A Great Story Perspective
on the UCC Statement of Faith
By Michael Dowd 1990 (edited and posted 11-25-04)
The following is my understanding of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, adapted by former UCC President Robert V. Moss, in light of the epic of evolution, biblical revelation, and my own personal life experience. When I wrote it in 1990, as my ordination paper, I offered it not as a definitive statement of any kind, but simply to express how, while I was pastoring my first church, I interpreted the mysteries of the Christian faith. Even though my thinking has evolved over the last decade and a half, this document is still an excellent, if incomplete, reflection of my theology in a nutshell. (To get a further sense of how I understand Evolutionary Christianity, also see: THANK GOD FOR EVOLUTION!, the companiion website for my November 2007 book by that title.)
* * *
I believe in God, the Eternal Spirit,
I believe that God is the wholeness of Reality in which we live and move and have our being; the divine Mystery which gives birth to all things, which holds all things together, and which draws all things unto itself. To say that God is "Eternal Spirit" means two things to me: (1) God is present as the Life Force in everyone and everything, and (2) while all Creation is a revelation of God, God is also more than the sum total of Creation. I believe that the dualism between pantheism (Creation is God/God is Creation) and theism (Creation is not God/God is separate from Creation) is unnecessary, and is overcome by a Pauline understanding similar (though not identical) to pan-en-theism: what I call creatheism or evolutionary theism (God is in Creation/Creation is in God) [Acts 17:28; Col 1:15-20].
In this regard, I find it helpful to imagine God's relationship to Creation as analogous to the relationship between a mother and a developing child within her womb. The growing fetus is in the mother, the mother is in the child (in the sense of providing the nutrition, oxygen, and genetic guidance), and yet the mother is also more than the child. Each could also be said of God's relationship to Creation: Creation is in God, God is in Creation, and yet God is more than Creation. Another reason that I like this analogy is that it illustrates the contemporary scientific understanding of the Universe as an expanding, developing whole an evolving, increasingly aware, creative living system.
Given the symbolic nature of human language and the fact that analogies and metaphors all we've got in our attempts to understand God, I also find two other analogies helpful: (1) I enjoy thinking of God planting the entire Cosmos as a seed, smaller than a mustard seed, at the center of God's own heart 14 billion years ago, and imagining it as expanding there, within the heart of God, ever since. (2) Another analogy I like is imagining the entire Universe as the hand of God. What's the rest of God's body like? Only God knows! But thinking of the Cosmos as the hand of God helps me appreciate the divinely creative nature of Creation while fully acknowledging God's transcendent otherness. A friend of mine once asked, "What's God look like on the outside?" I thought about it for a moment and said, "Who knows?" He said, "Exactly! Only God knows. That's transcendence." Then he asked again, this time more slowly, "What's God look like on the inside?" While I was pondering his words, he softly said, "Look around you. Look into another's eyes. Look deeply into your own heart. That's what God looks like on the inside. That's immanence."
(God) who is known to us in Jesus our brother,
Since we no longer live in a first century world of patriarchal fathers and sons, kings and kingdoms, slaves, lords, lambs, and sacrificial offerings, I find it helpful to use other metaphors for my relationship to Jesus in addition to the traditional metaphor of "lordship" (which I understand to mean having the Love of the Whole as my ultimate commitment and guiding reality of my heart). Understanding Jesus as my elder brother is helpful as it assists me in remembering that the Jesus' path is my own, that his destiny is my destiny, and that, as an older brother, Jesus can relate to whatever I may experience on my faith journey. He showed (and shows) me the way, the truth, and the life of God through his words and example as recorded in scripture, through his resurrected presence in the natural world, and through his living Word in my heart.
and to whose deeds we testify.
This statement reminds me that God is not a Supreme Landlord who resides off the planet and outside the Universe, nor is God a theory about how things work, nor is God an abstract philosophical idea or ideal. God is not a Supreme Being, God IS Supreme Being! God is the Mysterious, Living, Loving Reality that is revealed in and through the evolutionary process of the Universe. As the source and substance of life, the great "I AM" of all existence, God breathes in all things that breathe and lives in all things that live, whether they know or acknowledge it or not. I believe one of the greatest insights of the Judeo-Christian tradition is this: that God is progressively revealed in and through the unfolding of time. God is a God of history both human and non-human history.
God calls the worlds into being,
I understand this to be a poetic or anthropomorphic way of describing the origin of the Universe that scientists speak of as the Fireball, Big Bang, or Great Radiance. And just as every word spoken reveals something of the one who speaks it, so too does every particle, every atom, every molecule, every organism, every species, every ecosystem, every planet, every solar system, and every galaxy reveal something unique of the Holy One.
(God) creates humankind in the divine image,
The Bible tells us that humanity was created, male and female, in the image of God. This truth not only points to the importance of equal rights between men and women, but also indicates the biblical legitimacy of relating to God as both Mother and Father. Moreover, it must also be remembered that we live in a time-developmental Universe. As with everything in an evolving Universe, we are discovering new depths to this truth as time goes on. For example, through the empirical sciences we have recently come to an understanding that humanity is an integral part of Creation. We are Creation still creating we are not separate from it or superior to it in any way. We allow Creation to glorify God that is, to honor the Whole in conscious awareness.
This profound understanding, which could not have been revealed any earlier in human history, is causing us to broaden and deepen our understanding of what gets included as "the divine image." We are beginning to move from seeing "the image of God" as referring only to humanity, to seeing it as referring to the entire body of life the entire Cosmos. This does not, as some fear, elevate Creation to the status of what should be worshipped. (Honoring, respecting, and learning from Nature is enough; we don't need to worship anything or anyone other than God.) But neither does it lessen the significance of the human role in God's evolutionary process. It simply puts it all in perspective. Without Creation we would know nothing of God, God could not communicate with us, and, in fact, we would not even exist. Without humanity (or at least without self reflective consciousness, which may or may not exist independent of humanity) Creation would know nothing of God.
For the first time in three million years of human existence, people from every tribe, nation, religion, and continent agree on the fundamental story of our origins. Never before did we have a common creation story. Now, however, thanks to the Bible and the empirical scientific tradition which grew out it, we do. In time, this fact will change everything.
Here is the Sacred Story of Life, in a nutshell:
God planted the Universe as a seed, smaller than a mustard seed, at the center of God's own heart 14 billion years ago, and it's been expanding there and growing more interdependent and aware ever since. First there was a stupendous explosion of light and energy that some call the Big Bang and others call The Great Radiance. Immediately Creation began cooling into elementary particles and then into the first elements: hydrogen and helium. As the Universe continued to expand and become increasingly complex, its inner, spiritual potential became increasingly able to realize itself. With God as the inner life-force of the process, Creation self-organized into galaxies, stars, and planets. Our solar system formed four and a half billion years ago from a great cloud of metal-rich stardust which had themselves formed from previously exploded supernovas. In and through Earth, Creation continued to complexify and deepen its spiritual awareness through bacteria and multi-celled organisms, through plants and animals, until finally, just a moment ago (geologically speaking), Earth became so complex and highly organized that it became capable of thinking about itself and that's us.
The human is a being in whom Creation, after some 14 billion years of development, has reached such a degree of cooperation and complexity that Creation can now, consciously, reflect on itself, its meaning, who it is, where it came from, what it's made of, and where it's going. We are nature discovering its own nature and learning about the divine presence within and beyond everything. As Teilhard de Chardin noted over a half century ago, "The human person is the sum total of 14 billion years of unbroken evolution now thinking about itself." The scientist looking through a telescope is, in fact, the Universe looking at itself. The child entranced by the immensity of the ocean is planet Earth (what the ancient Greeks called "Gaia") enraptured by itself. The student learning biology is the planet itself learning in consciousness, with awareness, how it has functioned unconsciously and instinctually for billions of years. The worshipper singing praises to God is Creation celebrating the wonder of the divine Mystery from whence it came and in which it exists. Humanity is a means by which (or a place where) Creation can feel its awesome beauty and splendor with conscious awareness, and give God glory that is, honor the Whole. We are not separate beings in the Universe, who live on Earth; we are a mode of being of the Universe, an expression of Earth. We are the natural fruit of evolution. We did not come into this world, we grew out from it in the same way that an apple grows out from an apple tree! Earth is our larger self, our larger body. As physicist Brian Swimme is fond of saying, "Planet Earth, once molten rock, now sings opera."
It is important to note here that at no point in time during the past four and a half billion years, the age of our solar system, did anyone literally come from the outside and put anything on the planet. "God" is a Sacred Name for the inner creative dynamic at the very heart of the process, the divine creativity revealed in and through evolution. When Genesis 2:7 speaks anthropomorphically of God forming us from the dust of the ground and breathing into us the breath of life, that's a true story! It's a poetic or mythic way of describing the exact process I am outlining here. How could Moses have possibly written such an inspired understanding any other way?
Through this Sacred Story of Life we are coming to a deeper and broader understanding of the what must be included as "the image of God." From this perspective, we can now understand how the entire Universe is being created in the image of God! Humanity is that dimension of the Universe that enables Creation as a whole to honor and celebrate the Creator's loving presence. Our own special role is to enable the body of life to reflect on and to celebrate itself and its deepest mystery in a special mode of conscious self-awareness. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ reveals the Way for humanity to fulfill this destiny. This shift in awareness also helps us to gain a richer appreciation of the apostle Paul's statement that, "The whole of Creation is longing in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed." (Rom 8: 19-21).
and (God) sets before us the ways of life and death.
There has never been a time in human history when we are more acutely aware of this truth. Our present global ecological crisis has made us painfully aware that we cannot pursue our own self-interest unless we also pursue the self-interest of the larger realities (bioregional, Earth, humanity as a whole) of which we are part. A disturbing analogy of our present situation is that of cancer. Biomedical research has shown that a cancer cell is a normal cell that, for any of a variety of reasons, has become cut off, or disconnected, from its genetic guidance and memory. When a cell lacks the memory of how to relate to the rest of the body in a balanced and symbiotic way, it begins to grow exponentially, consuming the larger body of which it is a part. Unchecked, cancer will often kill itself by consuming its environment. The parallels here, living in a consumer society, are obvious.
The ways of life and death are also set before us on a personal level. Our struggle with sin increases in direct proportion to seeing ourselves as separate from and superior to nature or others. Racism, sexism, nationalism, and anthropocentrism are each rooted in an inadequate understanding of the nature of God and the nature of the Universe. The Bible is replete with examples of how disobedience to the revealed will of God and living without the support and accountability of a covenant community invariably leads to destruction. The ways of life and death are ever before us in both the written scriptures as well as in the scriptures of the natural world.
God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
This is the source of my faith and the substance of my hope. Evidence for the truth of this statement can be found throughout the Bible, in the myths and scriptures of other traditions, and in each of our personal lives. In my own experience, whenever I have strayed from truth into addiction, self absorption, or self deception, invariably a prophetic voice a family member, a friend, an enemy, life's circumstances has broken through the silence of my deaf ears and called me back to my true self back to Christ. For example, in coming to terms with addictive patterns that developed in my life as a result of growing up in an immature culture and standardly disfunctional family, God has used a variety of people and situations to help bring about a deep healing. If the experience of others is similar to my own, Life seems to have a habit of finding creative ways to awaken us from the slumber of unreality that we can sometimes slip into.
God judges all humanity and all nations by that will of righteousness
declared through the prophets and apostles.
Prophetic challenge is an essential part of the gospel. The poorest people of all are those with no one to give them radically honest feedback on their behavior, attitudes, or lifestyle, or those who lack the wisdom to accept such seeming criticism. The richest people of all are those who seek out others to give them painfully honestly feedback, those who have an abundance of loving critics, and those who integrate the criticism they receive. Proverbs 12:1 states, "Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but those who hate to be rebuked are stupid!" For the prophets who have spoken into my life over the years, and who still do so, I am eternally grateful.
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord,
God has come to us and shared our lot, conquering sin and
death and reconciling the whole Creation to its Creator.
Although deeply rooted in both scripture and tradition, such language as referring to Jesus as a "lord," who "came to us" and "shared our lot" and "conquered sin and death" clearly reflects a patriarchal, first century cosmology and worldview. Nevertheless, I often use such traditional language in ministry because it's meaningful to many of those I minister to. Unfortunately, however, it is also language that much of our culture finds antiquated and irrelevant because it does not reflect a modern cosmology and worldview.
Put in other words, I understand this statement to mean that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, fully incarnated divinity, lived an authentically human life (as God desires all of us to live), stayed humble even while recognizing himself as a unique expression of Ultimate Reality, died as a result of being crucified, and was resurrected in the experience of his followers and as the heart of the Cosmos. In so doing, Jesus accomplished several things:
1) He paved the way for a whole new way of being human within the body of life. (Is it any wonder that he referred to himself as "the Son of Man": "the Human Being"?
2) He modelled a mutually enhancing relationship between humanity and the rest of Creation (i.e., he showed us how to live in victory over sin, in harmony with others, and in right relationship with God).
3) He incarnated (embodied) the way to know real freedom and peace in the midst of life's inevitable storms, and the way to consciously participate in, and further, God's evolutionary creativity in the direction of greater cooperation, interdependence, awareness, and compassion at ever wider scale and evolvability. In and through Christ's life, teachings, death, and resurrection, we know the way, the truth, and the life of God. That is, in Jesus of Nazareth we are given a clear example of what it means to live from conviction not habit, realizing our own larger and deeper Self, and what it means for a human person, out of choice and free will, to live in obedience to the divine will for Creation as a whole.
God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit,
creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.
This statement speaks to me of the ongoing creative work of God. The divine "act" of creation was not something that happened once upon a time and then stopped; it is something that is still happening. As evolution continues, God's creating continues. From a scientific perspective, Creation is creative at multiple levels at once, and over time. The Universe is not like a machine, nor is it like any human-made artifact. Rather, it is an interacting set of nested, creative wholes within larger creative wholes within still larger creative wholes: atoms within molecules within cells within organisms within ecosystems and so on, like nesting dolls. Since we humans are Creation evolved to the place where it is now conscious of itself, and God since we have been given the gift of awareness and the responsibility of free choice we co-creatively participate in the ongoing creativity of God whenever we give birth to truth, beauty, justice, and love. This statement also reminds me that the true church of Jesus Christ is alive and being ever-renewed, and is found wherever people of faith and trust have covenanted together in love (no matter what their beliefs).
I see the church (ideally) is a local living, loving cell within the larger body of Life. It is a place where the wounded can be cared for, the grieving comforted, and where various "life-support systems" are available to help people deal with the inevitable pains and struggles of real life. The church is also a learning center where issues of faith can be discussed openly, and where discipleship can take place. Perhaps above all else, the church is a worshipping community where both written and natural scriptures are held up as a faithful source of guidance and truth, where "the Word" is preached in an inspiring way, where the sacraments are shared, and where God, transcendent and immanent, is celebrated through song, liturgy, confession, giving, and prayer.
My understanding of pastoral ministry is to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in helping to facilitate the above, as well as to participate in drawing out, nurturing, and encouraging the gifts and ministries of every church member. As a pastor, I love to hear the stories, especially the life stories, of my parishioners. I also encourage parishioners to minister to each other, and to others outside the church, by using the gifts that flow naturally out of their own life experiences. And by pursuing the path where their own great joy and the world's great needs intersect.
I see the prophetic side of ministry as concerned with addressing the larger social/political/economic context on behalf of the future of life and the quality of life. Prophetic ministry is speaking, in the name of Love, on behalf of the integrity of Creation, justice and peace. It also involves actively, lovingly, and non-violently resisting causes of oppression, such as sexism, homophobia, and racism. In my own ministry, the prophetic dimension is exercised primarily through my writings (such as my book, EarthSpirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity, Mystic, CT: Twenty Third Publications, 1991), through my involvement on several conference and national committees and task forces, and when I am invited to speak to church or non-church groups on issues related to the coming kingdom "on Earth as it is in heaven." At the local level, I function mostly as a pastor, not a prophet. The wider church, and the world, needs prophets. A local church needs, first and foremost, a pastor, a shepherd. I enjoy this balance of energies and involvements.
God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
to be servants in the service of the whole human family,
to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil,
and to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table;
to join him in his passion and victory
If there is anything that the gospel of Jesus Christ makes clear to me, it is that the way, the truth, and the life of discipleship is one that must embrace pain, suffering, and death as part of God's redemptive will. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us just before he was martyred, God does not offer us cheap grace, but costly grace. This costly grace fills us with joy and courage, sends us out into the world to identify with and minister to those who are struggling and oppressed, and empowers us to non-violently resist that which is unjust or evil. We must go further than this statement as it is presently worded, however. Our call is to be servants, not merely in the service of the whole human family, but in the service of the entire body of life, both its human and non-human expressions.
In the Twenty-First Century and beyond, if we are to truly "proclaim the gospel, resist the powers of evil, share in Christ's baptism, eat at his table, and join him in his passion and victory," then we will increasingly embody the great news of The Great Story and acknowledge that Creation as a whole has been in a process of becoming ever more cooperative, interdependent, aware, and compassionate over time, and that our destiny is to continue this process to the glory of God. Our preaching, teaching, hymns, and worship, over the next few decades, will gradually come to reflect this more inclusive, inspiring vision of our collective destiny: that of human beings living in a symbiotic, mutually enhancing relationship with both nature and our technologies and social systems. As Fr. Thomas Berry states, "The human community and the natural world will go together into the future as a single sacred community, or we will both perish in the desert."
God promises to all who trust in the gospel forgiveness of sins and
fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing,
and eternal life in that kingdom which has no end.
This is an empowering summary of the good news that has been spoken of throughout the entire statement of faith. It fills me with trust and hope that there is more to life than what can be seen, and that, for those who live with "The Love of the Whole" as their one guiding compass, death can be trusted to be but a doorway to a far greater and larger reality than we can possibly imagine. It also reminds me that, in seeking to be faithful to my ministerial calling, I can learn from those who plant dates. How so? Because a date tree takes about eighty years from the time it is planted to bear its first fruit. Thus, to plant a date tree is an act of faith, a sign of hope, and a symbol of one's loving commitment to the future. There is a message here for us all. For if there is anything that Christianity at its best stands for it is realistic faith, hope, and love. Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves saw this clearly when he said:"What is hope? It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress are not the last word. It is the suspicion that reality is more complex than realism wants us to believe; that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual; and that, in a miraculous and unexpected way, life is preparing the creative events which will open the way to freedom and resurrection. The two, suffering and hope, live from each other. Suffering without hope produces resentment and despair. Hope without suffering creates illusions, naivete, and drunkenness. Let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. This is the secret discipline. It is the refusal to let our creative act be dissolved away in immediate sense experience, and is a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren. Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hopes."
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God. Amen.
Amen, indeed. Now let's plant dates!
Home | About The Great Story | About Us | Traveling Ministry and Events
What Others Say | Programs and Presentations | Audios and Videos | Our Writings
Great Story Beads | Testimonials | Parables | Sacred Sites
Favorite Links & Resources | Join Us!