Awakening to the Universe Story: An Interview with Brian Swimme
by Susan Bridle. What is Enlightenment? Issue 19. Spring-Summer 2001.
Part I: Comprehensive Compassion
What Is Enlightenment: What do you feel is the most pressing crisis facing humanity today? What are the planetary issues we most need to wake up to and address?
Brian Swimme: I think the fastest way to wake up to what is happening on the planet is to think in terms of mass extinction. Every now and then, the earth goes through a die-off of the diversity of life. Over the last half-billion years, there have been five moments like this. We didn’t know about this two hundred years ago; we didn’t have the slightest idea that the earth did this. Now we’ve discovered that around every hundred million years, the earth went through these amazing cataclysms. And just within the last thirty to forty years, we’ve discovered that the last one, which eliminated all the dinosaurs and ammanoids and so many other species, was caused by an asteroid hitting the earth. This happened sixty-five million years ago. There was no awareness of this any previous time in human history. You look through the Vedas, you look in the Bible—it’s nowhere. But at the same time as we’re discovering this, we’re discovering that we’re causing one right now. Two years ago, the American Museum of Natural History took a poll among biologists. They asked a simple question: Are we in the middle of a mass extinction? Seventy percent said yes. A mass extinction. You can’t open your eyes and see that. It’s a discovery that involves the whole. Our senses have evolved to deal with the near-at-hand, and this is a conclusion that involves the whole planet.
So now we’re just discovering that we’re in the middle of a mass extinction. We happen to be in that moment when the worst thing that’s happened to the earth in sixty-five million years is happening now. That’s number one. Number two, we are causing it. Number three, we’re not aware of it. There’s only a little splinter of humanity that’s aware of it. The numbers are this: At the minimum, twenty-five thousand species are going extinct every year. And if humans’ activity were otherwise, or if humans weren’t here, there would be one species going extinct every five years. We’ve pushed up the natural extinction rate by the order of something like a hundred thousand times.
The point is that we haven’t been prepared to understand what an extinction event is. We’ve had all these great teachers. We’ve had tremendously intelligent people, going back through time, but you can look, for example, through all the sutras or Plato’s dialogues, and they never talk about an extinction. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that Plato or the Buddha were even capable of imagining an extinction. First of all, at that time we weren’t aware of evolution. We weren’t aware of the whole process, so the idea of extinction didn’t make sense. When every now and then scientists or other humans would find these bones, they would assume that these creatures were actually still in existence elsewhere, you know, on another part of the continent. So there wasn’t the conception of extinction. We’re only now having to deal with what it means to actually eliminate a form of life.
I have a new idea for a way to help people understand this. Christians have been reflecting upon Jesus’ crucifixion for two thousand years. If you had happened to be around back then, for example, in Alexandria, it was a cosmopolitan world and they had news of what was going on, and you heard about some Jewish rabbi being killed—big deal. It wouldn’t really have had an impact on you. But then, for two thousand years afterwards, Christian theologians are thinking about it. So my latest thought is, maybe for the next million years, humans will be reflecting on what it actually means for the earth to go through this extinction process. It may take us that long to fully take it in, with all of its ramifications. I don’t understand it. It’s vastly beyond my mind. I think that we’re not prepared to really understand what it means. Right now, just to get a glimpse of it is tremendous. That’s all I’m hoping for. If we just get a glimpse of it, we can begin to think at the level that’s required to deal with it effectively.
WIE: What do you believe is the solution to this crisis?
Swimme: It would be to reinvent ourselves, at the species level, in a way that enables us to live with mutually enhancing relationships. Mutually enhancing relationships—not just with humans but with all beings—so that our activities actually enhance the world. At the present time, our interactions degrade everything.
You see, the cartoon version of our civilization is that we’re all materialists, so we don’t have a sense of a larger significance beyond us. In our materialistic Western culture, our fundamental concern is the individual. The individual, and accumulation—of whatever it might be. Is it fame? Is it money? We put that as the cornerstone of our civilization. That’s how we’ve organized things. Now there are mitigating factors, but I’m giving a cartoon version. What’s necessary is for us to understand that, really, at the root of things is community. At the deepest level, that’s the center of things. We come out of community. So how then can we organize our economics so that it’s based on community, not accumulation? And how can we organize our religion to teach us about community? And when I say “community,” I mean the whole earth community. That’s the ultimate sacred domain—the earth community.
These are the ways in which I think we will be moving. How do you organize your technology so that as you use the technology, the actual use of it enhances the community? That’s a tough one. So long as we have this worldview in which the earth itself is just stuff, empty material, and the individual is most important, then we’re set up to just use it in any way we like. So the idea is to move from thinking of the earth as a storehouse to seeing the earth as our matrix, our fundamental community. That’s one of the great things about Darwin. Darwin shows us that everything is kin. Talk about spiritual insight! Everything is kin at the level of genetic relatedness. Another simple way of saying this is: Let’s build a civilization that is based upon the reality of our relationships. If we think of the human as being the top of this huge pyramid, then everything beneath us is of no value, and we can use it however we want. In the past, it wasn’t noticed so much because our influence was smaller. But now, we’ve become a planetary power. And suddenly the defects of that attitude are made present to us through the consequences of our actions.
It’s amazing to realize that every species on the planet right now is going to be shaped primarily by its interaction with humans. It was never that way before. For three billion years, life evolved in a certain way; all of this evolution took place in the wilds. But now, it is the decisions of humans that are going to determine the way this planet functions and looks for hundreds of millions of years in the future. Look at an oak tree, look at a wasp, look at a rhinoceros. The beauty of those forms came out through this whole system of natural selection in the past. But the way they’ll look in the future is going to be determined primarily by how they interact with us. Because we’re everywhere. We’ve become powerful. We are the planetary dynamic at this large-scale level. So can we wake up to this fact and then reinvent ourselves at the level of knowledge and wisdom that’s required? That’s the nature of our moment. Our power has gotten ahead of us, has gotten ahead of our consciousness. This is a challenge we’ve never faced before: to relearn to be human in a way that is actually enhancing to these other creatures. If you want to be terrified, just think of being in charge of how giraffes will look a million years from now. Or the Asian elephant. Biologists are convinced the Asian elephant will no longer exist in the wild. Even right now, the cheetah can’t exist in the wild. That means that the Asian elephants that will exist in the future will exist primarily in our zoos, likewise cheetahs. So the kinds of environments we make for them are going to shape their muscles and their skeletons and all the rest of it. I’m talking over millions of years. This is the challenge that is particular to this moment, because this is the moment the earth goes through this major phase change—the dynamics of the planet are beginning to unfurl through human consciousness.
That’s why I’m thrilled by your asking these questions. You see, I do think that waking up, enlightenment, can save our world, can save the planet. Because we’re doing things that none of us wants to see happen. And we’re doing it because we’re unaware. So if we can wake up and train all of our energies around this, then I have deep confidence that tremendously beautiful, healing things will happen.
WIE: You often speak about the fact that we are at a unique juncture in human history because we now have knowledge of the fourteen billion years of cosmological evolution that brought us to this point—and that this knowledge carries with it a responsibility that we never before imagined. Can you give a basic outline of the vast scope of this evolution?
Swimme: It’s really simple. Here’s the whole story in one line. This is the greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise: You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans.
WIE: That’s the short version.
Swimme: That’s the short version. The reason I like that version is that hydrogen gas is odorless and colorless, and in the prejudice of our Western civilization, we see it as just material stuff. There’s not much there. You just take hydrogen, leave it alone, and it turns into a human—that’s a pretty interesting bit of information. The point is that if humans are spiritual, then hydrogen’s spiritual. It’s an incredible opportunity to escape the traditional dualism—you know, spirit is up there; matter is down here. Actually, it’s different. You have the matter all the way through, and so you have the spirit all the way through. So that’s why I love the short version.
Okay, the longer version: Thirteen billion years ago, according to the most recent guess, the universe comes forth as elementary particles, screaming hot. It’s not only trillions of degrees hot, it’s also a million times denser than lead. So the universe doesn’t begin as fire. It begins as this incredible dense, hot—we can’t even imagine it. We just know it as some numbers. And then it begins to expand. After three hundred thousand years, it cools enough to form atoms. Those are the hydrogen atoms. And as the matter continues to cool and expand, it also begins to draw itself together into these huge clouds that we call galaxies.
When the universe is about a billion years old, the galaxies flutter into existence, whoooshh, like snowflakes falling—one hundred billion galaxies. It was an incredible moment because that was the only time in the history of the universe when galaxies could form. Before that, it was way too dense and hot. After that, it’s too thin and spread out. Stephen Hawking discovered something incredible. If you look at the expansion of the universe, there’s all this energy, right? It’s just exploding out, and also, at the same time, you have this bonding force, gravity, that’s holding it together. You’ve got these two opposing forces. If the gravitational force would have been slightly stronger, it would have crushed the whole universe into a black hole within a million years. Or, if the gravitational force had been weaker, it would have exploded apart and it wouldn’t have formed galaxies. It’s an incredible balance. The difference is one part in 1059—which is a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of one percent. That’s how delicate it is. It’s more delicate than dancing on the edge of a knife.
Later on, the galaxy is complexified in that the stars themselves burn, and the stars, to burn, transform the elements in their core. So the hydrogen is transformed into helium. And later on, it gets a lot hotter, and the helium is transformed into carbon, and so forth. All of the elements are created in the middle of the star, which then explodes. So the next star that’s formed is formed out of these more complex elements, and then you have the possibility of planets. All of the elements of our body, every one of them, was forged out of a star. Walt Whitman had an intuition about this when he said, “A leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.” And you think, how did he come up with that? Well, that’s called self-knowledge. In other words, a star gave birth to the elements that then assembled themselves in the form of Walt Whitman. So you could say that Walt Whitman had a deep memory of where he came from.
WIE: That’s an amazing intuition.
Swimme: Isn’t that something? How could he write that down? Likewise, when Einstein discovered the general theory of relativity, he discovered it from within. There was no data on the expansion of the universe or anything else. He said he just went into his own visceral movements—a strange way of thinking about creativity—and he paid attention to what was going on within, and he gave birth to the gravitational equations we use now. This is what I think Whitman did. He penetrated the depth of his own bodily reality and had this intuition about stars. And we’ve now discovered the empirical details about this. I just love that—everybody comes out of the stars.
So, to continue with our story—in certain planetary systems, life forms. That’s a huge transformation. Life begins around three and a half billion years ago, and then it begins to complexify around seven hundred million years ago. And then, one strange little lineage forms—the worms. The worms actually develop a backbone and a nervous system. We’re so impressed by brains. The worms created the brains. You see the theme I’m developing here? Hydrogen. It becomes us. All of matter is spiritual. And if the worms can create the brains, then creativity is everywhere!
Then we have the advanced life-forms—more advanced in the sense of more complex. There are the various stages of humanity that we’ve gone through; our consciousness has developed. And then: We have this moment. Now we’re discovering ourselves in the midst of this story. And you see, all that went before was necessary for us to actually discover ourselves in the universe right now—all of the development of mind and instrumentation and so forth.
But the way I want to connect the story for you is to go back to the birth of the galaxies. There was one moment when the galaxies could form, not before or after. That’s like our moment right now, I think. See, this is the moment for the planet to awaken to itself through the human, so that the actual dynamics of evolution have an opportunity to awaken and to begin to function at that level. It couldn’t happen before, you know. And the amazing thing is, it probably won’t happen afterwards. If we don’t make this transition, most likely the creativity of the planet will be in such a degraded state that we won’t be able to make that move. The chilling thing is that, in the universe, the really creative places can lose their creativity. We talked about the birth of the galaxies. There are two fundamentally different forms of galaxies, spiral galaxies—galaxies with spiral arms—and elliptical galaxies, which can be larger or smaller, but which don’t have any internal structure. The galaxies that have spiral arms have the creativity to create new stars. So stars form. They create these elements. They disperse. Then they form another one, another star system, and it keeps going. But in elliptical galaxies, they can’t. In our current understanding, spiral galaxies have collided at certain times and have destroyed their own internal structure and become elliptical galaxies. Elliptical galaxies are just sitting there, and the stars go out one by one, and that’s it. So you can actually move off from the mainline sequence of creativity in the universe.
Now here we are in the middle of the Milky Way galaxy. There are two hundred billion stars. Lots of them have planets. Maybe a lot of them have intelligent life. There are approximately one hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. Obviously, lots of stars; most likely, lots of life. Who knows? But if you think of it in terms of the creativity of the universe, it may be that a lot of planets will go through the transition that we’re facing now. And if they don’t make it, they’ll die out—like the elliptical galaxies. So the challenge before us as humans is to see that what we think of as small is immense. The very form of our consciousness has a cosmological significance that we didn’t know about before. I’ve talked about it in an evolutionary sense, in terms of the animals and so forth, but it may go beyond that. It may have immense implications for the galaxy as a whole.
So that would be a way of thinking about the past thirteen billion years of the story—to think of the challenge before us as being a cosmological challenge. We’ve gone through transitions in the past that could have gone the wrong way. Then our planet would maybe still be alive, but certainly not at the level of complexity we see about us today. I don’t want to suggest in any way that what’s taking place is somehow engineered to happen. It’s more of an adventure.
WIE: This new knowledge of the history of the universe certainly stretches the limits of your imagination.
Swimme: Yes. That’s just it. Imagine what it was like when Copernicus showed up in town and told people for the first time, “Hey, you know what? The earth is going around the sun.” Try to take that in. We failed to. We couldn’t handle it. And so we split: The scientific venture went one way, and the religious/spiritual another. In one sense, we’re at this same juncture. Can we find the resources to take this in and move with it? It is a challenge for the imagination.
WIE: What is the most important catalyst for the kind of change of worldview you’ve been speaking about?
Swimme: You know, that’s a great question. I wish I had an adequate answer. I’ve thought about it, and my conclusion is that there are multiple catalysts. For some people, it’s knowledge, just hearing about this new story of the universe—so that’s what I do in education. But for others, it’s personal tragedy. Or maybe having an early commitment to the beauty of a place, from childhood, and then coming back and seeing it destroyed. Some people awaken through varied forms of meditation; other people use drugs. I see multiple catalysts. I don’t have an adequate answer perhaps, but the catalyst for me was knowledge. It was just being completely amazed at what we now know. So that would be my own particular path, but I don’t privilege one over the other because I’ve met so many people who are beginning to get a sense of this and they come from a variety of directions.
WIE: You often speak about the importance of activating what you call “comprehensive compassion.” What do you mean by “comprehensive compassion”?
Swimme: Well, when we use words like compassion, we tend to limit them to the human world. And part of this goes back to what I said before, that we think of the rest of the universe as being stuff, and we don’t use words that are spiritual or warm or emotional concerning them. The scientific tradition has always called that “projection”—projecting your own qualities upon the universe as a whole or upon nature. And that’s supposed to be a terrible thing to do. But I think that’s breaking down as we begin to realize that it’s all one energy event. It’s one journey, one story, so that the qualities that are true of the human are in some way or another true of other parts of the universe. So I talk about compassion as a multilevel reality. It’s not just something that’s true of humans.
My interpretation is this. I think that gravitational attraction is an early form of compassion or care. If there weren’t that kind of care at the foundation of the universe, there would be no formation of galaxies—and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. This care or compassion begins to show up in the organic form when you have a bond developing between a mother and her offspring. You know, for a long time, there’s no bond. There’s no care—at least no visible way of seeing care—for instance, with bacteria. They replicate. There could be care there, but we haven’t recognized it yet. But by the time you get to mammals, two hundred and twenty million years ago, you have this bond between the mother and the child. That arrives as a genetic mutation. But because of that, the offspring have a higher chance of surviving. So that mutation then spreads and starts to characterize the entire population. That’s just the bond between a mother and an infant. Then other bonds develop between siblings, and they have a higher chance of survival. All of what I’m saying fits into Darwinian biology. This isn’t outside of mainstream science. What it says is that the dynamics of Darwinian biology favor the appearance of compassion. It shows up between mother and child. It shows up between siblings, and it even develops between kin groups. And it starts to spread.
Now the human comes into existence. We are the first species that actually has the possibility of caring about all of the other species. You see, chimpanzees are our closest relatives, and they certainly care about one another, but their care doesn’t extend over in any visible way to other species, even though they may share territories with baboons. I’ve asked naturalists if they’ve seen a chimpanzee take care of a baboon, and they haven’t. But with humans, suddenly you have the possibility, largely through the human imagination, of actually caring. I mean, I care. I care so much about the cheetahs. And I’ve never even been around a wild cheetah. My point is that the human being is that space in which the comprehensive compassion that pervades the universe from the very beginning now begins to surface within consciousness. That’s the only difference. We didn’t invent compassion, but it’s flowing through us—or it could. The phase change that we’re in seems, to me, to depend upon that comprehensive compassion unfurling in the human species.
WIE: You’re suggesting that throughout evolution, Darwinian natural selection has favored the formation of bonds of care and concern, but that now, in the human, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to extend that care and concern consciously beyond what is already genetically determined. In your video series The Earth’s Imagination, you say: “It’s terrific that you love your family members, but what about the species that are outside the reach of your genes emotionally? That’s the challenge. Doesn’t it seem ungrateful of us if we are just carried along by the emotional bonds that have been established by the past? What if we devote ourselves to developing a more profound concern for all species?” Can you speak about how to actually do this—how to extend the reach of our care and concern?
Swimme: My conviction is that the first step is just paying attention. What’s amazing is that, as humans, if we dwell on anything, after a while we become fascinated by it. It doesn’t matter what it is. The ability to dwell on things is uniquely human because we don’t have such fixed action programs as other species do. We can forget about everything else and just dwell on something. I call it the power of gawking. We can pay attention to whales or to the hummingbirds and just become fascinated by them. It’s noticing in a deep way, or contemplating, and my intuition is that as humans allow themselves to be fascinated by the other creatures, these species will awaken the psychic depths in the human that respond to their beauty. And then we become convinced that in some amazing way, they are essential to us. We can become amazed by how essential they are for our zest, our sense of well-being or happiness. Chief Seattle said that if the animals were not here, we would die of loneliness. I think that a deeper feeling of care begins with allowing ourselves to move into awe—with all of the different creatures, no matter which ones we’ve picked. If we would attend to them, we would see their colossal grandeur. Abraham Heschel said that awe is the first step into wisdom. You can just sit and watch fish and think of how they’ve developed over hundreds of millions of years and imagine what they’re experiencing, and after awhile you’re sunk into contemplation of ultimacy. This is what I think is the first step toward compassion.
WIE: Many spiritual traditions speak about transcending self-centeredness and expressing profound care for others as being the whole point of the spiritual path. Changing our fundamental motivations and making the leap from fundamental self-concern to a condition in which one’s life is based on genuine care and concern for the whole of life is quite a radical transformation. Spiritual paths committed to this kind of transformation usually involve enormous dedication, and often years of extensive spiritual practice. Yet the situation that we’re in now on this planet is critical. Do you think that it is still possible for enough people to make this leap quickly enough to see us through our current crisis?
Swimme: Well, I think the universe is carrying this out. But we get to participate in it consciously. And in a real sense, it’s very important that we participate. At the same time, it’s important to remember that we’re not doing it. I mean, the universe has been working on this for a long time, and right now, it’s exploding within human consciousness. But we’re not in charge of it. So I haven’t got the slightest idea if we have enough time. That’s almost a secondary question to me. It just seems so deeply right that we be thinking about this and working on this. But I think all of the spiritual traditions are going to be accelerated as they learn about this new cosmology and this moment that we face as a human species. There’ll be an amplification taking place. So, it could go very quickly. Or it might take thousands of years. I don’t know.
WIE: Your vision of spiritual awakening is an embrace of the cosmic evolutionary journey of the universe as ourselves and a shift from seeing ourselves as separate individuals to identifying with the universe itself as the greater Self. What do you think about the Eastern mystical traditions that direct us to solely look within for enlightenment, and about statements such as this one by renowned Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi: “All controversies about creation, the nature of the universe, evolution, the purpose of God, etc., are useless. They are not conducive to our true happiness. People try to find out about things which are outside of them before they try to find out ‘Who am I?’ Only by the latter means can happiness be gained.”
Swimme: I can only tell you my orientation. It’s just that there are so many things that we care about, that we carry in our hearts, that we want to help. People are suffering. Animals are suffering. So how can I interact in a way that would be helpful? That’s my focus. All that I think about is somehow related to that. Just to be responsible and to participate in a process that will deepen joy. That’s the only way I can put it. That’s my high hope. There can be such a tendency for the individual to focus on “my enlightenment” and so forth. But it just doesn’t seem to be what is really needed right now. Or it’s not enough.
Part II: The Divinization of the Cosmos: An interview with Brian Swimme on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
In our reading and wide-ranging research for this issue of What Is Enlightenment?, we found the name of the mid-century French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin popping up again and again. His visionary writings, we discovered, have been an important source of revelation and inspiration for many scientists, ecologists, futurists, and theologians who are now grappling with critical questions about the state of the earth and the human being's place within it. When we read excerpts from Teilhard's The Human Phenomenon, The Divine Milieu, and The Future of Man, we immediately understood why.
Brian Swimme has been a student of Teilhard's work for many years. Himself a scientist with an abiding interest in the interface of science and spirituality, Swimme's own passion and understanding have been deeply influenced by Teilhard's ideas. Who better to bring to life Teilhard's vision, we thought, than he? Swimme describes his discovery of Teilhard in his Foreword to Sarah Appleton-Weber's new translation of The Human Phenomenon:
There are days in New York City where you never see the sun but only feel its presence in the blasts of hot air that sweep through the concrete canyons and in the heat waves that radiate up from the asphalt. When my clothes finally became heavy with my own sweat and I was lost for the third time I was tempted to hide out in some air-conditioned hotel, but all I had to remember was my own misery and that was enough to keep me going. I had recently resigned as a professor of mathematics and physics and was now on a search for wisdom, and a number of people had pointed me toward New York, most notably [Aurelio Peccei], the founder of the Club of Rome, that seminal gathering of planetary thinkers and visionaries. On his deathbed, when asked who of all the brilliant minds he had worked with he would most recommend, Peccei had said simply, "Our best hope is Thomas Berry."
By the time I made it to Berry's Riverdale Research Center and was invited into his library, I could not have had higher expectations. He listened carefully as I tried to explain my misery and confusion over the destruction of the planet and what to do about it. After a long pause, and without saying a word, Thomas Berry pulled a book from the thousands on his shelves. With stern visage he tossed across the table Teilhard de Chardin's great work, The Human Phenomenon.
My disappointment was instantaneous. This was old stuff. I had come all the way across the continent to receive a book I had read back in my Jesuit high school? Even worse, some famous scientists had objected to Teilhard's ideas, and I brought that up. Thomas Berry just smiled, and broke into easy laughter.
"Teilhard was the first to see the universe in a new way, so I suppose it's inevitable that he would be criticized. If you're bothered by what a few scientists have to say you should read some of the theologians! Fundamentally the difficulty is one of scale. Any attempt to understand Teilhard that does not begin with the entire complex of civilizations as well as the vast panorama of the evolutionary universe is doomed to failure, for it is simply too small to grasp what he is about. Surely, similar situations have occurred in the history of science?"
My mind raced with thoughts of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and the revolutions they initiated and how these could not be contained in the world of classical physics, but he had only asked the question in a rhetorical way. He was soon to bring our brief meeting to a close, but not before he uttered a most unforgettable statement: "To see as Teilhard saw is a challenge, but increasingly his vision is becoming available to us. I fully expect that in the next millennium Teilhard will be generally regarded as the fourth major thinker of the Western Christian tradition. These would be St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Teilhard."
He smiled again, aware of so much that needed to be said by way of explanation, but also aware that I would be incapable at this time of taking it in. He pointed to the book he had put in my hands. "Begin with Teilhard. There's no substitute for a close reading of his work."
I would read on my own and once a week discuss the ideas with Thomas Berry; I would be regularly amazed by how much of the world's intellectual history it seemed necessary to refer to. He drew constantly not just from physics and biology but also from philosophy, poetry, linguistics, music, and above all world history and cosmology. As the months went by I began to suspect that the fundamental categories of my mind were undergoing some sort of change. The unexamined assumptions that had been organizing my experiences in the world were now writhing under the pressure from Teilhard's massive and penetrating cosmology .
Swimme's intense contemplation of Teilhard's work culminated in a profound spiritual experience that overcame him one day while walking with his fouryear-old son in a forest just north of New York City. It was an epiphany of the mystical fire at the heart of Teilhard's vision, a timeless moment of living recognition of the creative, blazing, flaring forth of the cosmos—a vision that 3 remains very much alive within him today. At the end of our conversation about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his ideas, Swimme admitted with a laugh, "Good old Teilhard. I've never recovered from that day."
What Is Enlightenment: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a great thinker who had a profound influence on your own understanding. Can you tell us a bit about Teilhard—who he was, and what you believe his most significant contributions were?
Brian Swimme: He was a French Jesuit paleontologist who lived from 1881 to 1955. His most important achievement was to articulate the significance of the new story of evolution. He was the first major thinker in the West to fully articulate that evolution and the sacred identify, or correlate. Teilhard de Chardin in the West and Sri Aurobindo in India really arrived at the same basic vision, which is that the unfolding of the universe is a physical evolution and also a spiritual evolution. I think that’s his principal contribution. On the one hand, you have this awesome tradition about God or Brahman, and on the other, you have this tradition about evolution—and adherents of each view tend to be very critical of the others. Christians said, “Evolution, that’s horrible!” And scientists said, “Theism, that’s horrible!” Aurobindo and Teilhard brought them together. So I think of them both as geniuses who synthesized the two visions. Teilhard attempted to get beyond the fundamental subjective/objective dualism in much of Western thought. He began to really see the universe as a single energy event that was both physical and psychic or even spiritual. I think that’s his great contribution: He began to see the universe in an integral way, not as just objective matter but as suffused with psychic or spiritual energy.
Also, in my thinking, the central idea of Teilhard is his law of “complexification-consciousness.” He identifies this as the fundamental law of evolution. He sees that the whole process is about complexifying and deepening intelligence or subjectivity. The entire movement of the universe in its complexification is simultaneously a movement further into the depths of consciousness, or interiority. He saw the whole thing as a physical-biological-spiritual process. He was the one who saw it all together. You could summarize his thought simplistically and say that the universe begins with matter, develops into life, develops into thought, develops into God. That’s his whole vision, right there. Now clearly, this God that develops—it’s not as if God is developed out of matter. God is present from the very beginning, but in an implicit form, and the universe is accomplishing this great work of making divinity explicit.
WIE: What was Teilhard’s vision of the nature and role of the human being in evolution?
Swimme: His view was that the birth of self-reflexive consciousness in the human was a crucial moment in the earth’s journey. And he stated that the discovery of evolution by humans represents the most dramatic change in human mentality in the last two million years. You think of the Bill of Rights, the journey to the moon, the great religions, all of these incredible things—he thought all of these were secondary compared to this discovery of evolution by human consciousness. He saw it as “the universe folding back on itself.” There are all these creatures that live in nature, and then suddenly you have this one creature that looks nature back in the eye and says, “What exactly are you up to?” That switch he saw as fundamental.
He explored this idea further by speaking of—and I love this idea—the earth as a series of envelopes. First you have the lithosphere, or the surface layer of rock, and then the atmosphere develops, and the hydrosphere, and the biosphere. But his understanding is that in our time, there’s another layer being added, and that is the “noosphere”—a layer generated by human thought. It’s not possible to understand the earth unless you see it in terms of these layers. The way in which this has captured the contemporary imagination is in the development of the internet—it’s almost like the sinews of the noosphere.
WIE: Wired magazine did an article on Teilhard a while ago that makes this point. But they went a bit too far and seemed to equate Teilhard’s noosphere with the internet, suggesting that his vision was simply a precognition of the internet.
Swimme: Yes. I guess there are different ways to reduce his thought down and miss parts of it, and one would be to say the noosphere is the internet. But of course, Teilhard would say that, like everything else in the universe, it has a physical as well as a spiritual dimension.
WIE: What is the significance of our becoming aware of the process of evolution?
Swimme: Teilhard gave a great analogy. Our moment of waking up as a species is very much like what happens in the individual at around two years old. I don’t know the exact time, but there comes a moment when the young child gets depth perception for the first time. So in their phenomenal field, there’s a rearrangement of the phenomena into the third dimension as opposed to a two-dimensional map. He said that the species is going through that right now—we’re discovering a depth of time. Before, we saw everything in terms of this much smaller space, and now, “Wham!” the universe as a whole opens up in the depths of time.
Teilhard also had this phrase called “hominization.” Hominization is the way in which human thought transforms previously existing practices and functions of the earth. Let me give you an example. The earth makes decisions all the time; it makes choices. And in a broad sense, this is called natural selection. But when you throw human thought in there, it explodes into all of the decisions we’re making all over the planet. Human decision has “hominized” the natural selection process—for good and ill. Everything that has existed up until now is going through this process of hominization. Another example would be—look at young mammals and the way they play. They mess around with each other and hide and chase, and we hominize that by creating this whole vast industry of sports and arts and entertainment. Everything seems to go through this explosion when it’s touched by the human imagination. Teilhard’s ultimate vision of what is taking place with the human is the hominization of love. You see, he regarded the attracting force of gravity as a form of love, and the way in which animals care for one another as a form of love, and so the hominization of love would be focusing that and amplifying it to make it a monumental power in the future evolution of the earth. That is his most famous phrase: “The day will come when we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, the human being will have discovered fire.”
WIE: How does our becoming aware of the evolutionary scale of time help the “universe develop into God” —as you said earlier—or further the invocation of God through human consciousness?
Swimme: He had this sense that a deep change at the level of being—a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of actual body—can take place in the human who learns to see the universe as suffused with divine action. And he made a huge deal out of this word—“see.” His sense of spiritual practice would be to develop those qualities that are necessary for us to truly get it, to truly see where we are. One thing he would speak about is how we tend to be overwhelmed by large numbers, and so he would say we have to develop a capacity to see the patterns in the large numbers. As we develop this capacity, rather than being crushed by the immensity of the universe, we’ll suddenly, instead, resonate with the universe as a whole as the outer form of our own inner spirit. That was his cry, for humans to develop these capacities.
He also had an interesting view of spiritual traditions in general about this. He seemed to say that eternity is easier than evolution. The idea of awakening to eternity he regarded as very, very significant in human history—but not as difficult as awakening to the time-developmental or evolutionary nature of the universe.
WIE: What do you mean by “awakening to eternity” in this context?
Swimme: How at any moment we arise out of eternity, moment after moment. To escape the illusion of transience and to see into the absolute moment—Teilhard regarded this as a great mystical event in the life of an individual, as well as in the human journey. But he said that a deeper and harder achievement and challenge before us is to awaken to the time-developmental nature of the universe. The whole journey is this moment—it’s not just the year 2000—this moment is also the birth of the universe itself. But more significantly for this particular discussion, it’s also the moment of the “absolute future.” The challenge before us is the absolute future calling to the present. This is really his mysticism. He would say that by learning to see, by becoming alert and awake in this universe, you feel the call and the presence of the unborn God asking for, or guiding us into, the type of creative action that gives birth to the next moment in a process that he called “divinization.”
WIE: This is something that we’ve been thinking about a lot in putting together this issue of the magazine. Often in the Eastern traditions, the focus is solely on the “awakening to eternity” that you were just describing. Yet in Teilhard’s work, there is another call. There is a call for the perfection of the absolute to be manifest in form—for there to be greater and greater complexity, greater and greater order, greater and greater perfection, in form, in time, in space, in matter. Teilhard seems to bring together the absolute and the manifest in a truly nondualistic vision that does seem unique.
Swimme: That’s right. I love his orientation and his view of the traditional religions. He says that the future of the spiritual traditions on our planet will be determined by the degree to which they enhance the divinization process. And he makes the point that one of the difficulties is that, up until the present moment, we have tended to see ourselves inside of these traditions. But now, he says, it’s the universe that is our home. So it’s a way of valuing them but seeing them from the proper perspective of the ultimate context—which is the universe as a whole.
WIE: Teilhard is probably best known for his idea of the “omega point.” The term has become quite popular, but it seems that few people really understand what he meant by it. Can you explain Teilhard’s omega point?
Swimme: By the “omega point,” Teilhard meant a universe that had become God. He meant God in embodied form. He regarded the omega point as two things. It’s an event that the universe is moving toward, in the future. But what he also imagined, which is difficult for us to really conceive, is that even though the omega point is in the future, it is also exerting a force on the present. When we think of the omega point, in our Western consciousness it’s hard to escape thinking in terms of a line with the omega point at the end of the line. His thinking wasn’t that way; it was that the omega point permeates the whole thing. He imagined the influence of the omega point radiating back from the future into the present. In some mysterious way, the future’s right here. Teilhard regarded that the way in which the future is right here is in the experience of being drawn or attracted, or in our “zest.” That’s his word, and I love that so much. We—“we” meaning anything in the universe—are drawn forward, and this attractive power is what begins a process that eventuates in deeper or greater being. That attraction he regarded as love, and it is evidence of the presence of the omega point. When you experience that attraction, that zest, you’re experiencing the future. You’re experiencing the omega point. You’re experiencing God. You’re experiencing your destiny.
WIE: What does it mean for the universe to become God?
Swimme: Because we’re in the midst of this process, at the best we can have crude images, metaphors. We have little glimmers and insights. The image that I like is this: You have molten rock, and then all by itself, it transforms into a human mother caring for her child. That’s a rather astounding transformation. Of course, it takes four billion years. You’ve got silica, you’ve got magnesium. You’ve got all the elements of rock, and it becomes the translucent blue eye and beautiful brown hair and this deep sense of love and concern and even sacrifice for a child. That is a deep transfiguration. Love and truth and compassion and zest and all of these qualities that we regard as divine become more powerfully embodied in the universe. That would be an image of how I think about the universe becoming divine.
WIE: So it’s a process of God becoming more and more explicit or embodied in the forms of the universe?
Swimme: Yes, exactly. Teilhard also spoke in terms of “giving birth to person.” For example, your colleague Craig is there across the room. But if you go back five billion years, all of the atoms in Craig’s body were strung out over a hundred million miles. The process, as mysterious as it is, of matter itself forming into personality or personhood, is what Teilhard regarded as the essence of evolution. Evolution isn’t cold. He saw the omega point as that same process of giving birth to or actualizing this new, encompassing Divine Person—through not just all the atoms interacting with one another, but also the “persons” of all the humans and other animals. All of us together are part of this same process, so that the entire universe becomes God’s body. To really get how radical Teilhard’s view is, think about an animal and dissolve the animal back in time in your imagination, back into individual cells. There weren’t any multicellular organisms until about seven hundred million years ago. For over three billion years, there were just single-cell organisms. If you get to know an animal well, the animal really has a personality. But the personality is something that is evoked by the cells of the animal. It’s truly mysterious. The animal’s personality is real, but that personality is evoked by the cells. So in Teilhard’s view, the individual members of the universe are actually in a process of evoking a Divine Person. We are actually giving birth to a larger, more encompassing, mind-spirit-personality.
WIE: In one sense, that was no less true sixty-five million years ago than it is now. But at the same time, humans are now becoming conscious of our own evolution and our conscious participation in this larger process. How do you think that has changed this process?
Swimme: Well, I think the difference is that while every member of the universe participates in the construction of the cosmos, that participation proceeds without a conscious reflection upon it. We, too, are participating in constructing the cosmos, but we have the awareness that we’re doing that. That’s the essential difference of being human. We recognize this process as happening, and we can actually awaken to the fact that we are actively doing it. We’re not just doing it. We’re awakened to the fact that we’re doing it.
This then calls for spiritual development so that we can find our way between the two extremes of how we tend to respond to this. On the one hand, we can be so overwhelmed by what that means, so frozen by the responsibility, that we divert ourselves from really embracing that destiny. And I think that happens a lot. Right now it’s what our civilization is about, for the most part. But the other extreme actually is just as bad. We become so inflated with the thrill of that role that we lopside into thinking that we are the real action of the universe and that the human, and human enlightenment, is all that really matters. But I think it’s not that. It’s rather that we’re participating in this huge, vast, intricate event, and we’re a member of the community, but we seem to be especially destined to reflect upon this and to participate in it consciously. So I try to emphasize the fact of uniqueness here—but at the same time there’s an equality. There’s both. We’re unique in our particular role. But on an ontological level, there’s an equality. We’re not somehow superior to the moon or to the phytoplankton or to the spiders or to anything else. Everyone is essential.
WIE: What is the importance of Teilhard’s understanding of evolution and the role of the human being for our current planetary crisis?
Swimme: There are two points I’d want to make. First, Teilhard’s thoughts on evolution enable us to begin to appreciate the true significance of our moment. It’s extremely difficult for us to really understand what it means to make decisions that will have an impact on the next ten million years. Even if you understand the idea, it’s only at one level of your mind. So studying Teilhard’s thought and his work can be considered a spiritual practice for beginning to think at the level that is required of humans today—to think in chunks of ten million years, for example. It’s so hard for people to get that.
The second thing I would say is that much of ecological discussion is framed in negatives because the destruction is so horrendous that anybody with any intelligence whatsoever, once she or he looks at it, becomes gripped by just how horrible it is. One of Teilhard’s great contributions is that he enables us to begin to imagine that this transition has at least the possibility of eventuating in a truly glorious mode of life in the future, and his vision provides the energy that we need for enduring the difficulties of this struggle. That, to me, is extremely important. He can activate the deep, deep, deep zest for life and existence that I think is required for true leadership in our time .