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Monday, February 20, 2006

This week at

Meet Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd, itinerant missionaries of an evolutionary gospel they call "The Great Story." Author Amy Hassinger writes: "The Great Story brings mysticism to humanism. It brings science to paganism and our historical Transcendentalist roots. Within our denomination, the Great Story may just be the theological bridge weíve long been searching for in our collective spiritual journey." What do you think?

Also this week: Jane Greer and Tom Stites offer a Freedom to Marry-week round-up of Unitarian Universalist gay marriage advocacy while Sonja Cohen's news blog tracks stories about UUs and gay marriage from newspapers around the country.

Finally, the Spring 2006 issue of UU World is in the mail — my copy arrived Thursday — and is now online. I have a too-brief review of Restless Souls and Knocking on Heaven's Door in the Bookshelf section, and I'll get around to some extended comments about both books later.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 20 February 2006 at 9:41 AM

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February 20, 2006 01:16 PM | Permalink for this comment

The article on the UUSC and Central America is interesting, but the obvious question is: Does anybody in Central America know that the UUSC was caring for them and defending their rights? Or was this a domestic political battle in the US with no effective influence on the ground? We all know about the role of the Jesuits in that area, why don't we know about the role of Unitarian Universalists?

Keith Goheen:

February 20, 2006 09:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Regarding the evolutionary gospel, I'm hearing echoes of Matthew Fox's Cosmic Christ pantheism sans its Christocentricity. Once I get past the 'wow the universe is really big and really neat' experience, I can't find much that feels sustaining. To me, vast and complex, while thought provoking, do not add up to transcendant. Lacking a source for ultimacy, this theological proposition doesn't seem substantial enough to stand alone let alone become a unifying bridge.


February 21, 2006 04:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Most scientists are uncomfortable with drawing spiritual conclusions from the content of specific scientific theories. The theories are just too contingent.

For example, Hassinger writes, "The basic elements that make up our bodiesócarbon, calcium, ironówere forged inside supernova..." This isn't scientifically correct. The scientific consensus is that those elements were mostly formed inside giant stars. It's the elements heavier than zinc that are formed in supernovae. Except for a couple of micronutrients, those elements are not necessary for life and are, in fact, often quite toxic. But so what? If the science is wrong does that make the spirituality wrong? I suspect that Barlow et al. would be happy to draw the same spiritual message from whatever theory of nucleosynthesis was current. But if that is the case then the claim to be deriving spirituality from science is fundamentally phony. (In fairness to Barlow and Dowd they do get the giant star part right at their website. However, they don't seem to know that most helium was made in the Big Bang.)

Many scientists would also be uncomfortable with the special role in the universe Barlow et al. assign to humanity. Claims that humans are "a unique and precious expression of Earth" or that we are "earth's meaning makers" are inconsistent with a scientific point of view. Scientists usually try to cultivate a sense of humility towards nature.

Steven Weinberg is a good representative of mainstream science on these matters. I remember years ago taking his cosmology course at Harvard and hearing him passionately defend steady state cosmology. His point was that, even though it was wrong, it was a much more satisfying theory than the correct big bang model. Alas, Nature/God feels no obligation to order the universe to fit our prejudices.

Barlow and Dowd don't take note of advances in cosmology since the 1970s. In particular, since the early 80s the advent of inflationary cosmology has made the idea of multiple universes much more attractive to mainstream scientists. Nowadays, not only is humanity not the center of the universe, even the universe is not necessarily the center of the universe. Maybe "The Great Story" is just one story among many.


February 21, 2006 06:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

Personally, I'm hesitant about tying one's theology too closely to popular science. See "Science and its metaphors" (UU World, Nov/Dec 2003) and "Humanism vs. science?" (Philocrites 8.26.03) for more on my views.

Ron Robinson:

February 23, 2006 01:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

Seems like I heard or read recently that Barlow and Dowd were now also emphasizing "Evolutionary Christianity" (or might that have been another?), focusing not just on "The Great Story" but I guess maybe the "'great story' within The Great Story"?? :). I was looking for that in the UU World piece but didn't see it so maybe they aren't the ones, or it was left out. Any pointers appreciated, and btw thanks uuwonk for your final paragraph.


February 23, 2006 05:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

I wouldn't be surprised if Barlow and Dowd were emphasizing this angle for some audiences. Dowd is a UCC minister, after all, and the key sources for their work are books by liberal Catholics. Here's the page on their website about Evolutionary Christianity. I've never heard their presentations, so I'm in no position to assess how their theology either implicitly or explicitly endorses Christian theology. I think it's clear that their theological orientation falls into the liberal theological tradition and is not a scientific Trojan horse for orthodoxy. (It may be expressible in orthodox terms, as Tillich believed his systematic theology was, and as some process theologians believe theirs is -- but that's a different issue.)

Similar questions have always been raised in UU circles about any approach to theology that has also been embraced by liberal Christians. Process theology, Tillich's theology, liberation theology, etc., have all had their liberal bona fides questioned by liberal anti-Christians and some Humanists. As a liberal Christian myself, I don't personally have a problem with ideas that are implicitly rather than explicitly Christian, but I also think that most UUs actually appreciate ideas that allow them to seek some common ground with their Christian neighbors even as they disagree over definitions or applications.

Ron Robinson:

February 23, 2006 06:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the follow up and the link from their website Chris. That is what I was thinking about. Would have been a nice angle to mention in the piece too. I think the workshop we had at UUCF Revival in Fort Worth on Evolutionary Jesus grew out of that conversation and was one of the most popular ones there. Speaking of Revival, let me sneak in an announcement that Revival 2006 will be at Fourth Universalist Society in NYC Nov. 2-5, and that Revival 2007 will be at West Shore UU in Cleveland, OH, Nov. 1-4, 2007.


February 24, 2006 05:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

Barlow and Dowd's website offers three versions of their biography. One each for UU, Christian, and Unity/Religious Science/New Thought audiences. The three each place Barlow and Dowd in the tradition to which they are directed.

I am curious about the current UU take on Religious Science [RS] et al. I grew up in a midwestern, humanist UU tradition than viewed anything vaguely associated with spiritualism as beyond the pale. Yet here in California our UU church is clearly competing for members with a much larger RS congregation. I think the RSers see us as "panentheists who can't sing." It seems to me that the Barlow and Dowd article reflects a growing interest in RS spirituality among UUs. How do theologically sophisticated UUs look at this?


February 24, 2006 07:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

uuwonk said, "Most scientists are uncomfortable with drawing spiritual conclusions from the content of specific scientific theories."

I think it is more true, and appropriate, that most scientists are uncomfortable with spiritual conclusions IN THEIR SCIENCE. Scientists are people too, and often like to have some spiritual focus. Moreover, it would be nice for most of them if their spiritual beliefs and their scientific beliefs didn't clash or contradict each other.
The trick is keeping one's spiritual beliefs and ones scientific facts separate or separable. It's ok for your scientific facts to sway your spiritual beliefs, but not for your spiritual beliefs to sway your scientific facts.

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