The latest issue of the print magazine UUWorld carries an article on Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. Link You might want to read the article first, before reading my commentary on it.
Dowd and Barlow are Unitarian Universalists and itinerant preachers who preach the gospel of (drumroll please) evolution. Taking their inspiration from Brian Swimme’s “Great Story” of evolution from the beginnings of the cosmos through the evolution of life on our planet and culminating in human beings, Dowd and Barlow travel from place to place telling this “Great Story,” and telling people that religion can be founded on the story of evolution.
Not necessarily a bad start at theology, but the UUWorld article, and other things I’ve read about Dowd and Barlow, seem to indicate a number of serious problems with their thoughts. I’ll briefly point out some of the problems that come up in the UUWorld magazine, recognizing that I haven’t heard Dowd and Barlow directly, and recognizing that I’m filtering what I know about them through my own early attempts at ecological ethics.
1. Problems with meta-narratives
I’m always distrustful of grand, sweeping religious stories that claim to explain everything. Using the language of post-modernism, these grand, sweeping stories can be called “meta-narratives.” One thing meta-narratives seem to do is to blur important differences in order to further the agenda of the meta-narrative. Unfortunately, I think Dowd and Barlow are guilty of this. Here’s a quote from the UUWorld article:
Like Unitarian Universalists, the Great Story movement embraces both theists and atheists. Dowd has coined the term “creatheist,” to describe both religious orientations within the movement. He pronounces the word creatheist to refer to himself, a theist who “knows that the whole of reality is creative and that humans are an expression of this divine process.” And he calls Barlow a “creatheist — an atheist who knows the same thing.”
Back in 1974, in an article titled “Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows,” Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones pointed out that most liberal theists were a lot closer to humanists (or call them atheists if you will), than they were to most conservative theists. Jones said that the liberal theists could be called “humanocentric theists,” that is, while they believed in God they also felt human beings had the freedom and autonomy to make serious moral choices; life was not all about “God’s will” being done. However, while Jones pointed out that humanocentric theists and (humanocentric) religious humanists shared many characteristics, he also identified serious differences between them, including:
At the bottom of the humanist world view hovers the opinion that ultimate reality may not be intrinsically benevolent or supportive of human welfare. Recognizing that Godâ€™s benevolence is not self-evident and that every alleged instance of divine agape can also be interpreted as divine malice for humanity (cf. Camusâ€™s inverted interpretation of Golgotha in The Rebel), humanism permits but does not dictate a human response of rebellion as soteriologically authentic.
It sure sounds to me as if Dowd and Barlow think that ultimate reality is on the benevolent end of the spectrum, which means their meta-narrative glosses over at least one crucial theological difference. Dowd and Barlow could learn from Jones, who does a far better job of reconciling humanists and theists while respecting their real differences. Dowd and Barlow could also benefit Jones’s ability to link theology to social justice and ethics.
2. Problems with ethics
If we look at Dowd and Barlow from the point of view of environmental ethics, another interesting problematic emerges. Patrick Curry, in his new book Environmental Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge, U.K., and Malden, Mass., Polity Press, 2006), makes the case for the existence of at least three strains of ecological ethics:
- a “light green” ethics which is human-centered
- a “mid-green” ethics where “value is not restricted to humans but does not extend all the way to ecosystems”
- a “dark green or deep (ecocentric)” ethics which extends ethics to holistic entities, i.e., entire eco-systems.
By Curry’s standards, Dowd and Barlow’s “Great Story” seems to privelege human beings enough so that it would be considered “mid-green” or even “light green.” From my own dark-green point of view, Curry helps me understand why I have some discomfort with Dowd and Barlow: their theology seems unlikely to satisfy me. More to the point, I find that there is an existing ecological theology within Unitarian Universalism, open to the insights of science (as any ecological theology must be), that is in fact “dark green.”
In his discussion of ecocentric spirituality, Curry notes:
The understanding of the sacred that can make a positive and effective contribution to ecocentric ethics, then, is a valuing of Earth which is:
- pluralist (while allowing commonalities, with other people in other places also valuing nature in other ways, to emerge):
- local (while allowing connections with those others elsewhere);…
(I need hardly to point out that Dowd and Barlow’s “Great Story” is problematic when judged against these two criteria.) Curry identifies several current “deep green” schools of ethics which would tie in nicely with an ecocentric spirituality, including ecofeminism.
Ecofeminism is already widespread within Unitarian Universalism, already linked with spirituality and religion, and already deeply linked to our other historic justice concerns. I don’t see that Dowd and Barlow make a strong enough case for adopting their “Great Story” theology over ecofeminism; nor do I find that their theology has as much to offer in the realm of ethics as does ecofeminism.
3. Problems with their religious education proposals
One of Dowd and Barlow’s claims is that they are coming along and linking science to religious education. According to the article in UUWorld:
If children can learn at church that they descend from the stars and that their ancestors once swam in the sea, Barlow says, perhaps they’ll see there’s no fundametnal contradiction between having a religious understanding of the world — one that stands in awe of creation and finds meaning and value in existence — and embracing the profound offerings of science.
An admirable goal. It happens to be a goal that Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist religious educators have been following for at least the past six decades.
A quick review of historic Unitarian Universalist curriculum would have showed Dowd and Barlow that the New Beacon Series of religious education curriculum, overseen by Sophia Fahs, included many titles that incorporated science into religious education programs as early as the 1940’s (Fahs herself was incorporating science into religious education in her own non-denominational Sunday school as early as the 1920’s). In the 1960’s, there was the Beacon Science Series. You could argue that the most influential curriculum in our denomination’s history, About Your Sexuality, was deeply grounded in science. And still in print today is Peg Gooding’s Stepping Stone Year, with a great unit on science and cosmology. So really, Dowd and Barlow offer nothing new to Unitarian Universalists.
There’s a deeper problem here, though. In my own personal experience, I had lots of science in my Unitarian Universalist religious education. I have fond, albeit vague, memories of the Beacon Science Series. When I got into my teens, I heard plenty of sermons on the compatibility of science and religion. However, speaking from my own experience as a religious educator for over a decade, and as someone who was raised a Unitarian Universalist, I would have to say that grounding religious education in science is not sufficient. Science is based on lab work, reproducible results, close observation, etc. — if you want to set up labs in your Sunday school space, go right ahead. But science does not answer many of the questions and concerns children have, like: “Who was Jesus, anyway?”, “I felt sad when my pet died,” or “Why is there hatred in the world?” As the great Quaker theologian Rufus Jones once wrote,
“The poet may know of flowers which ‘can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,’ but science discovers no such flowers in its field. Its flowers are amazingly complex, but they call for no handkerchief. Rufus Jones, Spiritual Reformers, p. xvii
Good religious education calls for a handkerchief.
Nor do I feel that Brian Swimme’s “Great Story” of creation provides very much substance for religious education. Someone once suggested I use it in a religious education program, and so I looked it over carefully, but it just didn’t stand up to existing Unitarian Unviersalist religious education materials.
Through their work, Dowd and Barlow are getting many people in Unitarian Universalism excited about doing some new theology. For that, they should be commended. I hope they will take into account existing theologies (and existing religious education materials) that mesh quite well with science, and indeed cover a far broader range of science than they do; they will be able to make their ideas go further that way. I hope, too, they move beyond their limited theological idea of incorporating the insights of science into religion, because that’s pretty old hat to Unitarian Universalists, and into a wider notion of an ecological theology.
They’ve made an acceptable start — now it’s time for Dowd and Barlow to do the hard work to crank it up to the next level.