Eyeopener

‘Journey Of The Universe’ On PBS

Painted stars splay across the ceiling of an old Greek church. A flower blooms in slow motion. Tree roots twine serenely round the rocks of an ancient ruin. The images in the nonfiction film Journey of the Universe are luminously beautiful—and so well meshed that their flow feels almost effortless. But a great deal of effort has gone into this hour-long work, which aims to knit modern scientific knowledge and religious and humanistic perspectives into a seamless, eye-opening chronicle of cosmic and earthly evolution.

Indeed, the genesis of Journey—airing on PBS stations beginning December 3 (check local listings)—stretches back more than three decades, to the publication in 1978 of an article titled “The New Story,” by Thomas Berry, the influential thinker who taught at Fordham University and directed the Riverdale Center of Religious Research. “The New Story” argued that humans were positioned between important narratives—namely, the scientific narrative about the unfolding of the universe and the creation stories offered by religious traditions. Might a new narrative be possible—one that integrates these worldviews?

Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Thomas Swimme, scholars who worked closely with Berry (he died in 2009), have responded to the challenge. The two have coauthored both the film Journey of the Universe and the companion book, published by Yale University Press. Tucker, who codirects the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University, has also done yeoman’s work on Journey’s educational DVD, hosting twenty half-hour conversations with scientists, educators, and environmentalists, including Sr. Marya Grathwohl, OSF, of Earth Hope in Wyoming, and Sr. Paula Gonzalez, SC, of EarthConnection in Cincinnati.

It’s the affable Swimme—professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies—who hosts the film, speaking with enthusiasm about matters like the Big Bang (he prefers the term “The Great Flaring Forth”); the arrangement of the solar system (he illustrates it with vegetables, using a cabbage for the sun); the significance of plate tectonics; the advent of life on earth; the nature of photosynthesis; and the development of art and language among humans. The film even addresses the phenomenon of compassion, suggesting that it is a natural, if rather marvelous, part of human evolution—perhaps an extension of the maternal instinct (a shot of a koala and her baby helps illustrate this theory).

As a viewer whose forays into physics and biology have, since college, been limited to glancing at the New York Times “Science” section, I found the most remarkable strand in Journey to be the vision of humans and the cosmos as aspects of an organic whole: rather than creatures who happen to live inside a mechanistic reality, the show suggests, we are an expression of a continually creative universe. The Milky Way is best understood “not as a thing, but as...an ongoing activity.” At one point, Swimme relates that “some biologists are beginning to speculate that awareness has its foundation in the very self-organizing dynamic of the universe.”

This is heady stuff—had the film been shot inside a classroom, or even an observatory, you might doze off in five minutes. But Journey has been shot on the Greek island of Samos—the birthplace of the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras. Swimme talks science while standing on a beach, exploring a ruined fortress, sitting in a tavern, examining beets at a produce stand. These scenes—which bookend more standard documentary-style footage of the galaxy, leaping antelopes, microscopic cells, and more—enhance the film’s accessibility. Rather than contemplating intimidating truths about the cosmos, you often feel that you are engaging in some enjoyable conversation with Swimme as you both wander around a sunny, scenic island—perhaps with a nice stop for a salad-and-moussaka lunch.

With lush photography and a rather ostentatiously stirring soundtrack—strings, harps, and soprano-heavy choral music—Journey (directed by Patsy Northcutt and David Kennard) sometimes exudes an irritatingly breathless vibe. Not every moment is upbeat and starry-eyed, of course. The film acknowledges the human-wrought environmental crises that loom ahead. But, as you might expect from a work that sees humanity and earth as essentially one continuum—a continuum that is able to learn—Journey asserts that we can adjust our habits and attitudes in such a way as to avert disaster.

“The energies coursing through us may indeed renew the face of the earth,” Swimme declares optimistically as he roams around Samos. Let’s hope he’s right—for the sake of those gorgeous Greek island vistas, if not for ourselves.


Related: Celia Wren's interview with Journey co-writer and executive producer Mary Evelyn Tucker.

Published in the 2011-12-02 issue: 
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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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