Biblical Christianity and the Great Story
A conversation between Michael Dowd
and a Christian college student
August 15, 2002
Michael: Here's how I understand heaven and hell cosmologically. Now this isn't "the truth", mind you, it's simply a helpful way for me to understand the reality of these truths in my world. What happens when I die is in God's hands. But on this side of death, I see heaven as the experience of being consciously aware of my true nature and being guided by my heart, by love, by the risen Christ. I experience heaven to the degree that I trust the universe, follow my heart, live with integrity, and am a channel of divine grace and creative power in the world.
Hell, at the very least, is being mentally separated from Reality being caught up in fear, cynicism, distrust, selfishness, bitterness, illusion, falsity, hatred, or anything else that keeps me alienated from Love, from Christ. To be in hell is to be a cell in the body without knowing it, pursuing one's own self interest with no regard for the health and wellbeing of the larger body that it's part of, like a cancer cell. Hell is being cut off from my true Self, my true Nature. To be in heaven is to be aware of my identity as a cell in the divine body, and to allow the will and purpose of the Self of the Universe, God, to flow naturally and effortlessly through me.
Heaven and hell have thus transformed into states of being for me in this life. Death itself has taken on new meaning as well. I am less concerned with what death is than in how I wish to be when the time draws near. I wish to be ready for death, accepting of death, even jubilant of death as the final letting go of all illusion and attachment. Prepared for death, I will surrender into God.
I know that the atoms and molecules of my body shall return to Earth to nourish and sustain others; I fervently hope that I shall have lived my life such that my actions and contributions will also. But what of my spirit, my soul? Here, a story tells it best.
During the process of my becoming a United Church of Christ minister, I presented and defended my ordination paper to a gathering of ministers and lay leaders in western Massachusetts. After my presentation, entitled "A Great Story Perspective on the UCC Statement of Faith," (which you can read on my website if you'd like) during the question and answer period, a well-respected minister stood up and said, "Michael, I'm quite impressed with your presentation, and with this evolutionary theology you've shared with us. However, the little boy in me wants to know: Where is Emory?" Emory Wallace, a well-known and widely beloved retired minister who had had been my mentor, had died suddenly at the age of 85, just a few weeks before this ordination hearing. This was my response:
"In order to answer that question I have to use both day language the language of rational, everyday discourse and night language the language of dreams and symbols and myths. Both types of speech are vital and necessary, just as both states of consciousness are vital and necessary. As I'm sure you know; if we are deprived of the opportunity to dream for any length of time as mammals, as primates, as humans we die. But, of course, we fully understand and accept that day language and night language are very different. For example, if you were to ask me how my day went today and I were to say, 'It was great. After lunch I flew over to the Dairy Queen on the other side of town, turned into a cow, and started eating the grass along the sides of the parking lot,' and kept a straight face, you'd probably think something was very wrong with me and might suggest that perhaps a visit to the local psychiatrist might be in order. However, if you had asked me about a dream I recently had and I said the same thing, you might be curious as to the interpretation or meaning of my dream, but you wouldn't think I was losing my mind. Everyone knows that it's possible to fly or turn into another creature in the dream state.
"So in order to respond to your question, 'Where is Emory, now that he's dead?' I have to answer in two ways. First, in the language of everyday discourse, I would say, 'Emory's physical body will eventually be completely consumed by bacteria, leaving only his skeleton and teeth. His genes, contributions, and memory will continue to live on in his family and in the countless people that he touched in person and through his writings, in those they touch, and so on. And his life force or spirit his soul has returned to the Whole the Great Mystery that I call 'God'.
"But, you see, if I stop there, if that's all I say, then I've told only half the story. I must go on and say something like: 'And I'm sure Emory is also seated at the right hand of God the Father (or in the loving arms of God the Mother, if you prefer), surrounded by a host of heavenly angels.' And that would also be true true within the accepted logic and understanding of night language."
Student: Wow. What was their response?
Michael: Well, they voted to ordain me, so I guess it couldn't have been too bad!
Coming back to what we were talking about a few minutes ago, a question that really interests me is this: What are ways that we can think and speak about Infinite, Ultimate Reality, or God, that ring true to scripture's witness, resonate with our own personal and community experience, and empower us to live life passionately while contributing in some way to what God is creating today. In other words, given what we understand scientifically about the nature of reality, what is the gospel, or good news, for our time? This is where, I believe, The Great Story shines!
My book EarthSpirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity, written twelve years ago, begins to plant a few seeds into this fertile ground. It was the first book to popularize the epic of evolution for Christians and to look appreciatively at the central tenets of New Testament faith from the perspective of 13 billion years of divine creativity. The question that drove me to write EarthSpirit was this: How can the core elements of my faith sin, salvation, the kingdom of God, heaven and hell, Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life be experienced in light of how the universe is actually understood today by the vast majority of scientists? (Rather than how the biblical writers understood it two or three millennia ago.) My aim was to interpret the essence of Christianity in ways that touch, move, and inspire twenty-first century people to follow Jesus and to walk in his steps without them having to check their minds at the door.
Student: That's exactly what I'm looking for! But I'm worried that, although my Christian faith and science may be reconciled through what you call The Great Story, I worry that my faith may be somehow diminished. I don't want that.
Michael: Of course not. And good for you! One of the central messages of the Bible, as I read it, is that it's impossible to have a truly joyful, peaceful, deeply fulfilling life without faith, or trust in Love, in Life, in God.
Let me tell you a personal story, and see if this applies to you. By coming to embrace the epic of divine creativity as a "great" story for me personally, I have been blessed with and with no real effort on my part, mind you a more immediate and embodied personal relationship to Christ than ever before.
Here is why: Prior to looking through the lens of the epic of evolution told as the sacred story of God's emergent love, generosity, and creativity, I was looking out at the world only through biblical lenses and using biblical language and metaphors. So I had a difficult time personally experiencing (that is, feeling; not just thinking about) the incarnational love of God in Christ today. I could easily imagine the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago. That was no problem. But how to experience with my senses that is, deeper than words, beyond beliefs the embodied love of God today? I was clueless. The best I could do was to tarry and pray for "the second coming of Christ" (And believe me, I was certain he was coming back on the clouds, just as it says in the Bible.)
But since adopting a sacred, post-modern cosmology by looking through the lenses of The Great Story, I now relate to Reality, both in its seen and unseen aspects, as a real embodiment, a true incarnation, of God's love. Is this making sense to you?
Student: Yes, I think so. Go on.
Michael: So when I talk to college students like yourself, and others, today, I prefer to use contemporary cosmological language to convey the core truths of my faith. That is, I like to speak of the universe as "God's body." God's body. I didn't invent this language. Widely respected theologian Sallie McFague wrote a book by that title. But, I tell you: this metaphor really works for me. The universe as God's body! Why, that means that it is no longer a question of my having to beckon God to be present to me in prayer. If I just open my eyes, my heart, my senses, I can see and experience God in anything, in anyone, at any time.
And who is Jesus? Who is Jesus for me? Jesus is "the compassionate heart of Reality," the heart of the cosmos. Jesus is the one through whom God's redemptive love was revealed so clearly and poignantly in the gospels. Jesus is there for me whenever I stop and pay attention to my heart, and ask its wisdom, his wisdom, to guide me.
As for the Holy Spirit, ha! What is "the nested creativity" of the universe the all-pervasive creativity in all matter and energy, at every scale, if not the Holy Spirit?
So there we have it: the universe and every piece of the universe as God's body. Jesus as the true heart of Reality. The Holy Spirit as the creativity that runs through it all. There are surely many other legitimate interpretations of the mystery of the Three in One, but this is a Trinity I can experience and celebrate!
Student: Tell me more about Jesus as the compassionate heart of Reality the heart of the cosmos. And more about what this way of thinking personally means for you. What does it give you?
Michael: Well, for one, I now have the most intimate, personal relationship with Jesus that I've ever had. Jesus now is not only my "Lord and Savior," he's also the proper name for my heart! And if you invite him to be so, he'd love to be your heart too. But you have to decide; that's the New Testament message.
Let me explain: Twenty years ago I read Charles Sheldon's classic little book, In His Steps. Ever since, I've known that asking myself in any given situation "What would Jesus do?" and "What is my heart leading me to do?" always gets me the same answer. Now I know why! It is only through my heart that I can possibly answer the question, "What would Jesus do?" It is not a mind thing. So now I look for Jesus inwardly, and feel his direction through the leadings of my own heart.
I also know why all my life I've felt such an affinity for nature (as all children do) and why I feel so passionate about contributing to, and ensuring, a just, humane, beautiful, and sustainably life-giving world for future generations. If the universe is God's body (whether we recognize it or not), and Jesus is the compassionate heart of the cosmos, and the Holy Spirit is the pervasive, nested creativity of matter, how could I not feel such an affinity, and have such a passion?!
You see, this world is not some machine that we can exploit for our own, short-term benefit. It is a fully embodied expression of God's incarnational love and creativity! It's the most immediate expression of God's grace and generosity that we will ever know this side of death. Moreover, we don't have to try to "save the world." Invite people to put their faith, their trust, in God? You bet! Work to correct injustice? Absolutely! The world doesn't need to be saved. "The world" is maturing, and we are part of the process whether we think we are or not. The good news is that the bad news is actually good news in disguise. As my friend and mentor Sister Miriam MacGillis likes to say, "From the perspective of The Great Story, it's all right on schedule." Now if that's not something worth celebrating, what is?
Sorry. I got to preaching a little there. My creatheistic exuberance just took over.
Student: Your what?
Michael: Creatheism is a word I coined, though tend not to use when speaking to others unless I can take time to explain myself. Just as you might hear the word "atheism" in there, a non-theist might hear the word "creationism" and be just as wary. What I ask you to hear is "creativity" and "theistic." Let me explain:
Creatheism, for me, is way of thinking and talking about God and the universe that includes yet transcends all previous god-isms. Creatheism says that all the religious and non-religious viewpoints along the theist to atheist spectrum point to something true about the nature of things, but none captures the whole truth by itself. This means that theism, atheism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, monotheism, and polytheism even though some are clearly oppositional all have something to offer.
Do you find it surprising that I would say that?
Student: Worse. I find it deeply disturbing. And that makes me sad, because I liked a lot of what you said up till now.
Michael: Well, this point may not speak to you. And, if it doesn't, that's okay. But let me offer it, just in case, because I think I've been where you are now.
Let me begin with a little history. It is important to know that historically, atheism arose as a response to a limited, mechanistic understanding of theism. Because the dominant metaphor for understanding Reality over the last three centuries was a clock that is, as a human-made lifeless machine theists were forced to speak of God as sort of a Big Daddy in the Sky a heavenly landlord who resided off the planet, even outside the universe. God, of course, would intervene in the world, as the Bible demonstrates. But one of the challenges theists faced was to explain why it seemed that God was so active a few thousand years ago, but less so today. Deists imagined God similarly as a heavenly engineer who made this clockwork universe and set it running. The major difference was that deists generally believe that God does not intervene in the world.
Now, a notion of God as a kind of supreme landlord who presides over but is not physically intimate with this world is not at all my personal experience of God, and I suspect it is not yours either. Consider too that the path of science has now led us well beyond a clockwork universe image of reality. The universe is best understood as nested creativity, or as suffused with Spirit in each and every part, if you prefer.
And yet much traditional Christian language still draws us into the old image of God. So we know one thing, we experience one Reality, but our language holds us back. It doesn't help us.
Here's the surprise. I can actually be grateful to atheists! I can be grateful to atheists for poking holes in such an otherworldly theism and for forcing me to think more deeply about my faith. Atheists were, after all, among the first to point out that what we call "the universe" is inherently creative. In other words, they compellingly made the case that creativity is pervasive throughout, and from the very beginning not simply at the beginning. These are hugely important contributions in my mind, for these distinctions clear a path that allows my personal experience of God to reconfigure how I think and speak about God.
Polytheists those who speak of many gods or many faces of the divine have a grasp on an important facet of truth, too. Polytheists remind us, or at least they remind me, that, while it may be true that there is only one Ultimate Reality (which, of course, is the central insight of monotheism), it is also true that every life form and every collective of life-forms has its own creativity, its own spontaneity, its own intelligence. Each is a unique expression of the Infinite. Each is a face of God. And each reveals something precious about God's love, creativity, and generosity if I but have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Student: I can see those insights as contributions. Though, for me, they don't seem at all at odds with my faith. Ideally, I shouldn't have to listen to an atheist to get that every part of the universe God's body, as you call it is creative. And yes, if the universe is God's body, then each part of it would, of course, show a different aspect of God to me. But I shouldn't have to listen to a polytheist in order to understand that either.
Michael: That's exactly the point! You've got it!
Student: So then where does your creatheism enter, and why yet another term to add to this confusing list?
Michael: The burden of proof is definitely on me for suggesting a new term. And my advocacy on this point is pretty low key. I'm interested in promoting the understanding far more than any particular term. "Creatheism" is simply an easy handle for me to use in referring to an interrelated set of concepts. Six concepts are primary, and you should know that these are all grounded in a number of now widely accepted observations about the nature of the world and the universe.
First, as human beings we must use analogies and metaphors for understanding Ultimacy there's simply no other option. In other words, we don't experience Reality as it is; we experience Reality as we are. We see through the lenses of our mental filters, including what we tell ourselves and tell each other about the nature of things. All of our words, theologies, theories, equations, and language about God, the universe, nature, or Ultimate Reality are, and will forever remain, mere symbols, metaphors, abstractions. Our words are the map, not the territory. They are the menu, not the meal. Got that?
Student: That one's easy. Like you talking about the universe as the body of God, or Jesus as the compassionate heart of the cosmos or, as I have heard so often, the lamb of God. There is no other way of communicating abstract concepts than by metaphors. I get that.
Michael: Good. Now the second primary realization is this: Human beings (genus Homo) have existed for two and a half million years. We domesticated fire more than a million years ago. Yet we've only been speaking and thinking in words for a fraction of that time. (Some scientists believe that verbal, symbolic language emerged over hundreds of thousand of years or longer, but the majority view is that the shift from primarily non-verbal to primarily verbal modes of communication and thinking occurred some 50-100 thousand years ago.) In either case, the fact is that our ancestors experienced Reality (the world/the universe) as God-like or divine that is, mysterious, awesome, benevolent, creative, wise, seemingly all-knowing, occasionally severe, seemingly all-powerful, nourishing, forgiving, etc. long, long before they had any names, words, or concepts for God or divinity. Thus, every God concept every symbol, analogy, or metaphor for Reality as a whole or any aspect of it has its origin in a people's actual experience of the world around them, and within them. To easily understand how this is so, simply reflect on the fact, as my mentor Thomas Berry likes to point out, that if we lived on the moon, and never knew anything else, our language and metaphors for God would all reflect the barrenness of the lunar landscape.
Student: That point seems to follow directly from your metaphor argument. So continue.
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