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Zygon Review of Journey of the Universe Book

Reviewed by James F. Moore
November 24, 2011

Journey of the Universe. By Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011. 164 pages. $25.00.

The new book written by Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker is a thin volume that aims to narrate the story of the universe. This narration is primarily the story of the universe that contemporary science has told for us since the basic structure of the book is to follow the components of scientific research that put together create for us a whole, a full narrative. Thus, the story is a journey since the scientific story paints a picture of the universe that is constantly in motion. It is, therefore, a story that cannot have an end in the standard way since not only do we have much still to learn but we also know that all things are in motion through a whole set of intersecting processes. We have a sense that the universe has set out on an adventure as if the universe were itself a personality. Of course, we do not think of the universe in this way ordinarily, but perhaps this telling of the narrative is fashioned in this way since the story is integrated with bits and pieces of other universe narratives, mostly drawn from the religious, cultural stories of past and present.

To tell such a story is not a new enterprise. Many have set out to do something like this in our current conversation between specialists in the sciences and religion scholars. Among such efforts is the work of Ursula Goodenough, who is among those who have already offered their praise for this book. Perhaps she sees in this effort something like what she has tried to do in constructing what she calls naturalistic religion. Still, the tale woven by Swimme and Tucker is not really of the same vein. There is no clear effort to suggest that any tale is preferable or that the religious views are somehow lacking. Indeed, there is little effort in the book to actually assess the relationship between the various religious accounts and the main story of the book drawn from the sciences.

There are other concerns that with close scrutiny emerge for the reader. For one thing, any of the many scholars involved in religion and science conversations will find very little that is surprising or dramatically new in this text.  There are ideas that challenge standard ways of thinking about space and time, but most will know these details already. While the story is, as always, captivating, the reader who is knowledgeable will be dealing with the familiar. Among the dominant themes of the text, for example, is the idea of self-organizing systems that produce self-emergent properties and phenomena. This is a fascinating spin on the standard models of understanding, but the ideas have already been thought through thoroughly by others even as such notions are still not fully understood and researched at several levels.

The reader will also notice that the various references to the religions are done in a scattered way. To be sure, they are integrated into the scientific narrative in ways that make sense, but there is no similar effort to tell a continuous religious narrative setting the bits and pieces into complex wholes of religious worldviews. In addition, there is little or no actual effort to compare or contrast the different religious worldviews that give fuller meaning to any of the religious narratives. Clearly Tucker knows this as a specialist in this field, but the point does not seem to be to actually conduct a science and religion conversation at least in any analytical way. Instead, the reader is challenged to do that on their own, perhaps enticed to explore more fully any of the many rich religious stories of the universe. Still, this book is captivating in its own right. It is elegantly written and draws further and further into the sense of awe and respect for the tale that is being told. The book is short so that even the details that are given are an enticement to study more, but they are actually integrated into the flow of the story that takes over the reading so that the meaning is the whole picture, the journey, and not so much in the details. Perhaps this is what makes the book so valuable as much as anything. There is no sense of the struggle or conflict that many see in the linking of religion and science. Instead, the book draws us toward the majesty of the whole. This makes this book a wonderful possibility for introducing students to the more detailed work of dialogue. One can hardly resist the idea that it all fits so well together and marvelously. Like the child staring at the glory of the night sky, this book has us staring at the images set in our minds. It truly takes us on a journey.

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