Universe film explores existential and moral questions about the role and purpose of humanity

By Jared Gilbert ’12 M.Div.

A sweeping documentary film about the nature of the universe produced and co-written by Yale Divinity School Senior Lecturer and Research Scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker had its Yale premier on March 25 during a conference that brought together three-dozen world-class scholars to discuss the intersection of science and religion.

ImageIn 55 minutes, the Journey of the Universe unveils an evolutionary story beginning with the flaring forth of our universe, bringing us to our present critical moment. The grand epic weaves together the history of the universe with the history of humanity in an intimate relationship that feels so deeply resonant with human experience that we are driven to consider questions of the meaning and source of the universe through the lens of science.

Collaborating with Tucker on the film were cosmologist Brian Swimme, host and co-writer. YDS Senior Lecturer and Research Scholar John Grim, who co-directs the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology with Tucker and was also an executive producer of the film.

From the Greek island of Samos, birthplace of Pythagoras, Swimme tells the 14-billion year history of the universe, interpreting scientific understanding of the universe with metaphors and images for a broad audience. With a disarming demeanor, Swimme raises profound existential and moral questions about the role and purpose of humanity amidst Earth processes.  The questions left ringing in the air push us to explore and imagine the universe in finer detail. Swimme addresses the horrors of environmental degradation, but ultimately expresses hope. Despair over the future of Earth, he suggests, underestimates the resilient power of nature and necessarily divorces humanity from the process of the universe. Symbolic consciousness, unique to humans, is the consciousness of the universe and its creative power.

Journey of the Universe is the culmination of over 20 years of conversation and research by the film’s creative team. This story is indebted to their friend and mentor, Thomas Berry, a scholar of world religions and a member of the Catholic Passionist order. Berry died before completion of the film, but his visionary call for a retelling of the human story as an intrinsic expression of cosmic creativity defines the film. Swimme’s own sense of wonder and reverence for the complexity and beauty of nature illuminates Berry’s work through a phenomenon that goes beyond scientific knowing, namely, the power of attraction and love.
Weaving together a story that encompasses philosophy, science, and human experience is a complex and nearly impossible task. Swimme carefully acknowledges the gaps of human knowledge and stops short of attempting to answer the deep questions the film evokes.

With poetic metaphor and striking images of nature, the film instead sparks our imagination to conceptualize the universe as a whole living system, an idea that is only beginning to be understood. The film insists that the only way to live properly is to understand the unity of all life. Swimme explains that the universe is an intrinsically life-embedded process, a self-organizing force. The one element of the universe that has conscious purpose is humanity—and we must realize that we are not extrinsic to the process of solving the most complex collapse of life-systems on this planet. Through human symbolic consciousness, the universe is reflecting upon itself.

Following the film three respondents—Kathleen Dean Moore, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University; Stephen Kellert, Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology and Senior Research Scholar at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; and writer Jonathan Schell, author of The Fate of the Earth—joined Tucker to discuss the film. At the heart of discussion was a call to unity.  What emerged was a vision that all of the complexities of life exist in the singularity of the universe, the single flaring forth of life, and all human mythology, religion, science and philosophy are a part of the creative process and consciousness of the living universe.

The Journey of the Universe project includes both a companion book published by Yale University Press and a 13-part educational series. Other showings of the film will be held a Yale Divinity School on April 13, in New York on April 21, in San Francisco April 30, in Chicago May 21, in Toronto June 13, at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, NJ, Aug. 20 and in Seattle Sept. 30.

Further information, including a trailer of the film, is available online at http://www.journeyoftheuniverse.org.

Revised: 04/13/2011