Biblical Christianity and the Great Story
A conversation between Michael Dowd
and a Christian college student
August 15, 2002
Michael: Third, the universe is more than we think it is and (here's the really humbling part) it is more than we can possibly think it is. As renowned astronomer and physicist Steven Hawking, in his recent best selling book: The Universe in a Nutshell, readily admits, we know virtually nothing about 90% or more of the universe. This is because scientists have no idea what "dark matter" is, and dark matter comprises 90% of the universe. Scientists have no idea what dark matter is made of, where it came from, how it works, or anything else about it. All they know is that, whatever it is, dark matter makes the galaxies move differently than they should given our understanding of matter, energy, and gravity.
But beyond dark matter, there is another reason why we can be fairly certain that the universe as a whole will forever elude humanity's collective mental grasp. The reason is this: Quite simply, there is no such thing as "the universe"! The cosmos is not a thing, separate from us, which we can objectively study. We are the cosmos, learning about itself! We are a subset of the Whole, allured by the Whole to contribute to the Whole. And a mere subset will never be able to fully grasp the nature and intelligence of the larger reality of which it's a part.
Student: No argument from me there! But I just had a thought: What if I were to read the entire New Testament while continually reminding myself that "we are a subset of the Whole being allured by the Whole to contribute to the Whole." I wonder what new insights might be revealed to me?
Michael: Fabulous! Do it! Then write a book on it. If you have any writing skill at all, I'm quite certain that it will become a best seller. How can I know this? Because this is exactly the kind of thinking that our times are calling for! But you need to realize that it will probably take a little practice. It's easy to read the Bible literally, but reading it cosmologically? Well, that's a new thing for most people. (If you're serious about this, I strongly encourage you to read all the great stuff up on our website so that you have a solid understanding of this new cosmology.) But I promise you I absolutely guarantee it whenever you do read the Bible this way, the scriptures will come alive for you and you will see their deep wisdom in a real, this world sense like never before!
Student: Cool! I'll do it.
Michael: Now for the fourth point: Creation is creative, divinely so, all the way up and all the way down. Said another way, scientists have discovered that the universe is "nestedly creative" atoms within cells within molecules within organisms within ecosystems within planets within galaxies, and so on. And each level embodies an intelligence and creativity that the other levels simply don't have access to. Therefore, faith, or trust, just makes sense. And really, for the health of the whole system (all the nesting dolls together), it's actually necessary.
Student: You are speaking to a Christian, of course, so I have no argument there. But I can't imagine that atheists would accept your point about trusting the whole.
Michael: Some do have a difficult time with this. My next point, however, point number 5, reaches out to atheists, too. Here it is: What we name something makes a difference in how we understand, experience, and relate to it.
Student: That point seems too obvious to be a problem for anybody.
Michael: I'd like to think so. But listen. Let's now think about how we should name the largest whole of all the "nesting doll" that embraces all the others the Whole that is so large and so ancient and so complex that science alone can not fully grasp what it is about. Shall we call this largest whole "the universe"? That's one possibility, of course. Yet we could also call the largest context that which includes yet transcends everything else "God". And we could know that the creativity present in each and every atom of God's body at all scales is the Holy Spirit. And we could also know that Jesus is the human incarnation of God's love, still very much present and accessible in our hearts, and as the heart of the cosmos itself.
Student: Ah, I see how you are bringing this all together!
Michael: Now to the sixth and final point: When the primary metaphor for understanding Reality was a clock, a human-made machine (lifeless, mechanical, no purpose, no direction, no soul, no spirit, no consciousness) the only place other than incarnate in Jesus that God could be pictured was outside the universe. Even though traditional, orthodox theology has said all along that God is both transcendent and immanent, as long as we thought that the universe was like a machine, we could only picture God as transcendent. But now that we've come to understand that "the universe" is just a convenient, two word, non-personalized way of talking about that intelligent and creative Reality in which we all live and move and have our being, and which is alluring us to commit ourselves in service to the future, it's quite easy to imagine God's immanence, wouldn't you say?
Student: Getting easier all the time!
Michael: Said another way: Human beings are like conscious cells in the body of a creative planet, which is part of a creative universe, which will always be more awesome and complex than we can ever possibly imagine! So in addition to having transcendent metaphors for God, we now have immanent images for God such as "the universe as God's body," or "God" as the proper name for Infinite Reality which includes the material world.
God may be more than whatever "the universe" is, but God is certainly not less than the universe! If God is Infinite, then there's no place that God stops and something else begins. So if I only entertain transcendent, otherworldly metaphors of the divine, and fail to also recognize, appreciate, and theologize about God's embodiment, God's self-expression, God's self-revelation, and God's manifestation within Nature, then I've not yet integrated the revelation that we are part and parcel of a nestedly creative cosmos.
In light of that revelation and it is a divine revelation, make no mistake about it those who imagine God only outside the universe, and not also in the universe, have a fairly serious theological problem on their hands. The problem is this: what to call and how to relate to a living, intelligent cosmos? They have effectively become polytheists postulating two Gods. It is perfectly legitimate to imagine God outside the cosmos. But we must also find a way of relating to a genuinely awesome, wise, loving, creative, generous, and at times terrifying Kosmos (the way the ancient Greeks referred to the fullness of Reality with a proper name), or suffer the consequences of not doing so.
Student: What consequences?
Michael: Look around you! Environmental degradation, species extinction, habitat destruction, a growing gap between the rich and the poor. Need I continue? As we as an interconnected global society begin to recognize the world, including ourselves, as part of God's body, which we will, and we begin to once again value the sacredness of the natural world, we will relate to it and to each other very differently than we presently do. This is in fact our destiny. It's the Great Work of our time. And of this I am confident: In less than 100 years, the idea of viewing planet Earth and other species as commodities, things that can and should be exploited for short-term human benefit, will be seen as laughable, or criminal. Our present economic system is designed such that it is both possible and profitable for a subset of the whole to benefit at the expense of the whole. Future generations will look back on our time and this fact and just shake their heads. Fortunately, things are already beginning to change in a major way, as you'll see if you spend any time at all exploring the "Favorite Links and Resources" page on our website.
On a personal level, perhaps the most significant negative consequence of failing to relate to the fact of a divine cosmos, both psychologically and spiritually, is the feeling of alienation from God and/or reduced opportunities for intimacy with God.
Related to this, for myself, I'd have to say that the greatest benefit I've received from this way of seeing is in my prayer life. Prayer for me is no longer about trying to get a spiritual presence from outside the universe to intervene in what's going on down here. Rather it's more like I'm a cell in the body, who, through prayer, is communicating with the body as a whole the Wisdom of the Ages often in a language older than words. For me this is a far more intimate and incarnational way of thinking about, and experiencing, prayer. And it's made the Apostle Paul's admonishment to "pray without ceasing" more understandable and doable.
Student: Prayer I understand, and I look forward to approaching it anew thinking of it as a cell in the body communicating with the body as a whole. I've got to go in a few minutes but I have one last question.
Michael: Go for it.
Student: I thought of this when you were explaining how The Great Story enriches your Christianity. I was wondering if the reverse was true, too.
Michael: Yes, it is.
Student: So my question then is: How has the Bible, or your Christian faith, enriched your understanding or experience of the universe? Can you give me some examples?
Michael: Great question!
I'm grateful to God, beyond words, for the opportunity over many years of having had truly positive religious experiences in many different Christian contexts, and even a few non-Christian ones. The range is rather astonishing to me when I look back over my life.
I've felt God's presence in "high church" Roman Catholic and Episcopal masses, as well as in Baptist tent meetings and Pentecostal "shoutin 'n shakin" revival services. I've sat quietly in Quaker Meetings and sang Methodist hymns at the top of my lungs. I've been blessed by the positive, practical Christianity celebrated in Unity churches, and by the wisdom of 70- to 90-year old Congregational and Baptist women in a Bible study group. With children in my arms, I've danced joyfully to songs of praise and worship during Charismatic worship services, and I've stood awestruck, speechless, inside the womb of majestic Cathedrals. I've prayed the rosary with heart and had a mystical experience kneeling before a statue of the Blessed Virgin.
I've heard God speak to me through the Bible so clearly, so directly, and so profoundly, that I immediately burst into tears and have never been the same since. And I've had similar experiences participating in a Native American Sweat Lodge ceremony and on a silent retreat facilitated by world-renowned Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. I've broken bread with Anabaptist Mennonites who live the message of New Testament community like I've never seen anyone live before, or since. And I've had the honor and privilege of pastoring three mainline Protestant churches, seeking to witness their faith in embodied ways in their respective communities.
Given this wealth and diversity of experience, I rarely get caught anymore thinking that there is only one right, true version of Christianity, or any other religion for that matter. It has also helped me realize that it's the experience of faith, or trust, that really matters, not my beliefs about God or anything else. It's the experience of ongoing forgiveness and reconciliation that determines the quality of my life, not how often I go to church or read the Bible. My eternal destiny is impacted far more by the integrity with which I live and relate to others, and by the love and generosity I exhibit in the real world, than it is by whether or not I've been baptized or whether I've been "saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Ghost."
Having said this, I must quickly add, however, that our beliefs do make a difference, a real difference, as does the frequency and depth of relationship with a supportive community and the frequency of inspirational sustenance. But coming back to your question: How has my walk with Christ, and my Christian experience, enriched my understanding and experience of the cosmos? In a word, profoundly!
Because I've been blessed in so many ways, and in such a diversity of Christian and non-Christian settings, and because I've tasted God's love, presence, and power in each, as well as countless times outdoors in "nature", I now pretty much expect to see God all day when I wake up in the morning. Thanks to the experiences I've had, both inside and outside houses of worship, I can usually remember without too much difficulty that my Lord is present in every creature human and non-human especially in the hearts of those who suffer. When I look into the eyes of another person, or into the face of an another animal, or at a majestic tree or mountain, I often remind myself that I am seeing a face of The Holy One: a unique expression of divine grace and beauty. And I am humbled by this awareness.
A second way that my Christian experience enriches my understanding of the universe is that, because of my faith, I have had no trouble at all accepting that the cosmos is going somewhere that there's a direction to evolution. It's been easy for me to embrace the idea that the universe (God's body) is becoming more complex, more aware, and more intimate with itself over time, and that we humans are an important part of that process.
The gospel of Jesus Christ has also helped me nurture a habit of trusting that "the universe is conspiring on my behalf." And I really do believe this. In fact, it's probably the single most useful and empowering belief that I have. Notice that I didn't say "true"; I said "useful and empowering." In a nestedly creative cosmos, I really don't think it's possible to know whether Reality is conspiring on my behalf or not. But if I can't know for certain that it is, then I also can't know for certain that it's not. So by choosing to believe and act as though it is, Wow, do I love my life!
Student: I like what you say about trusting Reality. Can you give me an example of how this works.
Michael: Well, when something painful, or "negative," or "bad" happens to me, thanks to this belief I virtually always stop and ask myself, "Okay, how might this be the universe conspiring on my behalf? What's the gift and the blessing here?" As soon as I pose these questions, I naturally start filtering for how this painful or difficult experience might actually be a contribution to my life, a blessing from God. And guess what? Even without an answer coming to mind, if I've really, seriously entertained the question, within a minute or two my feelings shift, often dramatically. I let go of wishing that it didn't happen. My resentment, frustration, anger, (or whatever), almost immediately evaporates. I start getting curious. Sometimes I'll even laugh at myself. And very quickly, more than 90% of the time within a matter of minutes, I'm back to trust and appreciation. It's become a very empowering habit.
This is going to sound arrogant, but I don't mean it that way at all. Integrating a Christ-like faith and The Great Story has made me less judgmental, more forgiving, and more joyful and full of energy than almost anyone else I know and I'm quite certain that virtually all my friends and family, those who know me best, would say the same thing about me. It's not anything I've done, of course. I can't take credit for being this way. It's purely God's grace, I know. But I also know that how I look at the world, while professing Jesus as my heart, definitely helps makes it possible.
Related to this, another way that my walk with the Lord enriches my view of evolution, and I think one of the reasons why I was so immediately turned on by The Great Story in the first place, is that, thanks to the biblical witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the realization of the spiritual truth of this story in my own heart and experience, I find it pretty natural to look for the gift and the blessing in our cultural and global problems and crises as well.
When I look at the history of 13 billion years of divine creativity as a sacred story, I can see clearly how God seems to delight in taking bad news and turning it into new growth and new possibilities. There is no example in evolutionary history that I am aware of in which chaos, violence, destruction, and even mass extinction all a natural part of life were not followed by a burst of creativity and an explosion of new opportunities. From God's perspective, from the perspective of the Whole (that Reality which embraces and includes, yet transcends, everything else visible and invisible), bad news is almost always good news in disguise. On the other side of the cross is resurrection power, freedom, and new life in Christ. This insight, central to the Great News of The Great Story, will be increasingly appreciated by millions of people around the world, Christian and non-Christian alike, as the revelation that we are part of an intelligent, creative cosmos becomes widely known and accepted, not merely as a religious insight, but as the REAL truth the gospel truth!
The future is surely in God's hands. But, praise God, we get to play a vital role in its emergence! We get to be the fingers and muscles of God's hands, if only we have the humility to trust what God is doing and the courage see things anew. And if we are willing to follow our hearts (where the risen Christ literally dwells) no matter what the cost or circumstances. The fact of the matter is this: to the degree that each one of us pursues our spiritual calling that is, where our own great joy and the world's great need intersect then, by grace, we will participate (and glory!) in "the coming kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven."
May it be so for you!
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