We’ve seen two historical contrasting approaches to a religious viewpoint of the natural world, particularly the theory of evolution, from Rev. Jabez Sunderland and French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and now we come to the present.
The 2005 report from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal, Engaging our Theological Diversity (very long PDF), also tackled this question. They took statements from current members of Unitarian Universalist congregations, conducted surveys, and looked at Unitarian Universalist publications, and came up with this summary of a typical Unitarian Universalist understanding of the universe.
How Do We Understand the Universe?
from Engaging Our Theological Diversity, the report of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal
One of the primary functions of religion is to provide people with a framework for understanding the physical world and their place in it. The Principle that most clearly expresses contemporary Unitarian Universalist cosmology is belief in the interdependent web of all existence. This guiding Principle fuels much of modern-day UU social justice and advocacy work related to environmentalism, animals’ rights, economic injustice, and homelessness, among other worthy and related causes.
The current UU understanding of an interdependent and interconnected cosmos has evolved from a theology that we can trace back through our Christian roots to the Old Testament book of Genesis. Genesis is the cornerstone for some of the basic cosmology evident in all three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam): specifically, Genesis 1:24-31 and 9:1-17. The most common interpretations of Genesis hold that human beings are the pinnacle of all creation. We are God’s favored creatures, with everything in creation—all the resources and all the animals—existing for our explicit benefit. Competing liberal interpretations hold that human beings are the custodians of creation, and that our role as custodians invokes great responsibility as well as privilege. Regardless of the interpretation to which one subscribes, both interpretations create a human-centered cosmology—humans are the centerpiece of creation.
These traditional Jewish and Christian understandings of creation were called into question with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. With the publication of the discoveries of Isaac Newton in his Principia Mathematica in 1687, people began to believe in a “natural law” that governed all aspects of nature and human existence; the challenge for rational thinkers was merely to discover these laws, be they moral or scientific.
The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the development of new scientific understandings that pushed Western thought even further away from the traditional human-centered understanding of the universe. Charles Darwin (brother of a Unitarian minister) published The Origin of Species in 1860. Darwin’s book helped fuel a decades-long debate on evolutionary theory and the origins of the human species. Our location in an interconnected evolutionary chain implied a cosmology in which humans are merely one piece of creation rather than its centerpiece. Leaders from both the Unitarian and Universalist movements came to be important supporters of Darwinian evolutionary theory and all that it implied (Ernest Cassa (ed.), Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith, (Boston: Skinner House, 1971), 36-37).
These legacies from scientific rationalism, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism (which returned mystery and emotion to the equation) led to Unitarian and Universalist views of a universe in which humans are a part of an interconnected, sacred whole. Today, many UUs find expression of this belief through Eastern philosophies (such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism), Earth-centered traditions, and Native American spiritualities. While the Unitarian Universalist understanding of our place in the universe, our cosmology, is not unique to Unitarian Universalism, it is worth noting that UUs do have a cosmology, and that it stands in contrast to the most common interpretations emerging out of the Abrahamic faiths.
This theological evolution was borne out by the Commission’s study. Of all the questions asked in the theological survey, “The natural world is a web of interdependent connections, of which we are inescapably a part,” is the largest piece of common ground for both ministers and laity. Over 90 percent of respondents, across all demographics, asserted that this understanding is highly important to their faith. The rise of religious naturalism as an identifier led to the adoption of the seventh Principle in 1984, and interest has accelerated in the decades since.
One GA participant spoke of “the experience of the presence of life within me, within the present moment, within all people and creatures, and intuition that we all share this life and are intimately interconnected in a fragile and durable network of love.” Another wrote, “When we have a felt connection to the interdependent web of existence, we trigger a natural inclination to become our best selves. I call the fact of interconnectedness and our inclination to be our best selves God.”
UUs’ experience of the natural world has led us to acknowledge that we are all profoundly interdependent. The first woman astronomer, Unitarian Maria Mitchell, wrote 150 years ago,
Small as is our whole system compared with the infinitude of creation, brief as is our life compared with the cycles of time, we are so tethered to all by the beautiful dependencies of law, that not only the sparrow’s fall is felt to the uttermost bound but the vibrations set in motion by the words that we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt through all time (Singing the Living Tradition, reading 537).
The statement We do not live in a “two-story” universe where what is “natural” is separate from what is “holy” or “sacred” is also an area of common ground. Alice Blair Wesley reminds us, “Channing and many other Unitarian teachers of their generation labored all their lives to proclaim: The extraordinary is but the unfolding of what can reasonably be shown by experience to be implicit in the ordinary” (Alice Blair Wesley, “Time and Character in Unitarian Universalist Faith” The Unitarian Universalist Christian 44, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 46). UU religious naturalist and professor of religion Jerome Stone writes, “My naturalistic outlook suggests to me that the deeper vision we seek to attain is not of another realm or of invisible spirits, but rather a revised insight into importance of things. There is a ‘depth,’ not apart from, but right in the midst of things” (Jerome Stone, “What Is Religious Naturalism?” Religious Humanism, vol. 35, nos. 1 & 2 (2001): 67).
Source: The 2005 report from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal, Engaging our Theological Diversity (very long PDF), pages 72-74.Tags: connection, History, mystery, nature, principles, reason, science, theology