It is here. The time of darkness. Not just the time of year, but the coming Dark Age predicted by many scholars as the Modern Era slowly decays. As we witness the apocalyptic fires in Australia consume so many ecosystems and animals along with humans and their belongings, we recognize it as part of the intensifying patterns of violent storms, fires, and floods around the globe.
Many scholars call this The Great Transition or The Great Turning. Even though we are clearly moving into a new era, the name and shape of this era is unknown. This is partly because we do not know how well humans are going to respond over the next critical ten years. So far, the dithering of global politicians, still in the old mindset of protecting multiple national and corporate self-interests,have prevailed. The time has passed where we could have averted this Dark Age. The question will be how deep the Dark Age is. Scholars are predicting at least two generations of Earth-based turbulence and social conflict over shrinking resources. Young people (and us) are right to be protesting on the streets; it is their generation and at least one beyond that will be living through the worst of it.
However, there is much that can be done to avert the worst, particularly learning human relation and conflict transformation skills. More so, it is shifting our way of knowing and being toward relationality with all living beings. It is learning to hold despair, grief, fear and anxiety in equal measure to the empowering practice of hope. So, just as important as all the protest movements and technological innovations, is a spirituality of sustainability. A spirituality of hope. A spirituality that can nurture life-giving cultures once again.
Spirituality is NOT religion. Rather it is two elements: the experience of the sacred and the human search for deep meaning. In fact, one theologian suggests that formal religion has only been around for 5% of human history. A cosmologist explains that the longest era of human spirituality was the tribal/shamanic, which gave way to the formal Great Religions, and then to the modern scientific-technological story. This last story has left us bereft of any meaningful cosmological story. The signs of this state of alienation are all around us.
The deep winter is the time of storytelling. Tribal stories have traditionally conveyed how we fit into the cosmos, the meaning of the particular place we inhabit, and learnings of past ancestors. Most important for us, they create an ethical framework that provides a compass for living AND restricts certain human activities. Often these stories were enacted through ritual and ceremony, which also needs renewal for the coming times.
With atomic physics, living systems theory, and many other trajectories in the New Science, a new cosmological story is developing. This is a Big Story. It is a story that is common to all of humanity. It can be one of the stories we tell and retell our families, especially children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, to help shift the understanding of the human place in the cosmos.
In their brilliance, mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme and cultural historical Thomas Berry have merged science and spirituality to give voice to this new story. They call it The Universe Story. Others call it The Cosmic Story. It should be a story that we memorize and tell regularly, through these dark days.
(The following is an abbreviated version of the Universe Story. I will post the full version in the Resources section of my website.)
The Universe Story – Our Story
This is the cosmic story of our origins. Every thing that exists in the universe came from a common origin. Our ancestry stretches back through all humans, all life forms, back through the stars, to the primeval fireball. Science and the wisdom traditions are now converging and can direct us anew in understanding the great mystery of our cosmos. This story can help place us as an Earth member, awaken us to a planetary dimension, and help forge our future as a respectful, responsible species.
In the beginning was no-thing-ness, the void, emptiness. Out of this infinite mystery, power burst forth into the dance that would become the universe. All the energy that would ever exist in the entire course of time erupted as a singular gift – existence. Being. Matter. All things had their birth in this great moment. It was the dawn of time and space.
15 Billion Years Ago: The Primal Flaring Forth In a great flash, the universe flared forth into being. All things had their birth in this great moment. This unimaginable eruption of intense energy and light occurred some fifteen billion years ago. As it continues to expand out, it is still part of every moment of the universe, past, present, and to come.
14 Billion Years Ago: The Primal Stars and Galaxies are Formed
In the depths of its silence, the universe shuddered with the immense creativity necessary to fashion the galaxies—one hundred billion galaxies in all, including our own Milky Way.
5 Billion Years Ago: The Mother Star of our Galaxy goes Supernova
The most brilliant stars rushed through natural transformations, exploding in colossal supernovas and spewing stellar materials throughout the galaxy. New elements were created – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, calcium and all the other 100 elements. Our mother star Tiamat emerged in our spiral galaxy, but in a supernova explosion, showered our galaxy with all the riches that would become the seeds for the unfolding of our solar system.
Everything that constitutes our world, was birthed from the elements of this star which in turn arose from the primal “cosmic egg” of creation. Everything has been radically “kin” from the very beginning.
4.5 Billion Years Ago: Our Solar System is Born
The universe, insisting upon diversity, brought forth our own star, the Sun. Once given existence, the Sun spun into being the planets of our solar system community: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. It is unlike any other universe that we know. A family of planets and moons of exquisite beauty, jewels in the evening sky, woven together in relationship to the Sun, whose energy source continues to radiate through the solar system.
4.45 Billion Years Ago: The Earth Cools, Land and Oceans Form
The early planets boiled as molten and gaseous materials. Only Earth cooled and alone generated the countless miraculous conditions for solids, liquids, and gases to exist. The only planet with the proper size enabling gravitational and electromagnetic balance. The only planet positioned in relation to the Sun that established a temperature range where complex molecules could be formed. This Earth develops into land and oceans, creating an incredibly creative chemical womb out of which future life could emerge.
4 Billion Years Ago: Simple Cells Emerge, Life on Earth Awakens
The early Earth was plagued with collisions of meteors and severe electrical activity that charged the Earth’s chemical matter with new possibilities. Out of this seeming chaos, elements organized themselves into meaningful patterns. Out of the cauldron of the Earth’s oceans, the simplest of cells emerged, bringing the adventure of the universe to new levels of possibility. Life on Earth awakens.
3.9 Billion Years Ago: Cells develop Photosynthesis
These cells undertook a dramatic innovation. With the advent of photosynthesis, life on Earth flourishes.
2.3 Billion Years Ago: First Ice Age
The first of the great ice ages begins, taking many species in their wake, but giving new shape to the landscape.
2 Billion Years Ago: Cells can Respire; Earth’s Atmosphere Created
The climate on Earth begins to warm as the glaciers recede. The early cells evolve to a simple stage of respiration, producing the atmospheric oxygen on which we now depend.
1 Billion Years Ago: Simple Cells begin Sexual Reproduction
Single-celled life began the process of sexual reproduction, resulting in the sharing of genetic material that produces greater diversity and enormous potential for an increasingly complex flow of life.
700 Million Years Ago: Cambrian Explosion, First Multicellular Organisms Emerge
In a burst of creativity, cells used their growing intelligence to organize themselves into complex, multicellular systems, such as sponges. They had capacities far exceeding earlier life.
The Cambrian Period, the first geological period, was the time of ancient life. Billions of cells, arranged in countless patterns and structures, give rise to small fish-like creatures of infinite variety, some developing shells. Some learned locomotion.
The single supercontinent Rodinia broke apart and by the mid-Cambrian there were two continents, Gondwana near the South Pole, and Laurentia near the equator.
425 Million Years Ago: Migration onto Land
Until now, life has been limited to the oceans. But a dramatic migration onto land began as animals begin to explore. Ocean waves leave sea plants stranded on the hot rocks. Unable to crawl home they invent instead the wood cell and learn to stand up as straight.
370 Million Years Ago: The First Trees
Some plants develop woody stems. Lycopod or scale trees live along the shores of oceans and rivers. With ferns and horsetails, they become the backbone of terrestrial ecosystems. By the Devonian Period, gymnosperm or vascular plants, such as branching trees and shrubs, cover entire continents with life.
250 Million Years Ago: Age of Reptiles, Dinosaurs and Birds; Flowers and Seeds
Soon the Earth’s mantle heaved with amphibians and reptiles, including the dinosaurs and flightless birds. The great dinosaurs with gleaming eyes reach up to the sunlit leaves of the forest canopy. Flowers and seeds begin to emerge.
216 Million Years Ago: First Mammals
When the mammals entered Earth’s community of life, they develop emotional sensitivity, a new capacity for feeling the universe – the beauty and terror of the world, the lusciousness of fruits, the intoxicating display of the flowers, and the frights of a forest night.
210 Million Years Ago: Pangea Land Mass Breaks Up
The continents Gondwana and Laurentia continuously break up into smaller land masses, and continuously recombine, now as the supercontinent Pangea. This supercontinent holds the origins of today’s continents. As it breaks apart, it forms the distinct land masses, oceans, and seas that we know today.
150 Million Years Ago: First Birds take Flight
Birds develop take flight, filling the skies with grace and wonder.
70 Million Years Ago: Early Primates
The early primates live extensively in trees with a complex family and social organization. The dinosaurs reach their peak size, then begin to die out after 165 million years of existence.
35 Million Years Ago: Early Cats and Dogs
Mammalian life is extraordinarily developed and diverse, with all the early species of present-day mammals, including cats and dogs.
25 Million Years Ago: Whales Become the Largest Mammals
The great whales emerge as the largest mammals and as the majesty of the world’s great oceans.
With some advanced mammals, particularly primates, emotional sensitivity deepens toward conscious self-awareness.
2.6 Million Years Ago: Earliest Humanoid – Homo Habilis
Our closest relatives, early hominids left their footprints across the plains of Northern Africa, as two-leggeds, homo erectus. A variation became homo habilis who became a community of humans developing clothing, the use of tools, and transformation into a hunting-gathering society. They begin the very early use of fire.
40,000 Years Ago: Homo Sapiens emerge with Language and Culture
Homo sapiens emerge. We create complex worlds of culture and language. Our abilities to see the world around us and reflect on it is a new moment for the development of life on Earth. Humans celebrate their existence in cave paintings deep within the Earth. Yet, our existence alone is in debt to the countless billions of cosmological, geological and biological events that preceded us. Never has the Earth been more abundant with life than when humans arose to become part of this community.
If the history of the Earth was conceived as a 10-volume set of books, each with 500 pages representing 1 million years, homo sapiens would appear on page 499 of the 10th volume.
35,000 Years Ago: Humans live on North American Continent
The First Peoples occupy the North American continent, live within its seasons and geography, telling its stories, and drawing from it the symbols and archetypes that define their existence.
11,000 Years Ago: Early Agriculture, Village Life Begins
Humans begin to domesticate animals and plants: wheat, barley, goats, rice, pigs, corn, beans and the alpaca. The Agriculture Revolution joins humans and the Earth in new intimate ways. A secure supply of food enables populations to surge. The first Neolithic villages sustain populations of more than a thousand people, from Jericho to Çatal Hȕyȕk to Minoan Crete. This is the most radical transformation in the human journey. Pottery, weaving, calendars, and shrines to the Great Mother are developed, as well as totemic animals. Developments in language, religion, cosmology, the arts, music and dance occur.
5000 years ago: Ancient Civilizations and Urban Life
The earliest Ancient cities in Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent arise, including Sumer, Babylon as well as Egypt and the Mayan civilization in Central America. The first stage of Stonehenge is built in what is now the British Isles. Four civilizational complexes will arise in the Middle East, Europe, India and China.
3000 Years Ago: Great Religions Emerge
The worship of the Great Mother Goddess continues for over twenty thousand years. In the 6th century BCE, Buddhism arises in Ancient India based on the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. The Hebrews or Ancient Israelites are liberated from Ancient Egypt, one of the great stories of Judaism recorded in the Torah. The earliest versions of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh are written. The oldest of the Upanishads, ancient Sanskrit texts, are written sharing the spiritual teaching and ideas of Hinduism, but also Buddhism and Jainism. The earliest Confucian writing emerges. The Tao To Ching is written as the foundational text of Taoism. Socrates is put to death in Classical Greece. The Olmecs build the pyramids and temples in Central America.
2000 Years Ago: Jesus lives in Nazareth
Jesus lives and teaches in Palestine, shaking the establishment of his time and establishing another religious tradition, Christianity. The Bible is written over the next few centuries.
1500 Years Ago: Western Roman Empire Declines and Islam Emerges
As the Roman Empire is increasingly taken over by northern tribes, Europe enters the Dark Ages, where the knowledge of Classical Greece and Rome is “lost”. Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullāh lives and 100 years later, the Qur’an is compiled as the sacred Muslim text. The first Crusade captures Jerusalem. The Incan empire rises in South America.
500 Years Ago: Scientific Revolution, Colonization, and the Industrial Revolution
The great scientific, social and industrial revolutions define the Modern Era and set Western culture on the path of “progress” which has created widespread destruction of species and ecosystems. In another of humanity’s great wanderings, the Europeans encountered humans wherever they went. Equipped with different technologies and bureaucratic social systems, they colonized people all around the planet. Humans multiply into billions. In geological terms, humans are now the largest impact, called the Anthropocene era.
80 Years Ago: The Universe is Known to be Expanding and Emerging
Atomic physics begins to understand the life of atoms. The universe is perceived as a cosmos that is expanding and continuously emerging.
60 Years Ago: Earth Seen from Space
Humanity sees, for the first time, the luminous blue and green marble of Earth from space. No borders, no boundaries. The living planet, a shining island in black space. New understandings of living systems and the interconnectedness of the Earth community emerge. We are slowly reawakening to this mystery, to the sacredness of life, to our role in this sacredness.
This epic of 15 billion years, from the great flaring forth to the intricacies of life on Earth, is our story. All life shares a common origin and a profound interconnectedness. Humanity is a creation of the Earth process; we were brought forth to enrich the total life of the planet. The Earth is our home. We are part of this great community of life, but we have only arrived recently.
The Earth has been calling to humans; it needs our heart and mind. It needs us to intensely feel the existence of this marvelous community. As humans, creatures who can know and reflect on this mystery, our special role is to be self-conscious, to show wonder, gratitude and compassion, and actively care for this sacred life community. We are much indebted to the outpouring of creativity and mystery that has come before us in the universe. We are this story. We are the universe reflecting and celebrating itself. Today, you can say, I know the story of myself.
This text comes from numerous sources: The Universe Story (1992) by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry and The Universe is a Green Dragon by Brian Swimme (1984). Please consult the two primary sources for more complete information. Subsequent adaptations were The Cosmic Walk from Genesis Farm in New Jersey (founded in 1980 by the Dominican Sisters for ecoliteracy and understanding the Universe and Earth as a single, unfolding process) and further adaptations by Ron Berezan, The Urban Farmer in Canada, 1996. Further adaptations and additions by Elizabeth Lange, Honorary Fellow, Institute of Sustainable Futures, 2020. Formal permission is requested and pending from above sources.