Saturday, June 26, 2010

#73. Two Important Books

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"Seen through sacred eyes, the entire history of the Universe can now be honored as the primary revelation of God."

Those words of Michael Dowd's are from his book Thank God for Evolution. They express well what he calls "a science-based religious perspective."

Dowd follows his words with a quote from Thomas Berry, in an expanded version of this very important thought. It is, in fact, what Thomas Berry names as the first principle of the New Cosmology.

Berry says, "The Universe, the solar system, and planet Earth, in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence, constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being."

Both quotations make the same extremely significant point about the convergence of science and religion: that the evolutionary universe-- as it has been revealed to us by modern science-- also reveals to us the Mystery behind the universe.

Modern science does so in a more thorough and basic way than the earlier religious traditions of the world were able to do. Those ancient religions just didn't have the information that's available to us today via humanity's scientific endeavors.


I mentioned Thank God for Evolution in the brief introduction I used for the three parts of my version of the Tao Te Ching that I offered in posts #69, #70 and #71. In that introduction I described it as an "extraordinarily comprehensive book on the new cosmology."

Michael Dowd is especially concerned with helping people with a religious background to see that the contemporary scientific view of the world-- far from being in conflict with religion-- allows it to blossom in a way traditional religion never could.

I plan to share some thoughts about Thank God for Evolution in several future posts. I think it's one of the most significant books yet to appear about the convergence of science and religion.


I've recently discovered another highly significant book about the connections between science and religion. This one is called The Marriage of Sense and Soul, Integrating Science and Religion, by Ken Wilber.

Wilber's book is quite different from Dowd's in that it doesn't start from a specifically religious perspective, but it's no less comprehensive and no less positive about both the world's religious perspectives and about the findings of modern science.

"Helping to clarify humanity's basic self-understanding" might be a good way to describe Ken Wilber's efforts.

Both he and Michael Dowd are saying important things in these books, and people all over the world are reading them. They are, indeed, "two important books."


Dowd's book is fairly new; it was published in 2007 and is his only book, so far. (It's so comprehensive he may not need to do another for a long, long time!)

Wilber, in contrast, is the author of several dozen books. His Sense and Soul-- the one that caught my attention-- first appeared in 1998, but I only recently became aware of it.

Wilber's book is more challenging intellectually, while Dowd's is more challenging in terms of practical details. But both are on the growing edge of what I've called many times in this blog the "Immense Transition humanity is currently experiencing."

In this post, I want to offer some background information about these two authors which will help make talking about their ideas in future posts a bit easier.


Michael Dowd comes from a religious fundamentalist background and is a "convert" to the evolutionary worldview. He and his wife Connie Barlow travel the country presenting their perspectives in churches, schools, retreat houses and community centers, offering their views to anyone who will listen. I think "telling the New Story"-- the story of the new scientific cosmology-- is an accurate way to describe their work.

Ken Wilber is more difficult to describe. Something like "a major American philosopher" might be good-- if "philosopher" didn't have connotations of a person who is out of touch with everyday life. He's not. It is impressive and moving to learn, for example, that he put aside his intellectual pursuits to nurse his wife of only six years while she was dying of breast cancer.

Wilber has been described as a "philosopher of consciousness." Maybe "philosopher of the evolution of consciousness" would be even more accurate.

A chapter on Wilber's worldview in the Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology, says: "Ken Wilber is widely regarded as one of today's foremost transpersonal thinkers and theoretical psychologists. 

He has won this reputation by creating syntheses of unprecedented scope among diverse schools and disciplines including psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology and religion."

In the conclusion to that chapter, Wilber's worldview-- praised as "systematic, broad-ranging, multidisciplinary, integrative, visionary and scholarly"-- is said to be "based on psychology, grounded in philosophy, spanning sociology and anthropology, and reaching to religion and mysticism."

Unprecedented scope, indeed! He really does seem to have a comprehensive view of it all. He makes use of everything he can for an integral understanding of the evolutionary history of human self-awareness. "Integral" is the word he himself uses to describe his work.


If Michael Dowd's focus is on what he and his wife Connie call the "Great Story," Ken Wilber's focus might be described as a modern version of what in earlier times used to be called the "Great Chain." 

That's the Great Chain of Being, the perspective of almost every culture on the Earth from early times, that reality is multi-layered-- that all the things of the world exist in what today we would call "hierarchical" levels.

While different cultures have different numbers of levels in their Great Chain, none has fewer than three. Probably the most elementary example of this multi-layered view of reality is the understanding that every existing thing belongs to one of three big groups: non-living things, living things, and living things that are also self-aware.

I've used the words "matter, life and mind" in many earlier posts to refer to this basic expression of the Great Chain of Being. But surely the best-known example of our assumption of a Great Chain comes from the early and long-popular TV show and parlor game, Twenty Questions. Even little kids know what it means when we say "animal, vegetable or mineral."

Until the beginnings of modern science, the Great Chain of Being was thought to be a more or less static arrangement of the different kinds of things in the world. Now it's also recognized as a description of the sequence of the evolutionary emergence of things over time on our planet. I'll have more to say about the Great Chain perspective in the next post.

Both Wilber and Dowd are concerned with the place of human consciousness in that evolutionary emergence and particularly with our relationship with all the things that have emerged. The focus of both authors is their understanding of "how we fit in."

They also both include what Thomas Berry in the above quotation refers to as "that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being." 

Wilber would express it by saying that the Great Chain doesn't leave out the "realm of Spirit." Dowd is more comfortable using the traditional term "God"-- but, of course, in the broadest evolutionary context.


I think I'd said enough to provide readers with a background for the next few posts, but I want to add some personal thoughts.

Until I heard an interview with Ken Wilber a few months ago, I was totally and irrationally prejudiced against him. I didn't like his name, his looks, or the titles of his books. One of them, A Theory of Everything, seemed to me especially arrogant. What kind of sensible person, I said to myself, writes a book called A Theory of Everything!

He said in that interview that he had three books in process at that time. Three at once? Another turn-off, as far as I was concerned.

And beyond that, he seems to be the idol of many who talk about spirituality in one way or another without evidence of even a minimal grasp of the Judeo-Christian tradition at the heart of Western culture.


When I heard the interview with Wilber, back in March, 2010, I realized I needed to pay attention to what he's saying. And, as it turns out, one of my idols-- the author of Future of Wisdom, Bruno Barnhart-- refers to Wilber's Marriage of Sense and Soul at a crucial point in his book.

My local county library had a copy. It was only 200 pages long and looked quite readable, so I checked it out. I was shocked at how much sense it made. Wilber's Sense and Soul helped me to understand many things about the relationship between science and religion that had been puzzles to me all my life.


I've been involved in thinking about science and religion for close to sixty-five years. When at the urging of my daughter, I started this blog back in December 2006, I called it "sharing thoughts about the convergence of science and religion," because convergence seemed to be the right word.

In contrast to the anti-science views of many religiously-oriented people, and the anti-religious views of many science-oriented people-- both of which were being highly publicized back in the autumn of 2006-- my understanding and experience have been quite different.

To me, the best aspects of religion and the best aspects of science seem to be coming together in our day. They make one big picture of the world and our place in it.

The word "marriage" in the title of Wilber's book provides a good image for Wilber's concern with our understanding what's needed for us to see that science and religion do not contradict but, in fact, complement one another.

He and I have a similar focus. We're interested in the same things!

So I am embarrassed that I responded so negatively and irrationally to Wilber. I think from a Jungian point of view he must represent a shadow aspect of myself. Maybe not a negative shadow, but a shadow, nevertheless, and something for me to think about.


In any case, I'll be sharing some thoughts about Ken Wilber's Marriage of Sense and Soul in the next few posts, and I'll be following up with some thoughts about Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution soon afterwards.

As I've said, Wilber gives us the conceptual understanding and Dowd offers us help with the practical details. They go together. Theory and practice!

After centuries of conflict, environmental disasters and political horrors, it's wonderful to think that a potential wedding of science and religion is not just a possibility for the future but an actual event in process right now.

I see these two important books as invitations to the wedding.

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.