emerge, and from that cell came all life on the planet. Did it come from the deep-sea vents? Did it come from an asteroid? All we know is that Earth became ignited with life. So we have multicellular life from the bacteria early on and much later with birds and fish and insects--the tree of life not so much branching as exploding outward. At the same time, Earth began its adventure of conscious self-awareness, from a primitive sentience at the cellular level all the way to our own dreaming, meaning-making, symbol-forming selves.

Cultural transformation often begins when people get a new vision of who they are in the midst of the world. Is that part of what you're hoping the universe story can do?

What we are experiencing is a worldview shift of immense import, one where we humans are entering into a fresh understanding that we are part of a developmental universe. If we can see ourselves as coming out of, as birthed from, these dynamic, changing, evolutionary processes--from cosmic beginning to Earth to life to human beings--there will be a huge change of human consciousness and identity. It's certainly as large as the Copernican Revolution. It's on that order of magnitude.

What does the story inspire us to do? What is our work, as part of the unfolding universe?

We are in an extinction spasm currently. We are shutting down the Cenozoic Era, which began with the elimination of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Our great challenge is to imagine how a new era of Earth's history can emerge. Our work in the world is not just a stopgap to extinction or a stopgap for pollution or fracking or whatever it might be. We are part of the Great Work of laying the foundations of a new cultural and biological era, what Thomas Berry called the Ecozoic Era.

Our work is to align ourselves with evolutionary processes, instead of standing in their way or derailing them. So our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the 14-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves. Our challenge is to construct livable cities and to cultivate healthy foods in ways that are congruent with Earth's patterns. That is what biodynamics and permaculture and organic farming are trying to discover: How do soils work? How does bacteria work? How do nutrients work? We need to broaden our ecological understandings so we can align ourselves with the creative forces of the universe.

We can talk about this in every ecosystem, whether it's oceans and fisheries, rivers and estuaries, meadows and forests. We have scientific and ecological knowledge about how these ecosystems are working. We need to use that knowledge to support, restore and renew these ecosystems.

The United Nations has issued yet another report, saying that the world is not moving nearly fast enough to prevent major disruptions of food supplies, inundation of coastal cities, massive movements of refugees, widespread extinctions. Yet your work seems to be based on a beautiful hope. What do you hope for? What do you expect? Do you think humankind will make the turning toward this creative participation in an unfolding universe?

It's a really important question, indeed a haunting one. We all share the sadness of our times, the despair we can feel around us and the struggles of individuals and institutions. So I think we have to acknowledge that these are extremely difficult times--that we are being drenched with dispiriting news of all sorts: terrorism, Ebola, war, refugee camps and the destruction of species and ecosystems. Truly horrific news, there's no question about it. What is our resilience in the face of this?

It is in the nature of the universe to move forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces. As Thomas Berry said in his article "The New Story," 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 us and guide us into the future. My greatest hope would be that these life systems are so powerful, are themselves so resilient, that we can take inspiration from the natural world and its fantastic, intriguing mystery and complexity. In this way, our own generativity can become woven into the vibrant communities that constitute the vast symphony of the universe.

There are hundreds of thousands of people on the planet who are aware and ready and already participating in this epic story. They want to help write the story into its future, participate in its unfolding, so that we get through this hourglass of loss and extinction, of sorrow and mourning. We need to articulate this sorrow and ritualize our grieving; the humanities can help us do that. But we need to create, in this hugely difficult birth passage, new ways of being vibrant and mutually enhancing creatures on this planet.

These perspectives are explored further in the Journey of the Universe project, a collaboration between Mary Evelyn Tucker and evolutionary philosopher Brian Thomas Swimme that includes an Emmy Award-winning film, a book and a series of video conversations. Visit: www.journeyoftheuniverse.org. These materials can also be found on Amazon.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is senior lecturer and research scholar at Yale University, where she teaches in a joint master's degree program between the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Divinity School. She directs the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale with her husband, John Grim.
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