Cosmologist Brian Swimme Wins Thomas Berry Award

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, 8 October 1999

"The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects"

From his academic beginning as a cultural historian, Father Thomas Berry has evolved into a historian of the earth. He sees himself not as a theologian, but a geologian. Thomas Berry’s opening remarks were as follows: "We need to transform our relationship with the universe." He answered physicist Stephen Weinberg’s claim that the more we learn about the universe, the more it seems pointless. His reply was: "If the universe is pointless, why study it in such detail?" Berry believes "the point" of the universe is for us to experience with awe and wonder the beauty of all creation.

Thomas Berry identifies the basic principles of the universe process itself. These are the primordial intentions of universe towards differentiation, subjectivity, and communion. Differentiation refers to the extraordinary variety, distinctiveness, and uniqueness of everything in universe. No two things are completely alike. Subjectivity or consciousness is the interior numinous component present in all reality. Communion is the ability to relate to other people and things due to the presence of subjectivity and difference. Together these create the grounds for the inner attraction of things for one another. These are principles that can become the basis of a more comprehensive economical and social ethics that sees the human community as dependent upon and interactive with the earth community. Humans and the earth will go to the future as one single multiform event or we will not go into the future at all.

After Brian Swimme received the Thomas Berry Award, he gave the following lecture. He started by noting that the destruction of our environment is not something we intended. This destruction includes the highest level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere in one million years and the erosion of our topsoil. He noted how salmon are genetically programmed to return to the streams where they were born. When they encounter a new obstacle like a dam, they try to jump higher. Culture allows us humans to transcend our genetic heritage. Instead of doing the same thing harder, we now need to change our interpretation of the world. We need to reinvent the human with the wisdom of indigenous truth. The universe is self-organizing. Our earth community is small in comparison. Humans are a derivative of the creative process. Our brains are a derivative of creative cell replication. The human starts as a single cell, which divided. In the process, limbs emerged, as well as our other organs and including our brain.

In a similar manner, the atoms, of which we are composed, are derived from cosmic evolution. The hydrogen and helium present at the beginning of the universe was fused into elements up to iron in the stars. Swimme showed beautiful pictures of the cosmic explosions or super novae, whose high temperatures produced the heavier elements. We are derived from the star-dust of the universe.

The presentation ended with the music of saxophone player, Paul Winter. Most impressive was his recording of this saxophone call being answered by the whining calls of a herd of elk in the West.