Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe

An hourlong teleconference with

Mary Evelyn Tucker

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Mary Evelyn Tucker, a pioneer in the field of religion and ecology and co-creator of the acclaimed PBS documentary film Journey of the Universe, on her new book Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe.

Mary E. Hunt: I am delighted to welcome back Mary Evelyn Tucker to this WATER series. She was with us in February 2012 when we discussed Journey of the Universe, the Emmy Award winning documentary film that she and her collaborator, Brian Swimme, produced. If you haven’t seen it, go to the web site and watch the trailer. I guarantee you’ll be taken by the marvelous images, the strong story, and the implications for all of us.

She comes back today to talk about a conference that she and John Grim put on in 2014 at Yale Divinity School called LIVING COSMOLOGY: Christian Responses to JOURNEY OF THE UNIVERSE. Many of the papers from that conference have been gathered into a volume with the same title, which we will discuss today.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale where she teaches in an MA program between the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Divinity School. She is a faithful guardian of the legacy of her beloved friend and mentor, Thomas Berry, whose work, rooted in that of Teilhard de Chardin, is foundational for Mary Evelyn’s worldview.

With John Grim, she organized 10 conferences on World Religions and Ecology at Harvard. They are the series editors for the 10 resulting volumes. She co-edited Confucianism and Ecology, Buddhism and Ecology, and Hinduism and Ecology. My friend Francis Clooney at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard told me about the 20th anniversary conference held at Harvard this fall to discuss the impact of this work in the broader field of religious studies.

Mary Evelyn has authored with John Grim, Ecology and Religion (Island Press, 2014). They also edited Thomas Berry’s books including Selected Writings (Orbis, 2014). With Brian Swimme she wrote the book Journey of the Universe (Yale, 2011) and is the executive director of the highly regarded Journey film that aired on a PBS station near you.

Mary Evelyn served on the International Earth Charter Drafting Committee and was a member of the Earth Charter International Council among myriad other affiliations. She is a tireless scholar and networker. Most of all I have come to appreciate Mary Evelyn as an educator. She wants all of us to understand that the universe is not a place, but a story in which we play a role along with everyone and everything else.

Thank you for joining us and giving us a sense of some of the Christian responses to your film, responses that were written in celebration of the 100th birthday of Thomas Berry. As someone who spoke at the conference I can simply say it was a theological happening complete with a jester! Welcome back, Mary Evelyn.

Mary Evelyn Tucker: Thank you, Mary. It’s a pleasure working with WATER. We are totally aligned. We appreciate your ecofeminist work, your article in this book, etc. These are the alliances we are looking to build. We will focus on the large cosmic umbrella today: where do we come from? Why are we here? Who are we? These are the big questions that kept us sleepless as young people, and still do. They motivate us to feel how we connect, not just to other communities, but to the Earth community. This is the call of Journey of the Universe. Where do we belong? Where do we rest in our spirits, souls, and actions?

This book came out of the conference celebrating the 100th anniversary of Thomas Berry’s death in November 2014. Thomas Berry had this notion that we’re all moved by stories. We need a new story, and Berry was so articulate about this. The stories that motivated people in the world religions were the stories of origins and cosmology. We know this is powerful for both indigenous traditions, as well as the Genesis story in Western traditions. Berry wanted to see humans in the “string of pearls” of the universe. Where is our light? What’s the pearl that we can add to the remarkable string of cosmic events and planetary processes that have birthed both life and humans?

When we showed the film at the Divinity School someone asked, “how does this relate to Christianity?” This was the inspiration for the book and conference. Clearly, as Mary mentioned, many of us have been influenced by Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry included. He is the base note of this project. Teilhard had a sense of the suffering coming out of the immense destruction of Europe after WWI. He wanted to feel where the human was in this large process. He traveled all over the world, and had the sense that the vital energies of humans needed to be reactivated, especially between the two wars. He asked, how can we activate human energy for the great work ahead? Teilhard realized we’d run out of energy unless we feel a profound connection to our surroundings and our life. The human is not isolated; rather we are a phenomenon of a 14 billion year universe process.

Thomas Berry took Teilhard’s insight and turned it into a story. Brian Swimme and I felt the same way, and realized we needed to make this story into a film. Together with John we spent 10 years working on this. Making the film was an adventure in itself, and I think we’re beginning to gain more and more traction. I think the universe is behind this. There are many points of access to the film, book, and online classes. There are also conversations I did with 10 scientists telling their stories about their part in why the universe story is enhanced by seeing it as part of an epic of evolution. I also had conversations with environmentalists working on a range of issues. For example, Paula Gonzalez on energy, and others on education, poetry, ecocities, eco-economics. We are trying to take the inspiring story of the wonder of the universe and bring it down into the world of action and transformation. The book weaves science and spirituality, and the conversations bring it down to action on the ground.

How does this relate to Christianity and the book?

We all have our notions of Christianity through a lens of theology, or ethics, or Biblical study, etc. But I think there is a hope that, with the power of evolution, all of these traditions will be opened up to a sense of their deeper cosmological dimensions. I think what Teilhard did within the Catholic tradition has this promise.

In 2005 when we organized the 50th anniversary of his death, 1,000 people showed up at the UN to honor his life. He gave us the idea of spirit and matter evolving over time toward greater complexity and ultimately greater consciousness. His vision has inspired many. The future is still opening up. He was rooted in an understanding of human suffering and despair, loss and disempowerment, yet kept optimism about life.

He understood that the chaos and creativity in these processes were part of the formation of the universe and Earth itself. Through this lens, we need to think of Earth ethics and cosmological ethics differently. If we know we have descended from stars, how does that change our notion of where we belong and what we are responsible to and toward? Certainly these types of ethics are emerging in many of the world’s religions.

The Standing Rock response is a tremendous display of the confluence of cosmology of Native peoples, Lakota people in particular. The idea of the Earth as sacred and alive and needing to be preserved is present there. This is what we mean by a “living cosmology.” At Standing Rock, they say “we are Water Protectors” because water is the source of all life. This is the foregrounding and birthing of life itself. This is what it means to think about living cosmology, to see the Earth as a living planet.

The book has a range of articles. It begins with one of the most inspiring documents of our time, Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Care for our Common Home, Laudato si. This is a beautiful phrase and exactly what Berry was aiming for. Pope Francis does something that needed to be done. He puts forward “integral ecology”–that we have to protect ecosystems and we have to protect people. Health of the people and the planet are one fluid interaction – we can’t have healthy people on a sick planet.

In my time at Yale, for many years the environmentalists concentrated on biology and the physical sciences, and humans were at a distance. On the other hand, many of the world’s religions, especially the Abrahamic religions, have had a strong focus on social justice. Inspired by these concerns, I was involved in the 60s in Civil Rights and the Peace Movement for example, against the Vietnam War. But these justice movements were in their own category. Many in religious communities didn’t quite understand how significant ecological issues are, e.g. climate change, biodiversity loss, etc. Thomas Berry once said to Leonardo Boff, one of the great liberation theologians, that we can’t liberate humans without caring for the Earth. Leonardo understood this and his book Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor is central to the encyclical.

The Pope is doing this on a massive scale. I was just at a conference at the Vatican, and they began the conference by saying how important Teilhard is to the encyclical. You can imagine my joy. The Living Cosmology book begins with the integrating framework of integral ecology. With the encyclical, and the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, we have a new beginning.

The book has articles that illustrate Berry and Teilhard’s influence on Journey of the Universe. But it also explores the spirituality of the Earth. I was recently at a conference on spirituality that was organized by a professor at Teacher’s College, which is part of Columbia University. We talked a lot about the fact that spirituality does not only belong to humans. There’s a spirituality of the Earth itself. Poets know this; the great mystics know it. Those who have a sense of the presence of nature know it.

I had a student at Yale who is a Palestinian refugee who said, “I think all the trees are praying for this work right now.” This sense is so important that the Earth is alive with spiritual energy and force. Again, indigenous people understand this.

This participation in “living cosmology” needs to be integrated with social justice, e.g. race, gender, etc. The sacred dimensions of land, food, and water, are all part of this volume. There is also a chapter on Earth jurisprudence. Thomas Berry had the notion that we can’t make transformative changes without understanding the law of the Earth and the rights of nature.

Indigenous peoples have understood this. Just a few years ago, in Bolivia, 30,000 indigenous peoples gathered to draft the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. If we don’t get to the deep cosmological sensibility that Earth has rights, we will continue to destroy it.

The final section of this book deals with various Christian denominations: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical. There are many doors to come through to respond to this invitation to a cosmological spirituality. Each denomination has its own insight. For example, Orthodoxy is more mystically oriented, seeing the Earth is an icon of divine light. The Quakers also have their mystical sense of nature, cosmology, and responsible nonviolence in the midst of these Earth processes.

This is a beginning of a much larger story of how Christianity and other world religions will enter into conversation with Journey of the Universe.

Q & A

Comment: I am an Associate of the Sisters of Mercy in Rochester, NY. I’m also Mohawk Native American. I’m glad you mentioned Standing Rock and the Water Protectors. One of the things I’d like people to understand about Native Americans is that we really believe we possess within ourselves the energy of the universe, and we are passing through this life to experience all of God’s creation. All of life is a sacred ceremony. We are guided by our elders to connect to the divinity within ourselves by serving the people, serving creation and walking very gently with our Creator.

MET: Thank you so much for your comment, those ideas are profound and immensely important. My husband is a student of Native American traditions and culture. We are adopted into the Crow tribe in Montana. Brian Swimme himself comes from Native lineage, as his father is Salish from British Columbia. We have immense respect in the shared work that we do for the understanding that the energies of the universe are passing through us. This is exactly what we need to do to be reverent responders to these energies. Be they in the swirl of the elements, water, air, Earth, fire, etc. All of these elements are born out of this great unfolding process. To the extent that we can be in touch with this and draw on these traditions that are more profoundly in touch with these energies, like indigenous peoples around the world, we can steady ourselves, ground ourselves, and feel this connection. For example, the tradition of Confucianism and Daoism speaks of this energy as qi, matter-energy, the spirit that moves throughout the universe. East Asian traditions encourage us to cultivate our qi for our health and the health of our Earth systems.

Comment: I want to thank WATER and Mary Evelyn and everyone on the call. It might be of interest that part of my ministry is to take these wonderful insights and create resources for groups during Advent and Lent to try and integrate these Earth stories. My Lent 2017 theme is, “I thirst, water reflections for lent.” If this is of any interest to anyone, please go to

MET: A big shout out to Terri McKenzie and the Holy Child Sisters who educated me in high school! I’m very grateful to all of you, you gave me that sense of social justice and peace activism.

Q: I’d love to hear you talk about what you see as the interface between Christianity and the universe story.

MET: Well, I think our tradition is expanding from the hermeneutics of Bible study and how we interpret the Bible. The notion that Genesis is not a literal story, but a metaphor in creative tension with evolution is one is one of the big gateways into the discussion. How do we take the teachings of our tradition and integrate them into evolutionary sciences? That’s going to take a long, long time. That is why Teilhard was so insightful.

How can we take stories like the parables, such as the mustard seed, the parables that are so rich with images of nature and bring them into a deeper understanding of ecology as well as their spiritual significance? There is a scientific ecology, but there is also a religious ecology, namely, a metaphorical and spiritual understanding of growth and transformation towards death and rebirth. We are expanding our ecological literacy to appreciate that these stories have symbolic import as well as natural grounding.

The great historian of world religions, Mircea Eliade, felt that unless we re-inhabit the roots of our religious traditions and stories in nature itself, we will become disembodied and lose the force of these great stories and symbols. For example, we are now approaching the Solstice, the return of light, which we all crave at this time of year. We rejoice in the return of light. Why was Christmas placed so close to this cosmological event? Because it encompasses feelings of joy, light, rebirth, etc. through a child. This brings new energy to our minds and hearts. It’s a tremendous time of year, both cosmologically and ecologically. It’s also important in terms of religious ecology, the events of the birth of Christ.

Another example: If we observe that the Gospel of John opens with “In the beginning was the Word (logos)”. In Greek, logos means the inner ordering principle of all reality. Everything in nature has this tendency to be ordered and growing in a certain direction. This is what logos means.

From the very beginning, this was true of the whole universe. If the dimensions of expansion or contraction in the early universe had been a little more or less, nothing would have emerged. The order of the universe is such that, from the very beginning, we know life will emerge. This is called an “anthropic principle”, meaning humans will emerge from evolution. The idea is that, from the beginning of the universe, all matter contains the seeds of order and flourishing. This is present in the whole universe.

Teilhard would speak of this as the Cosmic Christ of the universe. Paul had this same notion in his epistles. Part of our challenge is to inhabit not only a relationship with the historical Christ, but also with the cosmological Christ of the universe as well.

MEH: I want to push the last question in a different direction. What are your thoughts on feminism in ecology? It seems to me that many women’s religious communities are the best of the Catholic contribution to all of this. I think Pope Francis gets a lot of press for the encyclical, but it is the actual work of women in so many places around the world that gives concrete expression to so much of the theology. For example, the White Violet Center of the Sisters of Providence in Indiana. There are so many examples the ecofeminist work of women religious. How have you seen this movement emerge, especially as women religious are aging? Do you see young people taking up this work, perhaps in new forms?

ME Tucker: Thank you. Wonderful question, so important. This is part of the reason why the book is dedicated to Miriam Therese MacGillis at Genesis Farm and the Sisters of Earth many of whom have been inspired by Thomas Berry. Most of these sisters of Earth are within religious communities but some are not. They have been critical to the transformation of why these questions of living cosmology matter. There isn’t any group that has been more faithful, dedicated, inquiring, and down-to-earth. These centers have been run by nuns who have imbibed this spiritual vision in their bones and neurons. This is partly because many of these communities have come out of the farming traditions of the Midwest. So there is this sense, that even in the midst of the diminishment of these religious orders, they have held fast to a vision, which they have passed on to many others. They have almost gone supernova, like a star. Even as their numbers decrease and their orders diminish their influence will surely live on.

I think the other important thing here is their vision as women through their eyes, ears, words, and voices. Ecofeminism was one of the great liberating movements, both within and outside of the Christian traditions. But it went beyond it as well, e.g. the Chipko movement of women tree huggers in Northern India. Women, in their voices and actions, have been vital to the environmental movement, and beyond.

For me as a woman, I am still finding my voice. I work very closely with the women students at Yale who are so bright, but who are often struggling with dealing with a future that is very uncertain, especially regarding the environment. Central to this vision of an unfolding universe is the matrix of a maternal sensibility. This is a great mystery and we don’t even have a name to describe it, but we are in search of this healing power.

Comment: One of the things I’m looking at is an organization called United by Blue. They clean up a pound of plastic in the ocean for every article of clothing you buy. I want to tie this to water being blue and the United Nations using blue as their color. So think about this bringing everybody together!

Q: I’m a member of the Living Cosmology course online. Looking at Section 6 of this book, about the views of religions. It looks like there are representatives of mainline religions as opposed to fundamentalist religions. I wondered, how is this work being communicated and received in the more fundamentalist/evangelical communities among Christians?

ME Tucker: That’s a terrific question. We were very lucky to get the Journey film on PBS for three years. This project deals with evolution in a new way. It’s not a NOVA science story, not a reductionist sense that the universe story has no meaning or purpose. In some science perspectives, this is how evolution is understood and taught, namely, that things emerge randomly and there is no larger purpose. Some of the ideas we express are verboten in many science communities. In fact, two scientists at Yale have asked me why I made the film. I told them, that I made it in part to suggest that there are ways of dealing with the world and our life through questions of meaning and purpose. They disagreed strongly.

We’ve had a view in secular academia from a reductionist science perspective that evolution is a random and meaningless process. But how do people connect their lives to something so random, especially if we arose from these dynamic unfolding processes? On the other hand, we have fundamentalist communities that say Creation took place in 6 days, or that we’re in a young universe that is only 6,000 years old. We know that 44% of people in the U.S. don’t believe in evolution. This isn’t true in the rest of the world, I might add.

So, for these reasons, we were extremely lucky to get our film on PBS. There is a subtlety to what we’re suggesting here in relation to an evolutionary story that does not dismiss spirituality. This fusion or integration isn’t pronounced or named explicitly. If you see this film through a mystical lens, you can understand that this is a living universe.

As for evangelicals, I would say that, overall, they haven’t responded to the film. But they have responded to our other work on religion and ecology. At our conference on Christianity and ecology at Harvard in 1997, we had the Evangelical Environmental Network involved. We’ve worked with this network over the years. Creation care and Earth stewardship is extremely important to them. They just don’t want to be told by scientists that their universe does not have meaning. With respecting their concern for creation care, I think there will be openings for my dialogue with evangelical communities. I think in time we will have further conversations, and this is a very important question.

MEH: Are there plans in the works for implications of Journey for other faiths? Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, “nones,” etc.? I think it’s a marvelous discussion for members of any group, whether believers or not, and I wonder what you have up your sleeve. What’s on the burner for 2017?

ME Tucker: The Journey book has been translated into a number of languages including French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Turkish, Chinese, Korean, etc. The film has been shown around the world, and is available with Spanish subtitles. We were hoping to offer this as something of an Earth story that would bring us together across our divisions, a unified Earth story. There’s no future without a shared future.

We were in Iran in April for a conference on religion and the environment. The Iranian government, who hosted the conference, is deeply concerned about the environment, especially because of droughts, biodiversity loss, and climate change in Iran. Their Vice President and Minister of the Environment, is a woman who completely understands the need for our work. She incorporated Journey into the conference proceedings. They began and ended the conference with the trailer of the film with Persian subtitles. This is an indication of the dimensions of Islam that are open to cosmological understandings.

We have also shown the film in many parts of China and East Asia. We have a Chinese translation of the film. We have interest in Taiwan and Singapore to integrate this into their curriculum. Our people at Yale on the online courses say we should translate the course into Chinese.

In India, I just met this morning with the head of the Center for Environmental Education where Gandhi had his ashram. We will be going there next year to show Journey. The interest has been quite astounding. Not just North America, but Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe. Our hope is to scale this up. We are also keen on education for high school students and at community colleges. There is a lot of work to be done, and there is interest. We have online classes now on Journey of the Universe from Yale through Coursera.

A touching story to end with: We showed the film at a technical university in China. The first question was: You and John were introduced as married; you know what love is about. How do we know love and how do we see love as coming out of the universe? That just blew my mind. The students understood this very well through their Chinese cosmological lens. It was very moving, that this (love) is part of the universe itself – a true living cosmology!

WATER thanks Mary Evelyn Tucker for her work. We look forward to more collaboration.

The next WATERtalk is scheduled for Wednesday, January 25, 2017 at 1 PM ET with Heather White, “Queer Activism and the Christian Right: The Surprising Story of their Shared History.”