This I Believe: Emily Shaw (2008)

“Emily, I’m afraid that when I go to Heaven, I won’t see you.” These were the words of my eleven-year-old best friend at my 12th birthday party sleepover. We had been talking about the nature of God’s love: how God could be loving and still let people go to Hell. I insisted that there could be no Hell if God truly loved us, while my friend felt that eternal damnation was our just desserts for sin. She told me she was terrified for the safety of my soul and prayed about it often. It was at that moment I realized that my vision of God was fundamentally different from that of my friend.

My mother came from an agnostic Jewish background. My father from an Episcopalian and Presbyterian one. For years, my family attended a Presbyterian Church. I don’t remember a single sermon, but I can vividly recall every flower I made out of colorful pipe cleaners offered to keep children amused during the service.

I started confirmation class at age 13, but complained to my parents that we rarely discussed any of the material we were learning. Meanwhile, my parents were frustrated by the church, too, and so we decided to shop around. A friend of the family recommended White Bear and we came for a visit. It was love at first sermon.

When I was 14, I realized that I didn’t believe in God. It wasn’t sudden. It wasn’t dramatic. I just realized that over the years, the role I believed God to play in the world shrunk and shrunk until there was nothing left. Piece by piece, day by day, thought by thought, my vision of God changed from a personal God who frequently acts in the world, to a parental figure who needs to step back and let his child—humanity—be independent, to a Creator God who made the Universe but now does nothing. Eventually, I found that I don’t believe in a supernatural God who acts on the world as an independent, conscious force.

I discovered there was a name for my belief—or lack of belief—in God. Atheism. Suddenly, my ears and heart became hyper-sensitive to the mere mention of the G word. Was I a bit obnoxious with my new-found lack of faith? Oh yeah. You better believe it. As an Atheist, I made it my personal mission to eliminate what I considered to be the ignorance of my friends who believe in a supernatural deity. I knew it was hopeless and pointless to try to convince them there was no God. Rather, I sought to convince them to take the Bible less literally, “How can you take a book that says it’s OK to own slaves to be the un-erring word of God?” I’d ask. “And do you really believe the world was created some 6,000 years ago?”

There was only one problem. It had to do with the way I felt when I talked with the few friends I had who were also atheists. And how I felt when I visited atheist Web sites or read books by atheists about the awfulness of religion. I agreed with their points logically, but I could not hate religion. The words: religion is poison never once rang true to me. What’s more, the atheistic worldview felt negative. It denied a personal God, but didn’t seem to offer any clear or positive response to the fundamental questions mankind has always asked: Who are we? Why are we here? How did we get here? What are our rights and responsibilities as human beings to ourselves, each other and the world around us?

Last January, I decided to do a year-long project in which I would study a different religion each month to see what they had to say about these fundamental questions. Within reason, I’ve tried to practice that religion during the month. My family has been remarkably tolerant when I’ve said things like, “Guess what? I can’t eat any beef for dinner this month because I’m a Hindu.” So far, I’ve worked my way through ancient religions, Shinto, Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Today is the last day of Baha’i. Tomorrow will be the beginning of Unitarian Universalism.

My studies this year have enriched my understanding of the many ways in which people around the world have tried to explain and answer the fundamental questions. It’s been fascinating to see the similarities and differences between them, to learn about the metaphors, analogies and symbols they each use to describe the indescribable and to explain the unknown.

But, surprisingly, my greatest spiritual insights this year didn’t come from studying the religions of the world. Instead, they came from a book, a sermon and a speech I heard right here in our church. Last spring, Michael Dowd and his wife, Connie Barlow, visited our church. You may remember hearing them speak or seeing their white van parked in the lot. It had a picture of a Darwin fish and a Christian fish kissing each other.

Michael wrote “Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World.” When I heard him speak and then read his book…well, all I can say is I was blown away.

I can’t do justice to his ideas in a few words. But what resonated with me was his evolutionary view that the universe is on a path toward greater complexity, cooperation and consciousness. Human life is the Universe becoming aware of itself.

When you see the world from an evolutionary perspective, we were not “put” here by a supernatural being. All the matter that makes the ground, the trees, animals, and humanity came from the same place: the furnaces of ancient stars. In a very real, literal sense, we are one with all that is.

Our sacred story begins with the Big Bang and has emerged over billions of years. Everything that is now around us—the reality that we observe day-to-day and what scientists and astronomers tell us they’ve found—has a “nested, emergent nature” as Michael Dowd puts it. Subatomic particles within atoms, within molecules, within cells, within organisms, within ecosystems, and so on, like nesting dolls. Each are then part of larger nested realities: planets within solar systems, within galaxies, within the Universe as a whole. You can call this largest nesting doll, this whole which contains all, various names—the Universe, Nature, Ultimate Reality, or God.

Why God? Amazingly, every nested level can bring new things into existence, can create. Hydrogen and oxygen come together to create water. Stars create within themselves most of the atoms in the periodic table of elements. So whether we look at the smallest sub-atomic scale, or the largest, galactic scale, every nested level is not merely created, it’s creative.

We are all composed atoms, non-living things. Yet, we are alive. We are non-living materials that can think. We are combinations of atoms that can remember the past, embrace the present, and dream of the future. What could be more sacred and miraculous than that? We are the hearts and minds of the Universe. Through us, the Universe can think, feel, love, hope, dream, create, celebrate and act.

And while there have certainly been setbacks—from naturally occurring disasters to man-made horrors—the Universe has consistently produced larger and wider circles of cooperation and complexity over time. As Michael Dowd notes, “In the human realm, this ‘holy trajectory of evolution’ has tended to evoke broader circles of caring, compassion and commitment as societies have become increasingly larger and more interdependent—from families and clans, to tribes, to chiefdoms and kingdoms, to theocracies and early nations, to corporate states, global markets, social democracies and now the World Wide Web.”

An analogy I find meaningful is to a body. Like any human body, the Body of Life needs all its cells to function in a way that enables it to stay alive, to grow and thrive. We humans may be the brain cells in the Body of Life, but no brain can function for long without all the other cells its depends on. Taking an evolutionary perspective enables us to really see how inter-dependence is the very basis of our survival, as individuals and as a species. It’s the first step in moving away from “me-first” and “us-against-them” ways of thinking.

Collectively, we face challenges from global climate change, Islamic terrorists and other political and social problems. Personally, we face challenges that often come from—or can be traced in some part to—biological responses that have evolved over millions of years. Understanding our inherited tendencies from distant ancestors can help us explain our own behaviors and forgive ourselves and each other when we fall short of expectations.

This evolutionary perspective also provides a new way of looking at and talking about traditional religious beliefs. They are neither to be discarded like a shoe you’ve outgrown, nor clung to like an unchanging rock. Ideally, they can evolve to encompass our ever-widening understanding about the universe. Formerly a Christian minister, Michael Dowd talks at length about what it means to be a Christian with an evolutionary view.

I used to be a Presbyterian. Then I was I an atheist. Now I’m a Unitarian Universalist and an evolutionary evangelical.

I never thought when I started this that science and religion could come to together in such an amazing way. To finally have my heart and mind in total alignment has been freeing and empowering. I have come a long way since my 12th birthday party discussion, and I know that I still have a long way to go. But now I have a religious framework that will guide me into the future.