Mary Coelho has spent several decades delving into the seemingly contradictory ways of understanding how the world of science and the religious can coexist and thrive.
The following is part of a Quaker Universalist Fellowship service of providing in-depth interviews with Quakers on fundamental themes of our lives, our tradition and our practice.
February 2, 2016
QUF: Hello, good morning, Mary.
COELHO: Good morning, Cherie.
QUF: Good morning to everyone. I am Cherie Roberts from Arden, North Carolina. I am joined by Mary Coelho of Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are very pleased to have her today. This is an interview for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, known as QUF. Mary is going to stand up to a number of questions. And we‘ll learn a more about her.
First, I would like to introduce her.
Mary Coelho is multi-talented and very focused individual. Her Curriculum Vitae tells a story of an inspired, dedicated person.
She holds degrees in Biology teaching, and theology (a masters in Divinity and a PhD in Historical Theology.)
Mary grew up as a Quaker and belongs to the Cambridge, MA monthly meeting.
She has worked in a number of diverse positions: as a research assistant in a renal physiology laboratory, a high school biology teacher in Buenos Aires, and a coordinator and occasional lecturer at General Theological Seminary in New York City.
But in 1983 she found her niche in art and writing and has continued this path ever since.
Mary is a prolific writer with books and many articles to her credit. Of note is the work entitled Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood: the Power of Contemplation in an Evolving Universe. Most recently, Pendle Hill published Recovering Sacred Presence in a Disenchanted World as pamphlet #433. The ideas in these and her many articles have also led to several workshops at Friends General Conferences and other notable events.
I know she will discuss her ideas in these publications today with us. In addition, she has many other articles and pamphlets to her credit. She also dedicates her time and knowledge to a number of boards including: the Steering Committee of Quaker Earthcare Witness, The New Story Group at Cambridge Meeting, and Manhattan Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (where she was both founder and clerk).
Also central to her life is her work as a watercolorist. Her website at http://www.newuniversestory.com displays her collection of works exhibiting the mysticism found in her literature. The watercolors are drawn from her breakthrough in understanding the depth of human belonging to the earth and universe. Celtic knots appear in many and express the universe and its undivided wholeness in flowing movement. These paintings are a delight to the eyes and provide a vision of images of the unfolding story.
When we complete the interview and it will be posted to the Quaker Universalist Fellowship website. (www.universalistfriends.org). We are fortunate to have Mary Coelho with us and look forward to many insights.
Mary, thank you for joining us at Quaker Universalist Fellowship today. Let us start.
Mary, we have some questions to pose to you, but first we would like to hear about your life’s journey. How does a brilliant young woman with a degree in biology, working at a Columbia University Renal Physiology Laboratory, transition to a talented watercolorist and author/lecturer about the relationship of numinous experiences and science?
COELHO: I wish I could answer that directly, but I would like to tell some of my story which I hope will illuminate your question. I did grow up as a Quaker in New Jersey on a farm. It was a Quaker family on both sides of our family and we spoke plain language. So it was very much a Friends milieu. I feel fortunate having lived on a farm. I spent a lot of time outside and that was very important. Although I do want to mention there was a difficult side to my early life because my parents lost a child, a four-year old boy when I was an infant. You may understand the loss of attention and love resulting from my parents being lost in their bereavement. It did affect me quite profoundly. Unfortunately it is not an uncommon experience as it is similar to the experience of children whose parents are lost in alcohol or drugs. It is very costly.
I did also go to a Friends elementary school that was part of the Friends meeting we belonged to. I went to a Presbyterian women’s college. I want to mention something about that. In hindsight, it was a quite formative. We were required to go to chapel every day. At the same time, I was a biology major and I learned a very reductive worldview from the biology professor. I learned what is now called a NeoDarwinian view of evolution that assumes that evolution has no direction and no purpose and that evolutionary change is based entirely on random genetic change and survival of the fittest. And the rise of human beings with self-awareness was not addressed as having significance; morality and religion are simply strategies for survival. I remember pondering that it was a very heartless, cold worldview. I was not entirely aware of the depth of the conflict between Neo-Darwinian thought and the words and teachings we heard in chapel but it is a conflict that the New Story I am now studying seeks to address.
So for a long time I lived in two worlds that are often not congruent; that is very much an issue now for our culture. Parker Palmer says that “the western culture world has a million ways of reinforcing the illusion that the world consists of inert stuff out there and that we are the active agents of change control get that stuff in shape.” I definitely entered that world. As a college student I did not realize the dangers of that teaching.
Then, as Cherie says, I did work in a research laboratory, where I met my husband. I did teach biology in Buenos Aires where I lived for four years. When we were moving back to the United States, I gave away my Quaker books. As I was packing, I read some pages about spiritual experience, perhaps by Thomas Kelly, which I thought sounded very attractive but I really didn’t know what he was talking about. I think I lost hope and was annoyed so I gave all the books away.
Then a few months later, back in New York City, I did have a very important awakening experience, which I eventually learned might be called a mystical experience. It was completely unexpected. This experience may have been related to having given up a false image of being a good Quaker when I gave away those books. I didn’t say anything about the experience for years and years. I didn’t understand how to talk about it. Also it was so very important to me I was afraid that it might be negated. But that experience brought a profound shift in my direction in life. One of the things that came to me just after that experience, although it did not seem appropriate, was that what I had known was the answer to humanity’s problems! That’s a bold and seemingly foolish claim. But what I felt was that I had known in some sense an answer to humanity’s problems. But I couldn’t defend it. It was also a healing experience as I was changed psychologically.
As a result of that experience, I did eventually go to Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Although the classes were valuable and interesting there wasn’t a great deal of focus on personal spiritual experience so the help I was looking for about how to integrate the experience into my assumptions about the world and how to find such experiences again was not available. So I didn’t really find what I wanted. Although I did become acquainted with Jungian thought and eventually my work with an analyst was very helpful.
I did continue to study at Fordham University, a Catholic, Jesuit university. Fortunately they offered courses about the experiential, contemplative tradition. I studied people like Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, and Francis of Assisi. And I did write a thesis on Teresa of Avila about the internal, personal reasons she herself names, that for many years prevented her from entering the full unitive life.
I went to Fordham, because of Ewert Cousins, a Bonaventure scholar, who wrote about Francis of Assisi. All the time I was studying there with him and others about the contemplative life, I still had some of those assumptions from the mechanistic worldview that I had learned as a biology student; they were unexamined assumptions. Some year later I was listening with a small group to a video series (Canticle to the Cosmos) prepared by Brian Swimme. I remember well, it was shown at a Universalist Church on Central Park West in New York City. At some point he spoke about what he called “the within of matter”, a phrase from Teilhard de Chardin. He described how what we call matter is 99.99% “empty space.” I thought, oh my goodness, this is not the world that I thought I was part of. I had an unexamined image of matter being made up of tiny pieces of matter which I thought of as particulate pieces that can no longer be divided. It turns that these solid particulate pieces do not exist. The recognition of a “within of matter” opened a whole new world for me. There is a place in the world of science for the origin of spiritual experience that very likely arises from this creative emptiness.
This was very important to me. So I began studying the worldview emerging from several breakthroughs in science. That ended the complete separation of those two worlds, the world of chapel in college and the world of my biology professor. When I attended Union Seminary, I thought I was leaving science. In a way I was leaving science as a specific discipline, but then eventually I found myself returning to some aspects of science which have changed so profoundly. I don’t mean to speak of a complete collapse of the disciplines but it is only one world; fortunately there are important breakthroughs in science that are very helpful for beginning some integration.
I was so excited about what I was beginning to understand that I wrote the book that Cherie mentioned, Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood: the Power of Contemplation in an Evolving Universe, because I thought everyone has to understand the emerging worldview. It is so very important to challenge the dualism I had learned as a student. Of course everybody doesn’t have the same background and the same questions and struggles, but I tried to integrate the evolutionary story coming out of science with the personal search for spiritual fulfillment.
QUF: Can you say more about the change in understanding about matter and why it was so important to you?
COELHO: Yes, some physicists say matter is immaterial by which they mean that they didn’t find any particulate piece of matter; rather atoms are 99.99% “empty space.” Peter Durer said “whatever matter is, there is not such thing as matter;” these words challenge our unexamined assumptions. This is not meant to deny the validity of our sensory experience but to say that the information from our senses is not the whole story. Brian Swimme uses the image of the baseball field to teach one aspect of the nature of matter. He says an atom can be imaged with the nucleus of the atom, a small ball on the pitcher’s mound and the electrons are like a small baseball hit very high above the stadium; in between there it what seems to be empty space. This so-called empty space was initially thought to be a vacuum, however David Bohm and others have said it is a plenum, which means it is full; it is described as the basal generative power of the universe. It is an ocean of potentiality. It can’t be measured by usual scientific means. But it is the creative plenum. The root foundation of anything and any being is not the matter out of which it is composed so much the matter together with the power that gives rise to matter. This was the key discovery for me. For me, this opens wide the door to affirm the immanence of the sacred within the person and all the earth.
That began to open for me a phrase, which I will keep mentioning. We are internally integrated into the internal dynamics of the world. Our internality is integrated into this internal plenum. That’s how deeply we belong. The key phrase is the internal integration.
I also want to mention that besides this powerful plenum, there was also the discovery of nonlocality which is another remarkable, unexpected discovery that affects our understanding of what we are part of. You have probably heard about the experiment involving coupled particles with opposite spins; when they are separated, no matter by what distance, when one takes a spin up or down, the other instantly takes the opposite spin. Being instantaneous there is no possibility for information to have passed from one particle to the other. So somehow these coupled particles are already part of a unity such that when one takes one spin, the other does the opposite simultaneously. That is a picture of unity that many people are struggling to try to understand. But is says a great deal about what we are a part of. It is quite remarkable.
So in summary, Ervin Laszlo says the revolutionary discovery is that at the root of reality there is an interconnecting information conserving and information containing cosmic field. It seems that this discovery and other discoveries refer to a dimension of what the word God has been pointing to. That word has many associations external to the world but it seems that this discovery of the “within of matter” must be pointing to the internal dimension of our being that so many people have experienced. I did not know that I have within me this very creative dynamic that is behind the manifest unfolding of the earth.
I think this discovery we’ve been given by science is a great gift to us all; it speaks to universalism. It is the common ground within everyone and within the natural world; so it is a gift to universalism. But the question of how it is named and understood is a very big question. But to have the science discovering this realm seems to me to be very important to the spiritual seekers.
I want to mention there are lots of names of this inner within. Some names come more from science and some from spiritual traditions. Science struggles; they don’t know what the vast within is, they can’t measure it by the usual modes of scientific investigation. It is very difficult to detect its nature. Likewise, some spiritual traditions have spoken of “not knowing” the nature of the sacred realm by our usual modes of rational understanding or knowing with the senses.
I can point out some of the names: Teilhard de Chardin spoke of “an ocean of energy”. David Bohm spoke of about “an implicate order that informs the physical world.” Other names are “the aliveness”, and “the all-nourishing abyss”. Paul Tillich spoke of “the ground of being”; Quakers have spoken about “the Light and the Inner Fire” and “the One”.
So it is a pleasure to try to learn from science and spiritual traditions something of the nature of inner reality. There has been a long struggle about whether it is appropriate to name this realm, because the process of naming tends to objectify that which is named. They always talk about how language is used to describe things in our everyday world. We don’t have language to describe this realm. So it is an enormous topic. But this new material helps us work with it further.
In addition to the discovery of the within of matter, I want to mention that this whole New Story, the evolutionary story, awoke my interest in evolutionary biology again. The depth of our physical immersion in this evolutionary story became an awakening for me. It was no longer just information about the origins of our backbone or our eyes, for example, but a story of belonging within a dynamic story of the emergence of the world we are an integral part of.
[Mary holds up a diagram]. This diagram shows the parts of our anatomy that have ancient origins. It is fascinating to appreciate, for example, our rotating shoulder. I often watch a baseball player or a gymnast and see a rotating shoulder that clearly comes from our arboreal ancestry. Cows and pigs don’t have a rotating shoulder. And then, the carbon atoms, in our bodies are made in stars. I like learning that the water of our bodies has the salinity of the early oceans, not the salinity of the oceans now. So there is whole list of ways of seeing the depth of our immersion in the evolutionary story.
I can see our ancient roots in the earth just walking down the street as I watch the children in a nursery school nearby. The school takes the children out to go to the playground; the children walk behind the teacher holding onto a rope. The rope has little handles on it that the children hold. Those children never let go of the rope even if they see something that attracts them. You would expect that they might let go and run off when they see something that interests them. They hang on; that hanging on is a primate activity. The infants of primates that lived in trees certainly could never let go of the mother or they would not have lived. I just love seeing that. So I appreciate the depth of our belonging both internally and in our behavior. (Note: At a certain age, young children will let go of the rope and run off to explore something that attracts them.)
QUF: Has your understanding during this period of discovery changed your concept of mysticism?
COELHO: Yes, I have a great deal of confidence that mystical experience is not something very extraordinary given what we said about the interiority of matter. The discovery of the plenum encourages us to explore how mystical experience may have its origin in this inner “emptiness,” an energetic reality.
John Seed says that many earlier peoples, such as philosophers, poets and theologians, would have loved to have known these discoveries of science. Thomas Berry says that one reason we have had trouble valuing the personal significance of mystical experiences is because it comes from so very deep inside of us that it seems to come from the outside us. It is not something we are consciously familiar with so it seems that it comes from outside. But now with the discovery of “the within” of matter, we can see that it comes from within and around us.
They are a lot of examples of experience of the within of matter. Teilhard de Chardin is one of the thinkers whose work is behind this integration of the breakthroughs in science with spiritual traditions. He was drawn by matter, by something that shone as the heart of matter. He would write later of “the divine radiating from the depths of blazing matter.” His experience was behind his vision which is that the unfolding of the universe is a physical evolution and also a spiritual evolution. There are other of examples showing how a person’s thought has arisen from spiritual experience.
The culture hasn’t always encouraged the importance of spiritual experience. In our new context I think our spiritual search finds support. So, in this new context, things like mystical experience or other forms of entering into this realm is the birthright of everyone. The “within of matter” is not something that comes and goes. It is there.
Steindl-Rast says that mysticism is about intimate belonging, a very deep belonging. I mentioned the loss of a felt belonging because of my family situation with the death of my brother, so this experienced belonging became important for my recovery. Yes, mysticism has come to find a home in this new story.
QUF: Are there other changes in your understanding coming from the new story that have been important to you? You have talked here about many of these issues that really are very universal themes.
COELHO: Yes, exactly. I think it is so appropriate to be speaking with you as a Quaker Universalist. It is a common origin story. Our greater appreciation of the spiritual significance of our common origin story, the evolutionary story, is a gift to your interests. It’s most remarkable. You asked about any other change. We have a New Story Group at Cambridge Friends Meeting and we read a book called Evolution’s Purpose by Steve McIntosh. Right away, hearing that title, Evolution’s Purpose, one is within a new story. In some circles, it is a bold claim to speak of purpose because, as I said, many of us were taught a random theory of evolution. McIntosh says that the unfolding history of evolution reveals a rising flow of value of generation; these values are of an ever-widening realization of beauty, truth, and goodness. I wondered, is there really directionality in evolution toward a deeper entry into beauty, truth, and goodness? It is a bold claim. But we have all probably have experiences of the beauty of a song, that touches us deeply. Or we are touched by expressions of truth. He says that allures us; somehow we are attracted to occasions of beauty, truth, and goodness. And this is part of the direction of the evolution in consciousness, our being attracted to beauty and truth.
And it not only McIntosh, Alfred North Whitehead argued that beauty or the perfection of harmony, is the universal aim of development. He said beauty is the final contentment of the Eros of the universe. And others have been looking in this same direction. Teilhard de Chardin wrote of an omega point that pulls us into the future; that is an expression of direction in the universe.
This is controversial because many of us were taught, and it is also true, that evolution occurs when there is a mutation. However, there is something called the Baldwin effect that recognizes that there is another power now in evolution besides genetic mutation and that is consciousness. Evolution is now occurring largely in human consciousness. There is now a clear influence of human consciousness over the destiny of the earth. And it is very important that we have left, in part, the reductive thought of an earlier era. It is important for us to be aware of our attraction to beauty, truth and goodness and to understand that this allure is part of the direction of evolution.
It was difficult for me to understand how this idea of direction fits into the larger evolutionary story. Some people distinguish distinct phases in evolution. There was a time of cosmological evolution when evolution was occurring in the cosmos; that involved the formation of the elements and stars and the creation of galaxies. That was one phase of evolution. Another phase is when life came on earth. It is biological evolution. That is a different phase of evolution. And so the changes, the way you understand evolution when there are living beings, is different from the cosmic evolution. This is when genetic mutation plays an important role in evolution. Then human self-awareness emerged, bringing its influence in evolution. This is another phase. The nature of change is now different because of our self-aware consciousness. That now is thought to be part of evolution. The source of evolutionary changes is different from the period of biological change. Now our consciousness is affecting the unfolding of the earth and the human future.The recognition of directionality and the capacity to be part of the creation of beauty or to defend truth as Quakers have done, gives profound purpose. Our purposes can be of an evolutionary nature. So this directionality is very, very important. It gives us hope that there is some support in the nature of things and some directionality. Our actions don’t arise only from random events or are only the result of individual preference and opinion. I think this idea is important to investigate.
QUF: Can you just speak to any other intersection between Quakerism and the NS? What are the elements of intersection?
COELHO: As I understand it, universalists and all people are earthbeings who came into being within the long evolutionary story. In addition to evolution itself, discoveries about the interiority of matter and the directionality in evolution add to our self-understanding in the evolutionary context. It seems to me that universalists would be wise to place themselves in this story. It gives them a deepened spiritual identity integral to the earth. In the midst of cultural diversity and ethnic diversity, there is this enormous commonality.
There is another understanding from our new origin story: it can hold together diversity and unity. This common story is a unifying story yet it can hold diversity as it does in the natural world. It is a basis for integrating diversity within Quakerism. I would advocate that we all need to learn this story because it is a basis for dialogue so that diversity is celebrated in the context of our common story.
QUF: Would this be all things on earth, plants, animals and humans, all things of nature as well?
COELHO: Yes, out of the early earth, there emerged enormous diversity with the common ground that is the “within” of matter. And, it is a common story, which includes diversity.
QUF: How do you defend the idea that there is direction in evolution?
COELHO: That is a good question because some of the orthodox Neo-Darwinism says all evolutionary change is random. Now what I have learned from the New Story is that to understand directionality you have to first recognize that there is emergence in the evolutionary process. Emergence is described as the appearance of genuine novel structures in the evolutionary story. There is real newness, new developments. These developments are not just the sum of the parts that make up a new form, but something really new may emerge. One example – who could have imagined that in the early earth, in that soup of the chemicals, lightning and other factors, that life would emerge? That is newness. That is a form of directionality itself.
Another example, in the stars, we’re told that carbon, such an important element, is created within the pressures and very high temperatures of the star. It is created in an unlikely process out of hydrogen and helium no less. Carbon is formed; it is an emergence, a newness. So we are part of an evolutionary process characterized by emergence.
And to answer your question, how do you defend direction in human consciousness, the crucial thing is to tie our consciousness to the “within” described earlier and the assumption that there is thought to be inner influence from the “within of matter” on the emergence of human ideas and insights. The idea is that there can be a breakthrough in consciousness out of this inner ordering which we may experience as truth and beauty.
Brian Swimme says the actual origin and birthplace of the universe is not just a scientific idea. The actual origin is where you live. We are at the origin. So we are consciously tied into this “within.” And then, it is thought there are patterns. They speak of this within having information, “in-formation”. It has some sort of formative influence on the manifest world. This formative influence would include influencing our consciousness. So that experiences of truth and beauty are expressions of this formative influence that we experience. It ties us into the depths. The nature of the inner world, the within, is a major issue.
I found it is an exciting addition to Quaker ideas and leanings. Louis Dupré, who was a professor at Yale University, writes about intellectual intuition in which the mind literally perceives as directly as the senses ordinarily do. Dupré indicates compellingly the important difference between this knowledge and the detached objective observations and measurement that is valued in the West. David Bohm, a physicist, wrote about a kind of “experienced knowledge” in which the experience and the knowledge constitute one process.
Dupré says it conflicts with the nature of mystical experience to say the real is an object that reason places before the mind. He says that “the real” is not just an object out there. “The real” is a totality of which the mind constitutes in integral dynamic part. The mind can be an integral part of the dynamic totality. So we can know in consciousness directionality and ordering.
QUF: You mentioned truth as one of the values of this claim of directionality. How does this proposal in the evolution and recognition of this consciousness affect Quakerism? How do you connect it with Quakerism?
COELHO: I went on a retreat with Douglas Steere, a former professor of philosophy at Haverford College. He quoted Isaac Pennington several times: “There is that near you which will guide you; O! wait for it, and be sure ye keep to it.” Why isn’t that an expression of this formative influence? And he says, it is always near. The “within” is always near. Brian Swimme says something very similar. He speaks in the context of the person being a form of the earth in which there is emergence in consciousness of an alternative kind of knowing. “The dynamics that fashioned the fireball and the galaxies also fashion your ideas. In your specific personal dreams and desires, the whole process is present in your personal self.” Now right there, isn’t that what Pennington is speaking of? Swimme says, “The dynamics fashion your ideas.” It has to be spoken of carefully because it is also a question of the authority in our minds. We don’t come with empty minds. So that may influence how we receive this creativity. There has to be careful discernment. I think understanding emergence of ideas in the light of evolution speaks directly to Quakerism. Maybe you are familiar with the idea of Kenneth Boulding who says “Quakerism may have been ahead of its time.” That might be true! It might be enormous support to the sense of leadings, and also for the light within, inside us. I think that is what they are talking about. Does this answer your question?
QUF: It certainly enlightens it. Thank you.
Quakerism has a tradition of strong social action and the person is an agent of their knowing and active life. How does the New Story speak to this tradition?
COELHO: It is very important. Steve McIntosh says we are both finders and makers of reality. Our actions are crucial. When we are lured by beauty or truth, they do need to be given expression. One thinks of the early Friends who were called the Religious Society of the Friends of Truth, seeking to live the truth they experienced.
I do admire people who are activists who live the truth. I consider myself only a moderate activist. I admire people who put themselves on the line, who are really courageous. I recently testified at the (Massachusetts) State House about the carbon fee bill, hoping to help persuade the legislature to pass a fee on the use of carbon. I do some modest activism. I do appreciate people who are very courageous, particularly in the light of our climate crises.
I did want to mention one example that I admire. Sandra Steingraper, a Quaker in New York State. She went to jail for blockading a compressor station at one of the Finger Lakes where they were planning to store fracking fluids. The compressor station is part of the process. It is a nice example of speaking the truth because she said she was motivated by her love of her children. She fears that contaminated water will affect the health of her children. So that is her motivation for this nonviolent resistance. And it comes from her personal history. She grew up in an area where there was contamination by chemicals. She had bladder cancer as a very young woman. So she knows the potential cost of contamination. It is an experience of truth, a truth that leads to activism.
QUF: Have your understandings of about the New Story moved you into any new directions and brought you to any kinds of other actions?
COELHO: I think my main action is working with this New Story. When I first began to understand it, I thought it is very important for our culture to understand. I have been writing about it and working with our group at Friends Meeting at Cambridge.
It is a mystery and a major realization to recognize that we are destroying our very home. The story can change consciousness. Advocating for a change in consciousness is kind of activism. With a change in consciousness we may become aware what we are doing.
This one has words on the side from Thomas Berry: “The natural well is the primary manifestation of the divine.” These paintings of various beings may for some of us be manifestations of the divine. I don’t know if this could be called activism. It is an attempt to express this emerging understanding of what we are part of. People can hang them in their home; they offer an occasion to speak of this emerging understanding. I have an accordion book that says, “The cosmic story is our story.” And then in regard to universalism, one of my accordion books has words from Rumi that seem to be directly relevant of the New Story. Rumi said “Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world.” It is very pleased to have a way of putting together my painting and this New Story. I like the words of Emily Dickinson in a poem which I think also speaks of the New Story. She writes in a one-line poem: Not “Revelation” – ‘tis that waits, But our unfurnished eyes.”
Indeed, if we can see what we are part of, if we knew what are part of, we don’t need a new revelation. The New Story helps us learn that we don’t need more revelation in the traditional sense but to wake up to what we are a part of. The New Story is helping us wake up. It has been important to me to put painting and the New Story together.
QUF: It is a way to share that expression for people who don’t read your books but can experience it that way. That’s lovely.
COELHO: It is very accessible, and fun and enjoyable.
QUF: Tell me about the New Story group that I mentioned in my introduction at Friends Meeting in Cambridge. When was it started and what exactly do you do in this group?
COELHO: I spent a many years of my adult life in New York City but I moved to Cambridge now 13 years ago. I was delighted to find out there were three or four other people in the Cambridge meeting who were interested in the New Story. So we began to meet. It’s now ten years that we have been meeting monthly and having a weekend retreat. We have been working on this integration of the light within and spirituality and this material from science. We discuss articles and books. We’ve taken turns giving short talks to each other about topics of interest. We watch DVDs. That’s where we read the McIntosh book, Evolution’s Purpose, which is important to me. We studied Cynthia Bourgeault’s book Wisdom Jesus, which is an expression of Christianity that integrates well into the New Story. We read a book called Presence, which is about Theory U, a theory about how decisions are made seeking through silence and openness, solutions to problems.
We have done a variety of things. We have had a few speakers. We have written some pamphlets. I didn’t bring the pamphlets to show you. (The pamphlets are available at fmcquaker.org/spiritual-life/quakers-and-the-new-story). It’s a pleasure to have people with a common interest meet together and it is within the Quaker context. We assume it can be very strengthening of Quakerism. We have interested non-Quakers given it is a universal story. We‘ve grown and have sometimes as many as twenty people at a meeting. It speaks to the power of the story.
QUF: Do you speak of the Spirit, or God? What words do you use, since you have a large and diverse group in the Cambridge area?
COELHO: Some people use the God language and some do not. We have a whole mixture of people. We focus more on the story itself and the within of natter. But we do try to consider theological questions to a degree. But it is difficult. What does the word God mean? As you probably know, the problem using the word “God” is it has recently been most used in a dualistic world, with God understood as a reality separate from the physical. So when it is used in that manner, it is not integral to understandings of the New Story and the within of matter; but at the same time, some of the words historically used to describe God seem to be the same as those used to describe the “within” in our contemporary New Story world. In another words, the word God has sometimes been used in ways that are congruent to the New Story. It hasn’t always carried dualistic assumptions. It is a word easily misunderstood in our culture.
Dan Snyder writes that it is possible for spiritually oriented people, once again to believe, although with humility and with continuous openness to learning, that our “God Talk” refers to something that is actually true. It could be that this material, that the “God Talk”, has been about the within and its qualities. We do struggle with this.
Personally, I fear, use of the word God will be misunderstood. At the same time knowing how it is used historically before the dualistic separation, it has been an important naming of the dimension of what we are a part of. So it is not the God that intervenes only on certain occasions but an inner creative ordering. It’s a major topic, but since evolution is now occurring in human consciousness and since we know how very great our influence is on the destiny of the earth, this inclusion of sacred depth, in some manner, seems to be very important. In an objectified world with matter understood only in the narrow sense, there may be no personal spiritual engagement with the natural world so it can then be exploited and the “use mentality” can flourish. So a claim of sacred depth, however it is named, is crucial.
QUF: This would lead into what insight does the New Story have for sin and doing things that are wrong. How do you build this consciousness to go from the objectified world into the personal and much deeper where you encounter this consciousness?
COELHO: I personally haven’t worked with or thought of issues of sin. In this context of being internally integrated into this earth and its depths, then failure to behave in a manner that is faithful to what we are part of, knows how integral we are to it and knows that its flourishing is simultaneous with our flourishing, will recognize that anything that diminishes that flourishing has to be wrong or be a sin. One would recognize the depth of our belonging can encourage caring and depth of participation. . . We talked about leadings, a form of participatory consciousness of the unfolding future; to deny some leadings might be considered sin (sin is a strong word). Instead of emphasizing what we’re doing wrong, it is important to be aware of what we’ve failed to do in this creative world. Failure to follow leadings could be seen to be a serious wrong in a world that is unfolding. And in our new context, in which we are so aware of the interrelatedness among everything, viability of the whole and its parts go together, so the understanding of wrong would have to be failure of the individual to support the whole. If we value the individual and individual efforts at the cost of the whole that would be seen as wrong and sin.
QUF: That would be a description of the world today.
QUF: We are connected and yet we are exploding against one another.
COELHO: Exactly, I don’t know if this story can be told in a manner powerful enough that we enter into it in a way that we really care, that we see our common destiny.
Also a piece of it, which makes it difficult, one of the understandings in the New Story is that sometimes things do have to be destroyed for the new to come forth. That discernment of what we have to let go of for the new come forward is part of our work. Some destruction may appear wrong, but it might be creative. Thomas Berry says the age of oil is over. In that case, to some, dismantling of the oil dependent economy could be a creative thing to do, although to some eyes is may appear destructive.
QUF: Do you see universalism assisting the understanding of the New Story or is it vice versa, or is it circular or entwined? I hear your ideas come forth and I see many possible relationships here.
COELHO: From my perspective, having studied this story and realized how remarkable it is, I tend to think all humans, whatever background or tradition, have some place in this story. We are earth beings. This is a primary identity. It is a spiritual and a physical identity. That is who we are. At the same time there is this great diversity of culture and religious expression. Isn’t it the case that with the common origin, we have the basis of holding together diversity? As long as the particular cultural expression does not deny or contradict the wisdom that comes from the new evolutionary earth story, which we have to honor as it is, in part, about preserving our common future, then the diversity is very valuable. I hope that answers your question.
QUF: It definitely illuminates it. It is clear from hearing you in the past hour that you think that the future of Quakerism can be enriched by the New Story. Can you say any more about that in conclusion?
COELHO: I did mention Boulding’s hope about the future of Quakerism. We are now recognizing directionality and the allure of truth; truth and beauty have allure. In the light of that, which Quakerism has honored, Quakerism finds enormous support; it can gain confidence and wisdom in this context.
I think we are fortunate to live in this time when some Quakers can find a home in this New Story. We have been through a difficult time when the world was mechanized bringing a complete separation of science and spirituality. We are fortunate to live in a time when we are beginning to recover wholeness in our way of thinking. The story will be very important to us and to embracing the sacred depth.
QUF: Thank you, Mary. This has been an incredible, outstanding hour of learning and thoughtfulness and new ideas. I think everyone who has come this far with us, will be thinking about your ideas and the New Story. I urge them to pick up one, or more than one of your publications.
I know that in my meeting in Brevard, NC, we have been reading your pamphlet, “Recovering Sacred Presence in a Disenchanted World”. We have a Sunday school. There is a lady in the meeting, who is well read as a Quaker. We had worked on this pamphlet about three weeks in the Sunday school and we questioned whether we should continue with this. This woman said “Absolutely! There is so much in here that we don’t understand that we need to understand. This woman (Mary) gets it. She has pulled it all together,” with as great excitement as I am expressing now. You have brought to life so many exciting ideas. QUF and everyone who listens to this will thank you. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas.
COELHO: And thank you for your questions. Thank you for doing this.
QUF: It is a pleasure. We want to give visibility to these ideas. Have a wonderful day.
Pamphlets and book about the New Story —all are accessible from the Friends Meeting at Cambridge New Story page as follows:
Discovering Sacred Presence in a Disenchanted World —ordering information from Pendle Hill
Quakers and the New Story (2014)—pdf
Quakers and the New Story (2007)—pdf
Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood (2001) – book by Mary Coelho
When the Presence breaks through into our lives, how do we understand it, when in the West we are caught between often seemingly contradictory ways of understanding the world offered by science and by religious tradition?
—Mary Conrow Coelho