Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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The Great Story

Sermon given by Rev. Emily Burr on 11/5/06

at Kearsarge UU Fellowship



Each one of us is part of the amazing ongoing story of the universe.  We are in and of it.  We can look back to the very beginning – to the once upon a time of the cosmos.  We can wonder with anticipation and hope what the next chapter will bring but most wondrous of all, we can look around us at what is and realize how complex, interconnected and way cool everything is.

Where do we come from?  Why are we here? What is my place in the scheme of things?   Humanity has been trying to answer these questions since we became conscious of our existence.  The Great Story, also known as The Universe Story, The Epic of Evolution or Everybody’s Story, is a new way of framing our reality.  Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow were the keynote speakers at the District Fall conference last month.  In their own words:


The Great Story is a way of telling the history of everyone and everything that honors and embraces all religious traditions and creation stories. It is the sacred narrative of an evolving Universe of emergent complexity and breathtaking creativity and cooperation — a story that offers each of us the opportunity to find meaning and purpose in our lives and our time in history.[1]


This husband and wife team both call themselves “creatheist”.  Michael, a former pastor and evangelical Christian, pronounces it “crea-theist” and describes himself as “a theist who knows that the whole of reality is creative and that humans are an expression of this divine process.”  While Connie, a science writer pronounces it “cre-athiest,” an atheist who knows the same things.

Humanity has tried to explain the complex miracle of the web of life in many ways over the centuries.  Often there seemed to be two opposing camps of explanation – the theological and the scientific.  However, science and religion are not incompatible. The work of science is the search for truth and meaning.  It is religious work.  My BA in physics and my Masters of Divinity are not unrelated degrees. The Great Story is able to bring into one integrated tale both the scientific and the divine because the scientific knowledge we have gained, about the stars, about evolutionary biology, about the mind itself, reveals a process that is in and of itself something sacred.  Rather than an external deity, the sacred in The Universe Story is the wholeness of reality, everything that was, is, or will be.  There is no outside divine being that created the universe, not even the clockmaker who got it started and then withdrew.  It is the ever changing, ever evolving creative process that is the universe which is divine.

I told the beginning of the great story in the Story for All Ages.  From the mysterious Big Bang or Great Radiance to the current complexities of life, the Universe Story has unfolded.  Brian Swimme, co-author of “The Universe Story” says, ”It’s really simple. Here’ the whole story in one line. This is the greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise: You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebuds, giraffes and humans.”[2]

The creativity, organization and cooperation of the universe are really amazing.  Even if you’ve heard the story before, try listening to it with new ears.  In the beginning space, time, light, and subatomic particles came bursting forth from the originating reality, from the great mystery, from potentiality.  In the first millionth of a second particles and anti-particles were created, and destroyed each other but there was more matter than antimatter. The subatomic particles of matter that weren’t destroyed in the first second hung around for 300 thousand years forming themselves into protons, neutrons and electrons. Then all of a sudden, cosmologically speaking, atoms formed.  This was as amazing as the initial big bang.  Nothing had hinted that atoms would form.  Time and time again the universe does amazing things.  Random fluctuations caused the hydrogen clouds to clump together and the stars were born.  But the gravitational force had to be just right for the amount of hydrogen that was around.  If gravity had been a trillionth of a trillionth of a percent stronger or weaker the universe would have become one big black hole or too spread apart for stars to form.  Then we get the recycling of star matter that created all the elements in our periodic table that make life possible.  Fast-forward a few billion years to the early life of our planet.  The atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, water vapor and methane – pretty noxious – but somehow one or several types of chemical combinations emerge with the memory of how to recreate themselves.  One of these first living things was our ancestor.  One type of reproducing life form somehow creates the ability to take energy from the sun and use it to create food from the atmosphere, photosynthesis, but by doing so it releases a poisonous gas, oxygen.  Creativity strikes again.  One type of cell invents respiration, or controlled combustion, the ability to deal with oxygen.  Next comes a remarkable triumph of cooperation between the oxygen loving cellular creatures and those that are dying from the poisonous new atmosphere.  They join together to use energy from the sun and oxygen in the atmosphere to thrive.  Again and again the story of the past reveals the creativity and cooperation of the universe – plants take root on land, animals emerge from the ocean, apes can think ahead enough to carry objects around with them that they will use as tools, sounds become associated with meaning and language comes to be.  Humans have emerged from the creativity of the universe very recently.  If we compare the 14 billion years of the existence of the universe to one year, we have arrived during the last ½ hour of the last day.  Sometime during that last half hour human language and the abstract thinking and consciousness, that allow us to be aware of ourselves as finite, mortal beings inhabiting a vast universe, arose.

Does all this scientific evidence preclude a personal God?  Loyal Rue, the author of Everybody’s Story says, "There is nothing in the substance of everybody's story to rule out belief in the reality of a personal deity. At the same time, such a belief is not an essential part of everybody's story. There will be theistic versions of the story, and there will be non-theistic versions as well. Those who take the theistic option will have at their disposal a range of images that may be used to arouse motivational systems. But I have confidence that everybody's story, unadorned by theological imagery, has the potential to arouse us to serve its imperatives. Let us see."[3]

When I was in seminary, I was with many Christians who used certain words that I found difficult to incorporate into my version of reality.  So I learned to “translate” and found that many Christian writings and stories could have meaning for me when I got away from the difficult vocabulary in my head.  Human nature and the search for meaning are really not all that different now than they were 2000 years ago.  Today Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans and Humanists are all writing, thinking and talking about the same human experiences and concerns.  At the conference I learned about “day language” and “night language”.  Day language is the language of everyday rational discourse.  Night language is the language of dreams and myths and symbols.  For human life to be whole we need both.  Do you know that a mammal will die if you keep it from dreaming.  Myth, metaphor and symbolism help us make meaning of what doesn’t make sense.  The first instant of the universe is called “The Big Bang” in day language.  In night language it might be “The Great Radiance” or simply “the beginning”.  In day language, a person who dies and is buried decomposes and returns to the earth.  In night language, where God can be the whole of reality, one might say the person has returned to God.

There are so many exciting, fascinating, inspiring facets to the Great Story.  At the conference Michael and Connie shared ideas of day and night language, evolutions. arrow, nesting creativity, spiral dynamics, the difference between flat earth religions and evolutionary religions.  Two days was not enough time to hear think and talk about these new ways of thinking about reality.  I have been to the website ( and have a DVD set that could be used for an adult enrichment class.  I’m excited about having words to bring my wonder at the physical world together with my spirituality.

Why is this story important?  It is more than important.  It is crucial.  The human race is destroying our home.  Anyone who has seen “An Inconvenient Truth” or followed the news of war and violence around the globe knows that we cannot continue as we are and survive.  The Great Story is a new context for thinking about who we are, where we have come from, and how we should live. It can be the basis of how we think and talk about what matters.  We have a unique evolutionary role.  We are the universes conscious self and if we become extinct all the knowledge we have about our past will die with us.  An understanding of The Great Story and our place in it can strengthen our commitment to environmental values by engaging our passions. 

This picture of earth (picture of earth from outer space) was taken on the Apollo 17 spacecraft in 1972.  It is a valuable illustration in the Universe Story.  It shows that the earth has “evolved to the point where it can send out a piece of itself to look back and say, ’Whoa. This is who I am.’”[4]  Maybe our role in the universe story is to be the eyes and awareness of the universe looking at itself and going, “Whoa!” and to be the building blocks for what the universe creates next, that is beyond our imagining.  Loyal Rue also writes,


In the course of epic events, matter was distilled out of radiant energy, segregated into galaxies, collapsed into stars, fused into atoms, swirled into planets, spliced into molecules, captured into cells, mutated into species, compromised into thought, and cajoled into cultures. All of this (and much more) is what matter has done as systems upon systems of organization have emerged over thirteen billion years of creative natural history.[5]


This is our Great Story.  Be in it and of it.  Know that you live it everyday.  Celebrate it and let all know that they too are part of this sacred story.

[4] Amy Hassinger, “Welcome to the Ecozoic Era”, UU World, Vol. XX, No. 1, p.28.

[5] Loyal Rue, “Going Deeper: Spiritual Dimensions of the Epic of Evolution”, Earthlight Magazine, Issue #26, 1997, pp 12-13.


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