READING: Love, Gravity and Allurement

A Dialogue between Student and Teacher

Adapted and titled by Jaco B. ten Hove, from The Universe is A Green Dragon, by Brian Swimme (pgs. 25-50)


S: So, my teacher, why do you say the universe is a green dragon?

T: I’m a storyteller. Besides, it seems an appropriate way to begin the new story of the cosmos.

S: But why say it’s a green dragon when it obviously isn’t?

T: For several reasons. I call the universe a green dragon to remind us that we will never be able to capture the universe with language.

S: How can you be certain of that?

T: Because the universe is a singularity! To speak at all, you need to compare things. Thus we say that the house is white, not brown. Or that the man is hostile, not kind. But there is only one universe. We cannot compare the universe with anything.

I call the universe a green dragon because I want to avoid lulling you into thinking we can have the universe in our grasp, like a stray dog shut up in its kennel. I want to remind us of this proper relationship as we approach the Whole of Things.

On the other hand–and here is a second reason for the green dragon–we have learned things in our scientific explorations that completely transform our understanding of the universe. Our revolution in thinking dwarfs Copernicus’s announcement that the Earth travels around the Sun.

It is outrageous to compare the universe to a green dragon, I know, but I hope this will express some of my astonishment at what we now know about the universe. The inadequacy of the dragon image is that green dragons are much too commonplace to indicate the radical nature of what we have learned. That’s how limited our language is. So, shall we begin?

S: You’re going to tell me the story of the universe?

T: Yes. Within this emerging story we can continue our journey to our fullest destiny.

S: What is our fullest destiny?

T: To become love in human form.

S: Love? I thought we were talking about science.

T: Yes, that’s right.

S: I’m confused.

T: By what exactly?

S: Well, by love. What do you mean by love?

T: In order to approach love, we must start with our common context, the emergent universe in which we find ourselves. All beings, including humans, have this home in common. If we want to learn anything, we must start with the cosmos, the Earth, and life forms.

Life begins as allurement–as attraction. Think of the entire cosmos, all one hundred billion galaxies rushing through space: At this cosmic scale, the basic dynamism of the universe is the attraction each galaxy has for every other galaxy. Nothing in all science has been established and studied with greater attention and detail than this primary attraction of each part of the universe for every other part.

S: The attraction is love?

T: On the cosmic scale, an attraction exists.

S: But isn’t that gravity?

T: Gravity is the word used by scientists and the rest of us in the modern era to point to this primary attraction. We understand details concerning the consequences of this attraction, but we do not understand the attracting mystery itself. [Newton and then Einstein were able to describe for us how gravity works, but not why.]

Do you see that the universe might just as well have been different, might have included no attracting activity? But the fact is that our galaxy is attracted by every other galaxy in the universe; and our galaxy attracts every other galaxy. The attracting activity is a stupendous and mysterious fact of existence. We awake and discover that this alluring activity is the basic reality of the macrocosmic universe.

S: Are you saying that this attraction is love?

T: When we hear the word love, we think only of human love, a very special sort of love. So I am certainly not saying that gravity is human love.

I am saying that if we are going to think about love in its cosmic dimension, we must start with the attraction that permeates the entire macrostructure. I’m speaking precisely of the basic binding energy found everywhere in reality, the primary allurement that all galaxies experience for all other galaxies.

S: How does this connect with human love, then?

T: Okay, tell me something you enjoy doing a lot.

S: Music.

T: Well, we cannot give any complete explanation for liking music; we simply enjoy music of certain sorts. The attraction is primal. Do you see?

S: I’m beginning to, I think.

T: There are so many sounds in the world, and yet a very particular sort of sound interests you most deeply. Why should this be? Why not any of the other infinite number of sounds? Well, that is unanswerable, just as Newton never pretended to be able to say why the Sun attracts the Earth. The strangest thing is that this alluring activity permeates the cosmos on all levels of being.

You are interested in certain things, certain people, certain activities; each interest is as fundamental to the universe as is the gravitational attraction our Earth feels for the Sun. We cannot explain why these attractions exist. We can only become aware of them.

Such experiences of interest are the roots of love. You are simply attracted to something or someone, to some activity. You usually don’t find reasons for this attraction until after the fact; then you come up with reasons. The Earth doesn’t think, "Well, it’ll be a good thing to be attracted to the Sun. That way, humans can warm their tea in big glass jars and save on electricity."

The Earth is simply attracted. The proton is simply attracted. The galaxy is simply attracted. This mysterious attraction that we call "interest" or "fascination" is as mysterious, as basic, as the allurement that we call gravitation.

Love begins when we discover interest. To become fascinated is to step into a wild love affair on any level of life. Then we often discover that not only are we interested, but that our interests are entirely our own. We awake to our own unique set of attractions. So do oxygen atoms. So do protons. Each person discovers a field of allurements, the totality of which bears the unique stamp of that person’s personality. Destiny unfolds in the pursuit of individual fascinations and interests.

S: But it almost sounds self-centered. Where do others fit in?

T: By pursuing your allurements, you help bind the universe together, and the primary result of all allurement is the evocation of being, the creation of community.

Allurement evokes being and life. That’s what allurement is. And love is a word that points to this alluring activity in the cosmos. This primal dynamism awakens the communities of atoms, persons, families, nations, ecosystems and stellar systems. Love ignites being.

Think of the power of this alluring activity–its immensity. We are barely able to keep our vehicles puttering about the continent. What would we say if we had the job of getting the stars to rotate and move around the galaxies? What if we had to keep all the hydrogen atoms together? Or keep them pressed into stars? Think of the tremendous tasks performed every instant by this universe, and you will begin to feel the magnificence of the cosmic allurement of love.

It is this same allurement that excites lovers into chasing each other through the night, that pulls a parent out of bed for the third time to comfort a sick child, that draws humans into lifetimes of learning and developing. The excitement in our hand as it tears open a letter from a friend is the same dynamism that spins our vast Earth through the night and into the rosy colors of dawn.

S: So this alluring activity is love?

T: Yes, the activity of allurement ignites being and enhances life.


The New Story of the Universe

– A sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove –
Paint Branch UU Church
August 26, 2001

READING: from "The Universe is a Green Dragon" by Brian Swimme

SONG #131: Love Will Guide Us

When I read "The Universe is a Green Dragon" some years ago and encountered Brian Swimme’s evocative notion that cosmic gravity and human love are both forms of allurement, something clicked in me. My eyes got wide and my heart expanded, as did my worldview. Love does guide us.

Suddenly, I understood myself as a partner in parallel with celestial events. (Yeah, me and Gravity–we’re like this!) I moved from a rather passive and resigned posture to an excited, exploratory mode of being, much more optimistic. I found hope inside me, and I’ve never looked back.

Such is the power of a person’s worldview, which is, quite literally, the understanding of one’s place in the universe. Individually, we orient our lives around our worldview–sometimes consciously, often in an unexamined way. We then behave according to how we understand our universe. Collectively, we build our cultural systems of ethics, morals, and yes, even economics around the dominant worldview. Much of any culture’s fate is linked to and even determined by its prevailing worldview.

Human beings have always tried to explain and understand their relationship to the larger world, especially in origin or creation stories. It is as if we intuitively know the truth of this piece of advice from the ancient Chinese scripture, the Tao Te Ching:

"Just realize where you come from; this is the beginning of wisdom."

For me, when I realized that my life’s journey was akin to the activity of celestial bodies, I knew a whole lot more about my origin.

Of course, however, different people are likely to come up with different creation stories, a glorious fact of diversity, and also unfortunately the source of much historical anguish and conflict, ongoing. Take just one all-too-close-to-home example of what we call the Native Americans. Most of the Indian nations had and have their own unique origin stories, but a common thread through them, as I understand it, is how the Great Spirit lives inside everything, is a part of everything. This is an immanent divine force, which makes the Earth and all its creatures sacred, to be shared and lived with in balance.

Meanwhile, here come the Europeans, guided by a Western worldview that was quite contrary and, among other things, encouraged private ownership of the land. In fact, their understanding of the universe was that they had an ordained "Manifest Destiny" to own and control this land. Nothing less than genocide resulted, as one worldview almost obliterated another.

The dominant worldview that first encouraged land ownership on this continent imaged the holy as apart from our existence–transcendent, beyond us. They believed they would meet the divine elsewhere, i.e., heaven, after finishing with life on this plane. Contrast this, unsentimentally, with Native Americans who encountered the holy with every step, and you notice the power of worldviews to influence the unfolding of history.

Before I get to portraying The New Story of the Universe, let me linger a moment on the Old Story, still very much alive and kicking. Thomas Berry sums it up in one paragraph from his powerful manifesto, "The Dream of the Earth."

Western society did have, in its traditional story of the universe, an agreed-upon functioning story up until somewhere around the 14th century. This religion-based story originated in a revelatory experience some 3000 years ago. According to this story, the original harmony of the universe was broken by a primordial human fault, and that necessitated formation of a believing redemptive community that would take shape through the course of time. Human history was moving infallibly toward its fulfillment in the peace of a reconstituted paradise.

Well, okay–just what was it that changed in the 14th century to alter the "infallible" movement of this worldview? The Black Death–plague after plague! Estimates are that in two years perhaps a third of Europe died. This encounter with widespread death shook people up, as you might imagine. Along with other social disturbances of that and the next century, the plague forced a divergence of worldviews. Two directions of thinking went forth and paved the way that Western civilization would walk from then on, even into our new millennium.

One response to the plague was to go more deeply into the religious urge for redemption out of this tragic world; the other was toward greater control of the physical world to escape its pain and increase its utility. It’s not hard to see the two dominant cultures that emerged from these worldviews: what Thomas Berry calls "the believing religious community and the secular community with its new scientific knowledge and its industrial powers of exploiting the natural world." So from then on we see two competing Western worldviews.

Increasingly, and in recent centuries, the two paths resisted interaction and set themselves up as opposing ideals. The religious world, so intent on redeeming people from sin, emphasized sectarian morality and rigid institutionalization while the scientific realm focused on empirical examination and rigid quantification. Each has contributed greatly to the advance of human development, but each is also imbalanced in a certain similar way, and this imbalance has landed squarely in our laps in our time as a major dilemma.

Maybe the theologians and the scientists both had to be fiercely rigid in order to establish their claim on the human psyche, but they both also encouraged a posture that has led us to the global quandary of our 21st century. The very significant position these two diverging worldviews share is that they both objectify the Earth.

In traditional Christianity, the intense focus on an escapist redemption made Creation less and less important, as churches enabled an attitude of having "dominion over" living things (a foundational principle of Manifest Destiny, too). They teamed up with politicians to promote theocracy, whereby the rules of religion are carried out by the state, with little regard for the effect of policy on, say, the environment.

Meanwhile, the secular sciences gained increasing confidence about being able to dissect any living thing to its smallest components and therefore know it completely and control it. They teamed with industrialists to have a huge impact on the material world.

These are quick and vast generalizations, of course, but they make the point that in each of these still dominant worldviews there is virtually no partnership with the planet, which is seen by both camps as merely raw material to be transcended or controlled, or both. And, as portrayed by Thomas Berry and others, each community is now at an internal impasse. Berry (a Catholic priest himself) describes traditional Christian religion as "played out–…an isolated spiritual power…being victimized by entropy."

The scientific impasse may be less clear to religious liberals, because some of us are already contributing to its further development, and it is developing, to be sure. But in science at large, says Berry, the ongoing demand to always quantify material and replicate results has created such a tough, realistic position that often the only allowable worldview is one that sees the universe as random sequences without any inherent meaning, and thus devoid of spiritual or moral values. Not very inviting or encouraging.

The two worldview paths are vaguely aware of each other, extending bare courtesies and at times collaborating, but usually for the short-term benefit of living people, and at the expense of the planet and its future inhabitants. (There are exceptions to these extreme characterizations, of course, but the general trends are pretty clear.)

Well, given what we may not want to realize, but know in our hearts of hearts about the ominous trends of our time, something has to give. Can the two stagnant but still dominant worldview paths merge somehow or change enough to describe for us a more hopeful route to a peaceful and sustainable future? The long and the short of it is that if our worldviews don’t adjust, our behavior won’t either and then it’s just not likely to be a peaceful evolution into the future. Can our human consciousness make some sort of leap into a new worldview that perhaps combines the best of both these orientations?

Yes. Something has indeed shifted recently, in our lifetime, and seems to be encouraging a productive change in awareness. In exploring the microcosmic universe–the smallest of particles and their activities–some brave scientists are now articulating an awareness that the very act of observing changes what is being observed; in other words, we cannot accurately view the universe apart from our own presence in it.

This is the beginning of a leap in consciousness which completely alters the assumption that we can observe, independently and objectively, what we want to understand and then control it; "it" being something, anything, everything outside us, external and separate. But, no–it turns out, separation is an illusion and so is objectivity.

It’s tempting for me to now explore this micro scale and its implications, but I’m planning to delve into quantum issues in a sermon on the first Sunday in November, so today I’m staying with the macro universe. Essentially, the big picture, derived from both investigations into the littlest of pictures and the actual big picture of the earth as seen from space, is that we humans are very much an indivisible part of the whole, and, in fact, an embodiment of the planet becoming aware of itself.

This may sound like old news to those of us who’ve been trumpeting our fundamental interdependence with the web of all existence of which we are a part (our 7th UU principle), but I think we’re really still just mouthing this message; we haven’t internalized it yet. That may take another generation or two, because it’s a huge leap that challenges lots of local assumptions, too, many of which will likely make us very uncomfortable.

So, if a growing comprehension of our subtle but pervasive interconnectedness will be at least a part of our latest evolution, like it or not, what kind of tool will assist this transition into a new era of consciousness. What will support and encourage the shifts we are being called to make?

Enter "The New Story of the Universe," which is essentially an accessorized version of evolution. But the key word in this title is not Universe, or even New–but Story. For the device that may well bridge the two opposing worldview paths I described earlier, and offer a new path, is Story. It may be just the compromise concept we need. Think of it: how often have you heard either traditional religionists or secular scientists use this word to indicate their perspectives? The idea of a guiding "story" might cause more dogmatic proponents from each view to bristle because it suggests that they don’t really know for sure, and that is usually an untenable posture for absolutists.

But the whole idea of a guiding "story" is that it can include pieces of both precise scientific truth and wisdom gleaned from other kinds of experience. It can be a bridge. Besides, an eternal paradox, familiar to many of us, is that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. The ancient Chinese lived a version of this truism in their striving for a humble state they called Unknowing, which is not Ignorance, per se, but rather a peaceful openness to ever greater Truth, potentially revealed in the next moment, the next encounter. This kind of stance relies upon story and parable to convey deeper meanings.

Meanwhile, in case we needed a reminder about the fluidity of so-called Truth, just this last week or so, we have been treated to news that a certain "constant" used in critical astronomical equations, is, well, maybe not quite so constant as previously thought. And so, certain relied-upon calculations about the size and nature of the cosmos have to shift, or are at least called into question. How humbling.

Lest we fool ourselves that we actually do know the origin of our universe, why not call it a story? The latest version really is a very scientific story, but this way it is couched in a more accessible and evocative context. We are not all that different from our ancestors who have always tried to explain and understand their relationship to the larger world, especially in origin or creation stories. "Just realize where you come from; this is the beginning of wisdom."

Injecting a little wisdom into the scientific endeavor can be part of the bridge between our two opposing worldviews, either of which, alone, can’t seem to make the grade. Another radical Christian theologian, Matthew Fox, comments on the curious relationship between traditional religion and contemporary science with this statement:

How silly it was of religion and science to argue over the literal facts of the Genesis stories when even Genesis gave us two stories, not one, and the remainder of the Bible gave us many more Creation stories…We can never have too many Creation stories…[They] abound because our origins are so sacred, so beyond anything literal, so rich in metaphor and in heart."

Fox also reminds us that when our current Creation stories become too rote, blasé, or unbelievable, there are indeed other, "pernicious stories" that will gladly take over our psyches. Such opportunistic stories will, if allowed, install worldviews of materialism, racism, consumerism, "progress," nationalism, etc. How much more appropriate to lift up the positive images of a powerful home planet underneath us, of which we are made, the result of15 billion years of process.

Some of the New Story of the Universe may be familiar to you, especially the unabashed acknowledgement of evolution, using a timeline of where we fit in, macro-historically. Precise figures vary a bit (perhaps depending on which so-called "constant" is used), but let’s say 15 billion years is the lifeline of the universe, unfolding since a Big Bang started the flow of this particular evolution, anyway.

If those 15 billion years were compressed into a single year, 8 full months of that year were necessary just for this planet to form, cool and prepare for life. Then, most of the remaining 4 months were spent evolving the ability to breathe, hear, see, reproduce, heal, think with a brain, etc.

The emphasis of the New Story, however, is that all these abilities are in fact the Earth learning to express itself in greater and greater complexity, greater and greater diversity. Yes, the vehicles are individual animals and plants and, finally–on the last day of the entire year–human beings doing the breathing, seeing, thinking, etc. But what’s relatively new is the perspective that all the creatures and pieces of the planetary system are components of a single organism, which some call Gaia.

Of course, the Universe itself stretches back way before the Earth came together, and its story is also one of creative expression, albeit more abstract and distant from our lives. The really big picture is that the evolution of the Universe over 15 or so billion years is a single event. The New Story suggests that we–you and I–are part of the result of that many years of development, that many years of increasing complexity and diversity, so that now we humans are able to think about ourselves and the Universe–and finally recognize that objectivity is an illusion and interdependence is our cosmic nature.

Fifteen billion is a very large number of years to comprehend. In the compression of that scope into one calendar year, the great human civilizations have appeared only in the last 30 minutes of the last day of the year. So we are still very much newcomers to this place, newcomers to the process of thinking, even. A century and a half of evolutionary awareness is not really very long. This, then, is the humbling context of the New Story we would create: considering the age of the planet, we are a young species, maybe even pre-human, really. Yet we have developed the ability to have great physical impact on this planet, not unlike a puppy who’s yet to grow into giant but clumsy feet.

To put it bluntly, the old stories, our previous worldviews, by themselves as they have been, are now not only inaccurate, but dangerous. They have allowed the dream of the Earth to become a nightmare of toxic ignorance, as we foolishly go on disregarding the creative messages we’ve been getting from our partner systems on the planet. Look at just one example: the oceans, permitted by the old worldviews to be seen as dumping grounds for our garbage. "It’s okay; they’re huge and distant, separated from us."

But those who know the state of the seas tell us how much death there is in them now, directly related to human-created toxins. Higher and higher levels of organisms are becoming extinct. Our big water is souring, even as drinking water is becoming a more precious commodity on every continent. Can you imagine what the future will hold if this scenario doesn’t reverse?

The New Story can help, by reminding us that not only is the surface of the Earth 70% water, but so are our bodies 70% water. We cry the ocean. The rest of our bodies are made of the same minerals as the crust of the Earth. We are the Earth. If the oceans decline, we decline. The New Story places us indelibly among the diverse community of life, and our fates are linked.

There is a lot more to each of the worldviews I’ve mentioned briefly here; plenty more complexity to these issues, to be sure. But the implications for us as a new, perhaps experimental species are pretty clear: get in step with the harmony of the larger context, or drown in our own toxic bath water. How we rise to that challenge begins with awareness, I believe.

It’s a bit of a race between kinds of consciousness: creative and destructive. Each kind is guided by a worldview. The New Story of the Universe seeks to foster our benign evolution with an increasing awareness of how all life is mutually interdependent, how we are an ultimate expression of the mystery of this grand process, and how the cosmos is coherent in its goal to produce ever more variety in all things, spinning on an axis of allurement.

This awareness breeds a rather different posture toward technology and industry than previous worldviews. If nothing else, it moves us to be less arrogant about the world as our playground. As physicist Brian Swimme puts it, one of the more significant achievements of recent science has been the discovery of "advanced humility."

But beyond that, you and I have an important role to play in this unfolding drama of our time and all time:

• We can choose hope. Please, in your own ways, express images and stories that lift up our creative connections with the rest of the planet.

• We can affirm diversity, Please, in your own ways, stand clearly and with strength for the appreciation of differences, which are a foundation of the 15 billion years evolution of the universe, culminating in this moment, in your very movement.

• We can encourage social evolution. Please, in your own ways, identify and challenge institutions and behaviors which need to change to reflect a new, more appropriate, more believable worldview.

• And we can love. Please, in your own ways, love yourself and each other and the world around us. Notice the allurements of your life and honor them. For it may well be that the universe is speaking to you, through you. That’s quite a story.

I am moved by and will close with the words of Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal:

We are the star that is seen, that sees itself,

Born in its fire and cooled down in order to think and see.
Protons, neutrons, electrons are the human body, the planets and the stars;

Consciousness emerged from unconsciousness.
In us, then, the planet loves, dreams.

It is the Earth who sings in me this Cosmic Canticle.

May such a symphony resound in you and in our voices raised together.

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