What started as a Santa Cruz book club/discussion group now has its sights set on inspiring a critical mass of humanity to make the commitment to avoid catastrophic climate change. That begins Saturday with the first in a series of talks aimed at building a bridge between science and spirituality, to take “a next step beyond religion” into a broader movement.
No one can ever accuse Nancy Ellen Abrams of thinking small.
Like many folks, the Santa Cruz writer and philosopher is engaged in a project to Get Something Done. For you and me, that might mean getting a pothole fixed, cleaning up a beach or raising money for a Ventriloquism Hall of Fame — that last one might be just me.
But Abrams is thinking more big-picture than that … like, a lot bigger.
With her most recent effort at community engagement, her ambition is so enormous, you might say that her goal is the only goal that matters, for all of us.
Nancy Ellen Abrams wants to save the human race.
And she’s attempting to grow this mightiest of oaks from the tiniest of seeds. Abrams and three friends have joined forces to form the Meaningful Universe Club, a book club/discussion group that is working to create a narrative that will inspire a critical mass of humanity to make the commitment to avoid catastrophic climate change.
“Time is really running out on humanity,” said Abrams on the deck of her Westside Santa Cruz home. “We’re really at a crossroads. And we need to wake up and realize that people around the world really need to find some way of working together. So, how do we come up with an underlying vision for humanity?”
The club’s first step is to create a series of public talks, the first one taking place on Saturday at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz. The speaker for the inaugural event will be Madelyn Broome, a doctoral student in astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz whose focus is on exoplanets — that is, planets outside our solar system. Broome’s talk will be titled “A Future is Not Written in the Stars: Lessons on Change and Hope from Astronomy.”
Abrams is certainly no newcomer to these big-picture questions as a writer working to reconcile scientific discovery with the human search for meaning. She is the author of “A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet,” and has co-written two books with her husband, UC Santa Cruz physics professor and cosmologist Joel R. Primack, titled “The New Universe and the Human Future” and “The View from the Center of the Universe.”
But clearly, she wants to create a more grassroots sense of activism from her interest in cosmology. For years, Abrams has been working as a bridge between two large entities that don’t always seem interested in bridging their differences: science and spirituality. She has, in fact, been pursuing a Joseph Campbell-esque approach of trying to marry a sense of meaning and human destiny to the rapidly expanding scientific knowledge of the universe. But science, at least in an academic setting, is too trapped into its silos to engage seriously with humanism, and religion too often suffers from a category error, believing itself to be universal when it is in fact culturally specific.
“Time is really running out on humanity. We’re really at a crossroads. And we need to wake up and realize that people around the world really need to find some way of working together. So, how do we come up with an underlying vision for humanity?” — Nancy Ellen Abrams
“Let people keep their diversity,” Abrams said. “Let them dress and eat and pray and do everything they want to do. But beneath it all, we need to understand that humanity itself is at stake. The whole survival of our species is at stake, your children, my children. Now, we can say that, but how do we get people to feel it? If you don’t feel that you’re participating in this big story of humanity, it’s all just entertainment, or even annoyance.”
The Meaningful Universe Club is Abrams, Chris Wellens, Jane Heyse and Karen Cozza. It began as a book group, a core circle of women, none of them academics, looking to educate themselves on the world’s religious traditions, in order to find some common thread in them all. The group then expanded to embrace a purpose, to find some kind of common language or story in the world’s religious traditions, as well as in the secular world, of humanity’s purpose and destiny.
Wellens came to the group from her work in the tech sector. “We have some very difficult challenges that mankind has never faced before,” she said. “And nobody really seems to know how we can get from where we are right now to where we need to go.”
Wellens said that the vital work is to shake off old notions of religion and find a new way of talking about transcendent issues and human commonality. She mentioned a new book by actor Rainn Wilson titled “Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution.” “In that book, he said he’s inventing a new religion, and he talks about bringing people together in community and having potlucks and stuff like that. But our concern is that if you call it a ‘religion,’ then the none-of-the-above [nonreligious] people will steer clear of it. So we lose them all. So we’ve been saying that well, we’re the next step beyond religion.”
The Saturday event is the next evolution of the Meaningful Universe Club, to expand its ideas to a wider community and to somehow transcend people’s stereotypes about both the spiritual world and the academic world. UCSC’s astronomy department and the Earth Futures Institute have signed on as co-sponsors.
“We want to have a series of talks by scientists,” said Abrams, “who will tell us not just ‘This is what I’m working on,’ but ‘Why do we need to know this stuff?’ ‘How can this help the human race move forward?’”
The talks are to be aimed at a public, non-academic audience. “I think people should bring their high-school students, even a 12-year-old would be fine,” she said. “It’s for anyone who’s interested in space or the future of the world, or really has a sense of wonder.”
Is it somehow quixotic to grapple with such enormous issues as the fate of humankind on such a grassroots level? It’s not only organized religion and the academy that are distracted from the uncertain, possibly calamitous issues that face us all; government is seized up with partisanship, media with shiny new baubles, and other institutions with their own internal complications.
Of course, if the Meaningful Universe Club is to make an impact, it has to scale up in size and scope, and to bring in new ideas and new energy.
“I don’t have time for the trivial stuff anymore,” said Abrams. “I’m also fundamentally happy. I’m not a person resigned to a terrible future. I really feel that we have not hit that dividing point yet. We’re really close. We don’t have a lot of time. But I’ve been following this field for decades now. I know what’s out there. That’s why we in Santa Cruz are in a good position. California is the cutting edge of the United States right now, and Santa Cruz is a part of that cutting edge. Let’s do it. Let’s be it.”
“A Future Not Written in the Stars,” a talk by UCSC astrophysicist Madelyn Broome, sponsored by the Meaningful Universe Club, takes place Saturday, Nov. 4, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Peace United Church of Christ, 900 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 in advance.
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