What Are We Pointing to with the Word ‘God’?

by Michael Dowd

The following was written by evolutionary theologian and bioregionalist, Gene Marshall. It originally appeared as Chapter 4 in his 1985 book, “A Primer on Radical Christianity,” and is one of the most influential essays I’ve ever read. Gene and his wife, Joyce, have a number of excellent publications, all of which can be found at their Realistic Living website.
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“Do you believe in God?” asks A. “What do you mean by God?” responds B.
A:  Oh, you know, the Supreme Being.
B:  What do you mean by being? And what kind of being would you imagine is supreme?
A:  Oh, come on. You know. The Supreme Being is the creator of everything. Surely you don’t believe we all got here by accident.
B:  Oh, so you want to know if I hypothesize another world in which some invisible being causes everything that goes on in this world?
A:  Well, I don’t know if God causes everything. Some things are caused by Satan, and some by Nature. But yes. Do you believe there is a God in heaven, who causes many good things and got this universe started in the first place?
B:  I don’t believe there is another world with any kind of being in it — God, Satan, Angel, Goddess, or anything else. So, no. It can confidently say that I don’t believe in what you mean by “God.”
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Something similar to this conversation goes on throughout our culture. “A” is that person among us who tries to use the two-story worldview of Christian heritage in a literal manner. “B” is that person among us who is thoroughly committed to the one-story worldview, the way of viewing reality that now is common in contemporary scientific culture. For many of us, this conversation between “A” and “B” goes on inside our heads.

The philosopher Susan K. Langer was the one who clarified for me how amazingly obvious it is that the questions we ask give more direction to our thinking than the answers we give. So what question do we use to approach the subject of God? Schubert Ogden, in an essay called, “The Reality of God”, asks and answers this question: “How can we picture the reality of God for people in this cultural setting?”(1) Ogden’s question ignores a far more pressing question: “What reality are we pointing to with the word God?

Hans Küng also ignores this question in his long, scholarly, and interesting book called, Does God Exist?(2) To focus on the question “Does God exist?” begs what I believe is the key question: “What reality is meant by the word God? Would we ever ask, “Does love exist?” or “Does water exist?” No, we feel something is strange about those questions. We just don’t think that way. Rather, we describe this clear, running, bubbling, boiling, freezing, raining, thirst-quenching substance and then we say, “That is what I mean by the word water.” When we talk of love, we describe specific interior human states and specific outward human behaviors and then say, “Those states and behaviors are what I mean by the word love? We might get into some strong arguments about what should be included or excluded from our use of the word love, but all the while we would know what we are talking about, and we would have no cause to ask, “Does love exist?”

Küng is one of the most progressive and well known Roman Catholic theologians alive. And Ogden, a Protestant, is likewise a known and accomplished scholar. I mention these two men to illustrate how deeply the whole Christian church is struggling with the word God. Both of these men are aware of many layers of the struggle and confusion surrounding the doctrine of God; yet both, I believe, are still trapped in confusing and obsolete ways of thinking about the subject.

What would it mean to approach the word God in the same way we approach the words water and love? Rudolf Bultmann, arguably the most influential theologian and New Testament scholar of the 20th century, did so in an essay called, “The Crisis of Faith.”(3) Instead of presupposing an idea of God, the existence of which can then be discussed, Bultmann says we must begin with our experience. He shows how every human being has experienced, or can experience, an obvious and unavoidable reality that Bultmann names God. He then asks, “Why name this reality God rather than something else?” And he also asks, “What does it mean for our whole lives to name this reality God?”

Bultmann raises another question: “Is this reality which I have named ‘God’ the same reality our biblical writings were pointing to with the word ‘God’?” Yes, is his answer. In all his work, Bultmann has this basic aim: allowing us to hear what the Bible is saying rather than using the Bible to support ideas we already have.

So how does Bultmann use our everyday experience to help us see what he means and what the Bible means by the word God?

Read More »

God: Personification ≠ Person

by Michael Dowd

God is a personification, not a person — an undeniable interpretation, not an otherworldly tyrant. If we fail to grasp this, we cannot possibly understand religion or religious differences.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” ~ Philip K. Dick

Birth, life, death, the cycles and rhythms of Nature, the elemental forces of the Universe: these are inescapably real. Like it or not, we have always found ourselves in relationship with a Reality we could neither predict nor control. And given the nature of the human brain, there is one thing that people in every culture and throughout history have instinctively done: We’ve used metaphors and analogies to refer and relate to that which is unavoidably, undeniably real and/or mysterious. Indeed, it seems that we can’t not do this. Consciously or unconsciously, we regularly interpret our life and our world using relational metaphors.

As Stewart Guthrie shows in his acclaimed book, “Faces in the Clouds” (Oxford University Press), all images and concepts of God are meaning-rich interpretations and personifications. Images and concepts that evoke trust and the courage to forge ahead no matter what the obstacles are immensely useful. Practical realism in this way trumps factual realism if the mindset induced leads to greater evolutionary fitness.

Factual Truth vs. Practical Truth

In his 2003 book, “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society,” David Sloan Wilson (Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University) draws a crucial distinction between “practical realism” and “factual realism.” Practical realism, also known as practical truth, is that which reliably produces personal wholeness and social coherence by motivating people to think and behave in ways that benefit themselves and the larger community. Factual realism (factual truth) is that which is evidentially real. Wilson writes,

What do I mean by factual and practical realism? A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (e.g., there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world.

An example of why practical realism historically has trumped factual realism is this: In group-to-group conflicts, any culture that offers the promise of an afterlife to those who heroically martyr themselves will likely triumph over an army of atheists who have the rational belief that death marks the absolute end of individual existence. Over the eons of human evolution, such selective processes would tend to favor the maintenance of beliefs in that which was felt experientially as real, whether or not those beliefs had any basis in measurable, factual reality. David Sloan Wilson also writes,

“If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective.”

Religion Is About Right Relationship to Reality, Not the Supernatural

“The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed, but if we live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), then we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle.” ~ Loyal Rue

All religions offer maps of what is real (how things are) and what is important (which things matter). So contends philosopher of religion Loyal Rue in his 2006 book, “Religion Is Not About God” (book review and YouTube intro here). Religions foster outlooks and practices that help adherents live in right relationship with each other, with society, and with Nature as a whole. Here again, so long as the stories and strictures do not contradict lived experience, the usefulness of the images and concepts are what matters most — not their truth value.

Thus Darwin didn’t kill God. To the contrary, he and Alfred Russel Wallace offered the first glimpse of the real Creator behind and beyond our species’ myriad mythic portrayals of how things came to be.

In addition to Stewart Guthrie, scholars as diverse as Joseph CampbellHuston SmithPaul TillichRudolf Bultmann, Sallie McFague, William GrassieGene and Joyce Marshall, Matthew FoxRobert BellahRoy RappaportAnn TavesAndrew Newberg, Pascal BoyerJustin BarrettDaniel Dennett, and Michael Shermer remind us that we cannot understand religion and religious diversity if we ignore how the human mind instinctively relationalizes (personifies) reality when interpreting and making meaning of its experience. In the words of psychologist James Hillman, “Personifying is the heart’s mode of knowing.”

Evidence from a wide range of disciplines, from cognitive neuroscience and anthropology to cross-cultural studies of the world’s myths and religions, all support the claim that “God” is (and always has been) an interpretation (a personification), not a person. Only in this way can one make sense of the thousands of competing stories as to what God (or the gods, or the Goddess) supposedly said or did. As I regularly remind audiences…

Poseidon was not the god of the oceans, as if a supernatural entity separate from water were looking down from on high or rising from the deep. Poseidon was the personification of the incomprehensibly powerful and capricious seas. Similarly, Sol was not the spirit of the Sun, as if there were a separation between the two. Sol was a mythic proper name for that seemingly eternal, life-giving source of heat and light. By saying “Sol,” “Helios,” or some other sacred name, our ancestors experienced that reality as a “Thou” to be related to — to be revered and sometimes feared.

Whenever any story or any scriptural passage claims that “God said this” or “God did that,” what follows isalways an interpretation — specifically, an interpretation of what some person or group of people thought or felt or sensed or wished that Reality/Life/Nature/the Universe was “saying” or “doing,” and almost always as justification after the fact or to make a theological point. Such subjectively meaningful claims are never objective, measurable truth.

Indeed, had CNN or ABC News been there to record the moment of “divine revelation” there would have been nothing out of the ordinary or miraculous to report on the evening news — nothing other than what was coming out of someone’s mouth, or pen, or whatever folks wrote with back then. If we fail to grasp this, not only will we trivialize the very notion of the divine but, more tragically still, we will miss what Reality/God is “saying and doing” today. As I wrote in the preface of “Thank God for Evolution“:

How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? And why do different peoples answer these questions in different ways? The big questions that children have always asked and will continue to ask cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Ancient cultures gave so-called supernatural answers to these questions, but those answers were not truly supernatural — they were prenatural. Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It was not just difficult to understand infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Without an evolutionary worldview, it is similarly impossible to understand ourselves, our world, and what is required for humanity to survive.

Supernatural Is Unnatural Is Uninspiring

Everything shifts when we move from a worldview given by tradition and authority to one based on facts and empirical evidence. For example, evidence suggests that the only place that the so-called supernatural realm has ever existed has been in the minds and hearts (and speech) of human beings — and only quite recently. As Benson Saler revealed in his landmark 1977 American Anthropological Association’s Ethos paper, “Supernatural As a Western Category,” the very notion of supernatural, in opposition to the natural, is a Western invention.

The “supernatural realm” came into being as a thought form after we began to understand things in a natural, scientific way. Only when the concept of “the natural” emerged was it deemed necessary by some to speak of “the supernatural”: that which was imagined to be above or outside of nature. Prior to this, people all over the world used a blend of day and night language (reflecting their daytime and nighttime experiences) to speak about the nature of reality. But as we all know, when we fly in our dreams we’re not having a supernatural or miraculous experience; we’re having an experience common to the dream-state.

As we have collectively learned ever more about the natural, the supernatural has become ever less. Supernatural and unnatural are, after all, synonyms. Anything supposedly supernatural is, by definition, unnatural. And most people find unnatural relatively uninspiring when they really stop and think about it.

It should not surprise us that young people are turning their backs on religion by the millions and that the New Atheists are riding bestseller lists when “the Gospel,” God’s supposed Good News for all of humanity, is reduced to this:

An unnatural king who occasionally engages in unnatural acts sends his unnatural son to Earth in an unnatural way. He’s born through an unnatural birth, lives an unnatural life, performs all sorts of unnatural deeds, and is killed, naturally. He then unnaturally rises from the dead in order to redeem humanity from an unnatural curse brought about by an unnaturally talking snake. After forty days of unnatural appearances to some of his followers he unnaturally zooms off to heaven to return to his unnatural father, sit on an unnatural throne, and unnaturally judge the living and the dead. And if you profess to believe in all this unnatural activity, you and your fellow believers get to go to an unnaturally boring place for an unnaturally long period of time while everyone else suffers an unnatural, torturous hell forever.

Why It Matters How We Think of God and Revelation

Why call what is fundamentally, inescapably real “God”?

As it turns out, how we name Ultimacy (and where we imagine It/Him/Her residing) makes a world of difference in our experience of life and one another and in how we relate to our world.

If we imagine God as an otherworldly person, for example, then we may be contributing — albeit unintentionally — to our species’ demise. As renowned systems thinker Gregory Bateson warned:

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation, and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you claim all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your people against the environment of other social units, other races, and the brutes and vegetables. If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate or simply of overpopulation and overgrazing.

Thomas Berry, my mentor, expressed a similar prophetic sentiment when he said:

The world we live in is an honorable world. To refuse this deepest instinct of our being, to deny honor where honor is due, to withdraw reverence from divine manifestation, is to place ourselves on a head-on collision course with the ultimate forces of the Universe. This question of honor must be dealt with before any other question. We miss both the intrinsic nature and the magnitude of the issue if we place our response to the present crises of our planet on any other basis. It is not ultimately a political or economic or scientific or psychological issue. It is ultimately a question of honor. Only the sense of the violated honor of Earth and the need to restore this honor can evoke the understanding as well as the energy needed to carry out the renewal of the planet in any effective manner.

Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, wrote an important essay in 1931 titled, “The Crisis of Faith.” In it, he moves discussion of God beyond beliefs to universal experience. Moreover, he claims that such a seemingly modern and liberal view of God was actually the norm for peoples everywhere in pre-modern times. The essence of Bultmann’s argument is that faith has virtually nothing to do with beliefs. Beliefs are actually the antithesis of faith.

Beliefs tend to be attachments of the mind to something being a certain way. In contrast, faith is synonymous with trust — trusting what is beyond one’s comprehension or control. One great benefit of this shift from belief to trust is that the compulsion to argue about doctrinal issues and interpretations melts away.

I foresee that within a few generations the concept of a personal God imaged as an unnatural Supreme Being with both the best and the worst of human traits — now the hallmark of fundamentalist religion — will be replaced by a reality-based view of God. A personified Ultimacy congruent with modern sensibilities simply cannot have the deranged personality and character flaws of a Bronze Age warlord. God is no longer acceptable as a kind of cosmic terrorist: “Believe as I tell you to believe or I will torture you forever.”

Thus from an evidential standpoint, we will finally come to celebrate that Ultimacy has no character traits or personality whatsoever, other than what we ourselves project. God is a personification, not a person… Hallelujah!

This fundamental shift in the “root metaphor” of the Abrahamic traditions will, I predict, be seen historically as a profound theological transformation. This shift, and what follows naturally from it, will also go a long way toward reconciling science and religion. It will do this not by accommodating science to religion, but by naturalizing, REALizing, religion. Such a shift compels a serious upgrade of our map of reality — opening a door to detecting “God’s ways” and “God’s guidance” no longer in ancient texts but via the collective and ongoing learnings of the self-correcting, global scientific tradition. Said another way, facts are God’s native tongue.

Make no mistake: There is one (and only one) God whose laws we must obey or whose “wrath” we will experience. Whether we refer to this inescapable Reality as “Abba,” “Allah,” “Lord,” “Nature” or in some other way, we must take seriously scientists’ prophetic warnings about climate change and the overall health of our world and life on Earth.

Like everything else under the sun, religions will either evolve or go extinct. “Getting right with God” means coming into right relationship with our planet and all its gloriously diverse species and cultures — honoring our inner and outer Nature, coming home to Reality. Imagining that it means anything less than this should be considered blasphemy.

“I believe in God, only I spell it N-A-T-U-R-E.” — Frank Lloyd Wright

[The above is cross-posted from my Huffington Post blog, here.]

Also see:

Practical Truth vs. Factual Truth

by Michael Dowd

In his acclaimed 2003 book, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, David Sloan Wilson, Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University, draws an important distinction between “practical truth” and “factual truth.” Practical truth is that which reliably produces personal wholeness and social coherence by motivating people to behave in ways that serve the wellbeing of the group. Factual truth is that which is measurably, scientifically real. Wilson’s perspective is framed within a larger theoretical discussion of group selection and multi-level selection:

What do I mean by factual and practical realism? A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (e.g., there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world.

Here’s an example of why practical realism has historically trumped factual realism…

In group to group conflicts, any culture that offers the promise of an afterlife to those who heroically martyr themselves will likely triumph over an army of atheists who have the rational belief that death marks the absolute end of individual existence. Over the eons of human evolution, such selective processes would tend to favour the maintenance of beliefs in that which was known experientially to be practically real, whether or not those beliefs had any basis in measurable, factual reality.

Elsewhere, David Sloan Wilson writes:

If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. It is the person who elevates factual truth above practical truth who must be accused of mental weakness from an evolutionary perspective.

The New Theism: Shedding Beliefs, Celebrating Knowledge

by Michael Dowd

A new breed of theist is emerging in nearly every denomination and religion. We are religious naturalists: Reality is our God, evidence is our scripture, integrity is our religion, and ensuring a healthy future for the entire body of life is our mission.

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Since April 2002, my science-writer wife Connie Barlow and I have traveled North America virtually non-stop. We have addressed more than 1,600 secular and religious groups of all kinds. Our goal is to communicate the inspiring and empowering side of science to as many people as possible.

Whether addressing evangelicals, atheists, UUs, or gurus, our message is always the same: We show how a deeply meaningful and fully evidence-based view of big history, human nature, and death can inspire people of all backgrounds and beliefs to live in integrity and cooperate in service of a just and thriving future for all.

Over the course of the last decade, in addition to talking with folks after our programs, Connie and I have lived with hundreds of people in their homes. We’ve thus been privileged to have intellectually rich and heartful conversations with countless kindred spirits—those, like us, whose passion lies at the intersection of science, inspiration, and sustainability.

The manifesto below reflects the ideas and input of many individuals, including a wide range of ministers. Some of us are part of The Clergy Letter Project, others are part of The Clergy Project, and all of us agree that traditional labels are no longer adequate.

Please consider the following but an early draft; this is an evolving document. Feedback is welcome. Post your questions, comments, criticisms, and especially your suggestions for improvement in the comments section below, or email me at Michael@ThankGodforEvolution.com.

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A Manifesto for the New Theism

A new breed of theist is emerging in nearly every denomination and religion across the globe, and many of us are grateful to the New Atheists for calling us out of the closet.

New Theists are not believers; we’re evidentialists. We value scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence over ancient texts, religious dogma, or ecclesiastical authority. We also value how an evidential worldview enriches and deepens our communion with God (Reality/Life/Universe/Wholeness/Great Mystery).

New Theists are not supernaturalists; we’re naturalists. We are inspired and motivated more by this world and this life than by promises of a future otherworld or afterlife. This does not, however, mean that we diss uplifting or transcendent experiences, or disvalue mystery. We don’t. But neither do we see the mystical as divorced from the natural.

As secular Jews differ from fundamentalist Jews, New Theists differ from traditional theists. While most of us value traditional religious language and rituals, and we certainly value community, we no longer interpret literally any of the otherworldly or supernatural-sounding language in our scriptures, creeds, and doctrines. Indeed, we interpret all mythic “night language” as one would interpret a dream: metaphorically, symbolically.

New Theists practice what might be called a “practical spirituality.” Indeed, spirituality for us mostly means the mindset, heart-space, and tools that assist us in growing in right relationship to reality and supporting others in doing the same.

New Theists are legion; we are diverse. Many of us continue to call ourselves Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Hindu. We may also self-identify as emergentist, evidentialist, freethinker, neo-humanist, pantheist, panentheist, or some other label.

New Theists don’t believe in God. We know that throughout human history the word “God” has always and everywhere been a meaning-filled interpretation, a mythic and inspiring personification of forces and realities incomprehensible in a pre-scientific age. We also know that interpretations and personifications don’t exist or fail to exist. Rather, they are more or less helpful, more or less meaningful, more or less inspiring.

New Theists view religion and religious language through an empirical, evidential, evolutionary lens, rather than through a theological or philosophical one. Indeed, an ability to distinguish subjective and objective reality—practical truth (that which reliably produces personal wholeness and social coherence) from factual truth (that which is measurably real) is one of the defining characteristics of New Theists.

New Theists are religious naturalists. We do not have a creed (we’re not that organized), but if we did, it might simply be this…

Reality is our God, evidence is our scripture, integrity is our religion, and ensuring a healthy future for the entire body of life is our mission.

By “reality is our God” we mean that honoring and working with what is real, as evidentially and collectively discerned, and creatively imagining what could be in light of this, is our ultimate concern and commitment.

By “evidence is our scripture” we mean that scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence provide a better understanding and a more authoritative map of how things are and which things matter (or what’s real and what’s important) than do ancient mythic writings or handed-down wisdom.

By “integrity is our religion” we mean that living in right relationship to reality and helping others and our species do the same is our great responsibility and joy.

By “ensuring a healthy future for the entire body of life is our mission” we mean that working with people of all backgrounds and beliefs in service of a vibrant future for planet Earth and all its gloriously diverse species (including Homo sapiens) is our divine calling and privilege.

Why call ourselves “theists” at all if we’re not supernatural, otherworldly believers? Simply this…

All theological “isms” (e.g., theism, deism, pantheism, atheism) came into being long before we had an evolutionary understanding of emergence. Therefore, all such concepts are outdated, misleading, and unnecessarily divisive if they are not redefined and reinterpreted in an evolutionary context. Other terms that have been offered, in addition to “New Theist,” include “evolutionary theist,” “naturalistic theist,” “evolutionary humanist,” “religious humanist,” “post-theist,” “mytheist,” and “creatheist” (pronounced variously, and humorously, as “crea-theist” or “cree-atheist”).

Labels are far less important to us than celebrating the fact that we are naturalists who wish to be counted among the religious of the world—no less than all others who are devoted to something sacred and larger than themselves.

Whatever our differences, we are evidentialists, committed to living upstanding moral lives in service of a just and thriving future for humanity and the larger body of life.

We see this as Religion 2.0.

* * *

Also see:

Religious Naturalism (also here, here, here, and here)

God Is Reality Personified, Not a Person

Religion Is About Right Relationship to Reality, Not the Supernatural

Supernatural Is Unnatural Is Uninspiring (When You Think About It) / Podcast

The Evidential Reformation: Humanity Comes of Age

Is Scientific Evidence Modern-Day Scripture?

Good and Bad Reasons for Believing – by Richard Dawkins

New Atheists Promote Bible Study?

Idolatry of the Written Word /  Podcast

An Evangelical Pentecostal Naturalist?

Death: Sacred, Necessary, Real

Is Scientific Evidence Modern-Day Scripture?

by Michael Dowd

The following is cross-posted from my HuffPost blog (where it has received 200 comments). It is also posted on Connie‘s and my Metanexus blog, here.

We are in the early stages of what I think historians will one day call religion’s Evidential Reformation. Increasingly, most of us (the devout included) relate to scientific, historic and cross-cultural evidence as more authoritative than the dictates of an all-male ecclesiastical body or a literalist reading of Scripture.

A good example of this is a recent Christianity Today cover story: “The Search for the Historical Adam,” which noted that a growing number of evangelical leaders are shedding a traditional reading of Genesis because of what’s been revealed through genetic evidence. In the words of Francis Collins and Karl Giberson, “Literalist readings of Genesis imply that God specifically created Adam and Eve, and that all humans are descended from these original parents. Such readings, unfortunately, do not fit the evidence.”

Just as Augustine reinterpreted Christianity in light of Plato in the fourth century, and Aquinas integrated Aristotle in the 13th, today there are dozens of theologians across the spectrum re-envisioning the Christian faith (including leading evangelicals). Whose ideas are they integrating now? Darwin, Einstein, Hubble, Wilson and all who have contributed to an evidence-based understanding of physical, biological and cultural evolution.

What many find most inspiring is also the least disputable: what we now know (not merely believe) about big history, human nature and the vital, creative role of death at all levels of the cosmos.

Big history, also known as the epic of evolution or Great Story, is the 13.7 billion year science-based tale of cosmic genesis — from the formation of galaxies and the origin of life, to the development of consciousness and culture, and onward to the emergence of ever-widening circles of care and concern. It is the first origin story in the history of humanity that is globally produced and derived entirely from evidence. Thanks to Bill Gates and David Christian’s Big History Project, it will soon be taught in high schools around the world.

Through big history we discover that we are made of stardust and that we’re related to everything. Indeed, we can think of our own species as the way the universe itself is awakening to the magnificence of its epic journey — a tale of increasing complexity and interdependence. Big history helps us appreciate the role of science in eliciting global wisdom and the role of religion in fostering cooperation at scales larger than our biological instincts could bring about.

Moving from our outer to inner world, science offers a no less remarkable insight. Within us are instincts shaped by millions of years of evolution. Alas, those deep-rooted, compelling drives are now dangerously out of sync with modern times.

To be blunt, the very same instincts that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce now make many of us fat, some addicted and most of us frivolous in how we use our downtime.

Instincts can hardly be faulted, however. We are surrounded by “supernormal stimuli“: processed foods, feel-good drugs and alcohol, Internet porn, romance novels, mind-numbing television, addictive gaming — none of which our ancestors ever had to face.

What this means is that without an evolutionary grasp of why our instincts and emotions are the way they are, it isn’t just difficult to wisely choose and live our priorities. It’s practically impossible.

Finally, all religious traditions have offered beliefs that helped their adherents face the inevitability of death — face it with trust. Thanks to science, we now have knowledge that does the same (and more!), while inviting the religious traditions to evolve.

Fundamentally, we learn (via many converging lines of evidence) that death is natural and generative at all levels of reality. Consider: without the death of ancient stars (which are cauldrons of chemical creation), the universe would support nothing more complex than the simplest gases: hydrogen and helium. Without the death of generation upon generation of simple forms of life, no descendants could have evolved eyes to see, colors to attract, emotions to feel. Without the death of fetal cells during the early stages of development, we would all be spheres. And of course, this: In a finite world, without the death of elders there would be no room for children.

Until we grasp that death is no less sacred than life, and that it plays a necessary role in an evolving cosmos, Christianity will be shackled by otherworldly notions of “the gospel,” medical technologies will prolong physical and emotional suffering, and the medical industry will inadvertently underwrite the widening gap between rich and poor.

Few things are more important than transforming how we think about our inner and outer nature, and our mortality. Thus far, the Evidential Reformation has been centered in science. We desperately need our faith traditions to celebrate this momentous time. We need all the experience that the traditions can muster to guide us today. For in truth, evidence is modern-day scripture.


• The Evidential Reformation: Humanity Comes of Age

• What’s Real? What’s Important?—Evidence as Divine Guidance

Day & Night Language and Public & Private Revelation