Origin stories are powerful: They can define humanity’s place and responsibilities in the universe. Thus, they play a role in the shape humanity’s future will take.
Mary Evelyn Tucker delivered Monday’s Interfaith Lecture, reflecting on the theme “Journey of the Universe” by positing that we need a new story, one that integrates science and religion and calls to attention the creativity and interdependence of all life on Earth.
Fredo Villaseñor Villasenor
Tucker is co-creator of the film “Journey of the Universe” and co-author of the book by the same name.
“We need an integrated story for a sustainable future,” she said.
In an era of vast environmental degradation, climate change and social inequities — an era that has been called the Anthropocene, due to the vastness of humanity’s imprint on the geology and biology of Earth — Tucker is calling for an expansion of consciousness for the sake of humanity’s survival.
Why is creating a story relevant to this struggle?
“Cosmological stories have shaped human communities forever,” Tucker said. “Since the earliest expressions of human culture, humans have struggled to understand and define our place in the universe. We’ve developed cosmologies, stories that describe where we come from, where we’re going.”
“Journey of the Universe” tells the story of cosmic evolution, drawing on science in a way that makes it both relevant and moving.
“Then what emerges is this poetic story that evokes emotions of awe and excitement, fear and joy, belonging and responsibility,” Tucker said.
Viewers of the film can come to understand their intimate place within the cosmos, their position on life’s ladder of complexity.
“We are beginning to feel ourselves embraced by the evolutionary powers unfolding over time into forms of ever-increasing complexity and consciousness,” Tucker said. “The elements of our body and all the lifeforms emerged from the explosion of supernovas; we are stardust.”
Evolution, Tucker said, at both the cosmic and biological levels, happens most dramatically in a time of crisis. Totally new forms of life emerge, then, at great cost.
“The central reality of our times says that we are in such a transition moment,” Tucker said. “And, in 150,000 years of being Homo sapiens, we have never had such a challenge before us of how we are going to live in a multicultural, planetary civilization. We have to live up to our last names of sapiens.”
And to face up to this challenge, religion and science must work together. So far, Tucker said, this has been a challenge.
“It’s not enough just to know the science,” she said. “We need to understand where we fit, what is our role, that we are birthed out of these systems, including every element of our body.”
“For almost 20 years, we’ve been working to try and awaken the various religious traditions around the globe to come forward with an ethics for the environment, eco-justice, social justice, environmental justice,” Tucker said.
The problem is that only recently have humans started to become fully conscious of the deleterious effects they have on the environment.
“This is not our fault entirely,” Tucker said. “It’s the unintended consequences of rapid industrialization and modernization. But now is our time to rethink our responsibility. We begin to glimpse how deeply embedded we are in complex ecosystems and how dependent on other life forms we are.”
Tucker recounted an example of how people are dependent on each other to preserve the Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity. When New York City’s American Museum of Natural History was in the process of interviewing ornithologists for a position, it was discovered that four out of the six finalists had seen the birds they were studying go extinct.
“That was such a wake-up call for the museum,” Tucker said. “That’s why [it] wanted to bring in religion, culture, spirituality and ethics — a new understanding of the deepening dialogue of science and religion.”
For Tucker, Confucianism has been particularly inspiring when thinking about the cosmological story. In Confucian cosmology, there are three mutually dependent elements: Earth, heaven and humanity. Unlike heaven and earth, Tucker said, humanity can think and feel. Humankind’s principal role in the cosmic framework of Confucianism, then, is to be the consciousness and the conscience of the cosmos.
“If we don’t connect these two,” Tucker said, “we’re missing our role, our place, our destiny. It’s not enough to know just how this happened. It’s what is the future.”
“Journey of the Universe” provides the beginnings of the cosmological story and gives people a sense of the evolutionary heritage they share with other lifeforms.
“This new understanding of the kinship we share with each other and with all life could establish the foundations for rediscovering our past and sustaining a flourishing future,” Tucker said. “We can be inspired by the scientific view of nested interdependence, from galaxies and stars to planets and ecosystems, so that we sense how personally we are woven into the fabric of life. We are part of this ongoing journey and we will write its next chapters.”