Sunday, December 16, 2007

Telling stories

When the pulse of the first day carried it to the rim of night, First Woman said to First Man, "The people need to know the laws. To help them we must write the laws for all to see"...And so she began, slowly, first one and then the next, placing her jewels across the dome of night, carefully designing her pattern so all could read it. But Coyote grew bored watching First Woman carefully arranging the stars in the sky: Impatiently he gathered two corners of First Woman's blanket, and before she could stop him he flung the remaining stars out into the night, spilling them in wild disarray, shattering First Woman's careful patterns.

This episode from the Navajo creation story of is from How the Stars Fell Into the Sky, a children's book by Jerrie Oughton.

It is a lovely story, full of ancient wisdom. For centuries, Navajo children heard the story at an elder's knee. The story was taken literally, or at least accepted with a willing suspension of disbelief.

I heard a similar creation story in my youth -- of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Serpent. I accepted the story with a willing suspension of disbelief.

All cultures, everywhere on Earth, have stories, passed down in scriptures, traditions or tribal myths, that answer the questions: Where did the world come from? What is our place in it? What is the source of order and disorder? What will be the fate of the world? Of ourselves?

No people can live without a community story.

The problem comes when the community story becomes so disconnected from empirical experience that it no longer commands a suspension of disbelief. For many of us in the West, that is the case with the creation stories that have undergirded Western civilization.

Today, a New Story exists for those who choose to accept it. It is the product of thousands of years of human curiosity, observation, experimentation, and creativity. It is an evolving story, not yet finished. Perhaps it will never be finished.

It is a story that begins with an explosion from a seed of infinite energy. The seed expands and cools. Particles form, then atoms of hydrogen and helium. Stars and galaxies coalesce from swirling gas. Stars burn and explode, forging heavy elements -- carbon, nitrogen, oxygen -- and hurling them into space. New stars are born, with planets made of heavy elements.

On one planet near a typical star in a typical galaxy life appears in the form of microscopic self-replicating, carbon-based ensembles of atoms. Life evolves, over billions of years, resulting in ever more complex organisms.

Continents move. Seas rise and fall. The atmosphere changes. Millions of species of life appear and become extinct. Others adapt, survive, and spill out progeny.

At last, consciousness appears. One of the millions of species on the planet looks into the night sky and wonders what it means. Feels the spark of love, tenderness, responsibility. Makes up stories -- of First Woman and Coyote, of Adam, Eve and the Serpent -- eventually making up the New Story.

The New Story places us squarely in a cosmic unfolding of space and time, and teaches our biological affinity to all humanity. We are inextricably related to all of life, to the planet itself, and even to the lives of stars.

It has been the task of many of us gathered here on this cyber porch to help wed the New Story to the spiritual quest, to create what Thomas Berry calls an "integral story." In his introduction to Kathleen Deignan's collection of Thomas Merton's nature writing, Berry writes:
Today, in the opening years of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a critical moment when the religious traditions need to awaken again to the natural world as the primary manifestation of the divine to human intelligence. The very nature and purpose of the human is to experience this intimate presence that comes to us through natural phenomena. Such is the purpose of having eyes and ears and feeling sensitivity, and all our other senses. We have no inner spiritual development without outer experience. Immediately, when we see or experience any natural phenomenon, when we see a flower, a butterfly, a tree, when we feel the evening breeze flow over us or wade in a stream of clear water, our natural response is immediate, intuitive, transforming, ecstatic. Everywhere we find ourselves invaded by the world of the sacred.
Berry reminds us that we will neither love nor save what we do not experience as sacred. The older creation stories locate the source of the sacred outside of the creation. The New Story, the scientific story of creation, provides unique opportunities to experience the creation itself as holy and good.

We should treasure the ancient stories for the wisdom and values they teach us. We can praise the creation in whatever poetic languages and rituals our traditional cultures have taught us. But only the New Story has the global authority to help us navigate the future. Of all the stories, it is certainly the truest. It is the only story whose feet have been held to the fire of exacting empirical experience.

Further Reading

Some of this essay may sound familiar. I have the bad habit of occasionally plagarizing myself. The theme is one I return to often.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.