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Scientific Theism and Transcendentalism

Here is a new chapter in my book on UU theologies about Scientific Theism.


Annie Dillard, in her book titled, Teaching A Stone To Talk, tells us of a neighbor of hers who was trying to do just that. He patiently and persistently tried to coax words out of a stone.

With the development of the scientific method in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and the huge advances in human understanding of the natural world that it made possible, religion and science began to clash. Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of the laws of gravity and his understanding of basic physics called into question the idea of a supernatural being whose will ordered the world. Natural law replaced the notion of a capricious God. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution challenged the belief in the Biblical story of an earth and all her creatures created by God in only 6 days. Freud’s discovery of depth psychology and the realms of the human unconscious put on its head an understanding of a human soul that was immortal yet tainted by original sin. Modern fundamentalism developed in the 19th Century as a defense of traditional religion against the emerging scientific world view. This battle of world views continues today.

One of the distinctive facts about both Unitarianism and Universalism is that both religions did not struggle with the emerging scientific insights but welcomed them. Both religions had a positive and optimistic view of humans and human nature and the new evolutionary science seemed to give warrant to liberal religion’s view of human perfectibility. The ability of humans to discover the marvels of nature through human effort and human intelligence was seen as a verification of this optimistic theology. In the late 19th Century the motto of religious liberals was expressed by the Rev. John Freeman Clark as, “The progress of mankind, onward and upward forever.” From this understanding emerged a UU theology called, variously, scientific, naturalistic or universal theism.

The roots of scientific theism and Unitarian Universalist nature mysticism can be traced to the New England Transcendentalist movement of the 1830s, 40s and 50s. This was a movement which scholars identify as the first truly American philosophy, but the movement was much more broadly based than in the disciplines of philosophy and theology. It influenced literature, social theory, and educational theory and led to movements of feminism, educational reform and labor reform as well as giving a major boost to the effort to abolish slavery. The incubator for Transcendentalism was a discussion group of Unitarian ministers who decided to publish a magazine called The Dial. The intellectual leader of the movement was a former parish minister, poet, essayist and sometime supply preacher named Ralph Waldo Emerson. If the purpose of scripture is to reveal divine truth, then for Emerson nature is scripture as well, because nature is permeated with the presence of the divine. Since human beings are a part of nature, we too are embodiments of divine truth. For Emerson and the Transcendentalists, God is in all and apprehended in everything. Stones do talk. We need to understand their special language and how they are a part of the divine unity we see in nature.

Scientific theism sees in all religions, in nature and in all forms of human endeavor the work of a divine intelligence. This is not the personal god of the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps theologian Paul Tillich expressed it best when he defined God as the ground of being. My colleague Forrest Church wrote, “God is not God’s name but our name for that which is greater than all yet present in each.” The technical philosophical terms for scientific theism are pantheism and panentheism. Pantheism is the belief that God is in all parts of the universe. Panentheism is the belief that God is in all of the universe but is much greater than it. God is not only in what is, but in what was and is also in all possibilities of existence.

One version of scientific theism is called Process Theology. Many UU scholars have been prominent in the development of Process theology. In the understanding of process theology, God is a verb, an ever changing process, more than a being. Because humans and other beings in the universe have freedom and choice there is a certain amount of randomness in the universe, hence there arises what we humans would perceive as evil and suffering. Since God wants beings to have freedom, and freedom means choice, this means that God is not omnipotent or all powerful. All individual entities participate in the whole of existence. While God is not all powerful, God is love, and love means freedom. Love cannot be forced. So while there is some chaos in the universe because of free choice, God is always working to heal, connect, reconcile, harmonize, transform, and complete the universe and all entities within it.

Scientific theism is opposed to a reductionist interpretation of the universe. It seeks to take us beyond the mechanistic view of reality that the Newtonian understanding of physics had led to in the past, to take into account the universe that has been opened to us by Einstein and the physics which has followed. Scientific theism rejects the notion that the universe has been created by random chance, the idea that enough chimpanzees on enough typewriters would eventually be bound to create the works of Shakespeare. Scientific theism is post-Newtonian. Rev. William Houff, a research chemist and UU minister asks what the new physics tells us is the “real stuff”, the basic reality from which the universe is made. The Newtonian idea that the real stuff is matter has been discredited by Probability Theory and other advances in physics. The new physics shows us that the “real stuff” is consciousness. Consciousness proceeds matter. The universe is a process.

While the language of physics is mathematics, physicist David Bohm has asserted that in the language of words, physics can posit two orders of existence, the explicate or unfolded order and the implicate or enfolded order. The explicate order is that which we experience in ordinary consciousness, dominated by time and space. The implicate order is an order where time and space do not exist, but what exists and all possibilities of existence. This creates what Bohm called a holographic universe, in which the whole universe is contained in each of its parts. If a holographic plate is put in a projector, it produces a three dimensional image, but that is not the most interesting thing about a hologram. Say the hologram is of a person. If the holographic plate is shattered and only a fragment is put in the projector, we would not see only a part of that person, such as a head or foot, but a three dimensional image of the whole person, not quite as distinct as the original image. Bohm’s colleague Karl Pribram, a biophysicist, has posited that the human brain is a hologram, containing within it the entire universe. This idea lends a great profundity to the biblical notion that humans are made in the image of God. Scientific discoveries in physics, biology, brain studies and consciousness research continue to blow apart the ‘common sense’, Newtonian view of reality upon which much of traditional theology is based.

Who then are we humans in this picture. Are we naked apes or incomplete angels? Scientific theism sees human beings as potential channels for the energy of creation. In the words of Robert Terry Weston:

---Robert Terry Weston....

Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here we have come, stardust and sunlight, mingling thru time and thru space. Out of the stars we have come, up from time...Mystery hidden in mystery, back thru all time;mystery rising from rocks in the storm and the sea. Out of the stars, rising from rocks and the sea, kindled by sunlight on earth, arose life. Ponder this thing in your heart; ponder with awe: Out of the sea to the land, out of the shallows came ferns. Out of the sea to the land, up from darkness to light, rising to walk and to fly, out of the sea trembled life. Ponder this this thing in your heart, life up from sea: eyes to behold, throats to sing, mates ot love. Life from the sea, warmed by the sun, washed by the rain, life from within, giving birth, rose to love. This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the earth; life upon earth rose to love. This is the marvel of humanity, rising to see and to know; out of your heart cry wonder: sing that you live.

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