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Science in The Urantia Book--who, what when, where, why and how

The Fellowship's 2003 Summer Study Session
Dan Massey

In opening this talk I had originally intended to simply say what I had to say, without further comment. On reflection, I decided that you should be forewarned that I am about to question a wide range of statements from and about The Urantia Book. Some of you will find these ideas extremely disturbing. To you I say, think of this talk as a secular critique of the book and the stories that surround it. Think of me as an anthropologist who has disappeared for decades into the jungles of Urantia, and now reports back on some of the strange rituals and beliefs he has witnessed. Some of you will try to invent a point-by-point refutation of my speculations. To you I say, stop wasting your life on foolishness, you’ve missed the entire point of the talk.

When Lee Smith first asked me to speak at this conference, I was somewhat nonplussed by the need to choose a topic. In the past, I have tried to correlate factual statements in the book with the discoveries of science or to expound theoretical statements to see how they might relate to potential scientific discoveries. I decided that I was, after many years, unhappy with this approach to the factual material in the book and needed to reconsider and reevaluate my attitude. In particular, it seemed to me that I was following the path of so many Christian fundamentalists in their tortuous attempts to justify the factual statements contained in the Bible as inspired truths. This was by no means my viewpoint or my desire, and my changing perspective on the book and its sources led me to a new, admittedly speculative viewpoint, which I will present to you today.

To capture the essence of this new attitude towards the book’s “facts” I must briefly recapitulate the history of my own changing perceptions. I will be looking backwards over my own 28 years experience in the movement and over the almost 100 years that have passed since the inception of the revelation.

I encountered The Urantia Book during a personal quest in response to a deeply felt spiritual need for life meaning beyond the secular sureties of science and technology. In the text of the book, I found some possibly correct answers to questions; however, more important, I found a way of talking and writing about emotional and spiritual reality that made these things real to me in a way all formal religions had failed to do. In short, I found the way the book explained things to be far more valuable than the statements the book made.

I did not immediately examine or challenge the “factual” material, including the “scientific” material in the book. I automatically assumed it could not be accurate and would only detract from the rest of the text. I wondered why such material would be in a book like The Urantia Book. As I became more familiar with the book, I found my attitudes towards spiritual and interpersonal realities being transformed by the explanations I read. This transformation has not ceased for the intervening 28 years, and I gladly acknowledge that reading the book radically changed my life and my appreciation of it. Early on in my reading I became convinced that some of the authors of the book were supernatural beings, just as they claimed, and that they were completely serious about what they were saying. I was not prepared, however, to accept the perfect integrity of the text as allegedly revealed. I felt it most likely suffered from deletions and additions by unknown parties. I found it easiest simply to accept what made sense or worked in my experience and to gloss over the rest, most of which was tediously “factual” and not capable of proof, disproof, or experiential realization.

I was fortunate to be able to travel widely, visiting Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and numerous locations in New England during my first few months with the book. These trips enabled me to meet students of the book from many walks of life, with many theories to share about the significance and origin of the book. These theories do not belong to the religion of the book. Rather, they are part of the emerging religion about the book. I was initially interested to determine that the Urantia movement was not dominated by cult-leader figures, who gained power or profit from the respect others accorded the text they controlled.

I learned many stories of the origin of the text, including the various versions put forth by Dr. Sadler and long time members of the First Society. While these stories were somewhat consistent with each other, there were definite aspects that made them seem more mythic than factual. First, the fact that all the information about the origin had been provided by Dr. Sadler and a handful of other people indicated that it could have been completely fabricated to serve some less lofty purpose than promised. On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be anyone in a position to profit from the operation of the movement. At this early time, I did not see how the striving for political and legal positions has tempted so many in positions of “leadership” to skew their loyalties, turning partially from the Master portrayed in the book to serve the mundane commercial and legalistic concerns of organizations.

For many years I avoided making my concerns more public and simply acted as if I believed every word of the book was true and not one word could possibly be incorrectly placed (or abused in editing for publication). The growing body of knowledge concerning human texts that have served as sources for the book, developed over the last ten years by Matthew Block, made this an increasingly hard position to maintain. For example:

I knew the book said its cosmology was “not inspired.” Later, I learned that much of the “science fact” in the book was taken uncritically from human sources. The fact that the redactors did not have a very good understanding of the material they were editing is apparent from some of the errors and inconsistencies in this material.

I learned that Dr. Sadler knew of the extensive borrowings of the book from other sources, since he used and properly acknowledged the same sources in his own popular and professional writings. Yet no one had ever told me that Dr. Sadler knew or reported these things. It seems to have been a closely held secret, perhaps held by the doctor alone. I later learned, however, that Christy once wrote to Jacques Weiss something to the effect of “we know where everything comes from.”

I learned that much of the science material was irreconcilable with well-established findings of modern science. Dates, sizes, locations, in fact all relevant data seems to have been assembled rather casually from contemporary source publications and/or the fanciful human imagination.

As I learned more about the structure of the text and heard more stories about its origin (all first told by Dr. Sadler) it became increasingly clear to me that Dr. Sadler and his close associates could have fabricated any story of the origin of the text that they wished and would have been immune to challenge from the Forum members, who could only accept the story Dr. Sadler told. They could even have arranged for material to appear in the book’s published text that would seem to corroborate any myth they wished to project.

In testing the credibility of a myth it is important to assess the likelihood of it being true, given our knowledge of human nature and the personalities involved. In the case of the book, I found it impossible to think of the various origin stories for the book, as well as the governing documents of the organizations (The Fellowship Constitution and the Foundation Declaration of Trust) as anything other than humanly invented conveniences.

As for what the book says, I found its spiritual assertions, to the extent they could be tested, to be subjectively true and valuable. As for what Dr. Sadler and others have said about the book, I found these stories unappealing due to their incompleteness, inconsistencies, unverifiability, and, in some cases, I feel, distortion to satisfy purely human prejudices. In short, I came to feel that the revelation in the book was, while possibly incomplete in some areas, basically true and good. On the other hand, I came to reject the origin myths so popular among the readership as simple legends that might or might not have a core of fact, but which could not be a useful guide to living with the revelation.

So how does this relate to the “scientific” material in the book? These “factual” assertions are either readily traceable to human sources or deal with matters so remote and abstract one may be fairly confident that either no human source could exist or someone is pulling our leg and actually invented the whole thing like a science fiction tale. Take, for example, paper 42, “Energy—Mind and Matter”. This paper begins with a very high level overview of the nature of material manifestation in the universe and then descends into a garble of an early 20th century college textbook. Then, toward the end, we are suddenly dealing with the abstract and spiritual again. The opening and closing sections could hardly have been written by humans, unless, as I suggested, they were simply faking it. The midsection, however, is for the most part a garbled set of disconnected excerpts from a physics textbook. This assemblage is of such mediocre quality that it must have been prepared by people with no real grasp of the subject matter.

On the other hand, scattered through this miserable redaction one finds such gems as “there are 100 octaves of wave energy,” a statement which flies in the face of practically everything currently or previously thought true of wave phenomena. Is such an inclusion to be taken as a virtually untestable revelation of a physical fact, or as an incomprehensible meander from a line of rigorous logical thought?

Ultimately, the serious student of the book who engages the scientific-factual material is forced to examine a number of possibilities, all of which fail to match details of the origin myths promulgated about the text and/or inserted into the text itself. These problems include:

1)       Absolutely false statements presented as fact.

2)       Questionable or unproven theories presented as fact.

3)       Material obviously copied from human sources presented as original and/or inspired.

4)       Irrelevance of much factual material to the principal themes and topics of the book.

In short, one begins to ask why the book contains so much incorrect information, copied from so many soon-to-be obsolete sources, presented as if it were authoritative, without regard for its contribution to the central content and apparent purpose of the book. At the same time, one must reject the traditional apology of the blindly believing fundamentalist that “the ways of God are unknowable.” Nonsense. God has given man a mind and the power of reason exactly so that he can examine all claims of authority in the light of the Spirit of Truth and the reality of experience. It is our duty to explore the accuracy of all things said in the book and to accept the reality that many of the more factual statements will fail this test.

Revelation, you see, is not necessarily inspired or authoritative. It may simply be affirming for you something you may or may not have already known. We try to accept that The Urantia Book is, on the one hand, an authentic epochal revelation, although we don’t quite know what this means. On the other hand, we recognize that it contains factual errors, inconsistencies, and products of misguided copying and adaptation, all occurring before first publication in 1955. Resolving the dissonance between belief in a revelation and honest recognition of its limitations requires us to reformulate our expectations for revelation itself. No more easy fundamentalism. No. Revelation is no better than the quality of the revelators and the revelatory process which they sponsored. In the case of the factual and cosmological material from The Urantia Book, this appears to be of lesser quality than the more philosophical and/or spiritual discussions.

Let us speculate for a moment on how so much error could have been introduced into the revelation.

We might well imagine that the authors didn’t know any better. If you believe the text is perfect, you must believe its authors were endowed with superior knowledge and intellectual powers. You should find it hard to accept that the authors could be so limited.

Or, we might think the celestial authors felt obliged to insert a lot of misinformation to keep anyone from keying on technical details and, possibly, triggering an unearned technological advancement of mankind. Most people find it hard to think of the celestials as deliberately fabricating a bunch of nonsense to fill the “science” topic.

Perhaps we could understand the situation better if we reconsidered the purpose of the revelators in including “scientific” and “factual” material in the text. I suggest that the main purpose of this inclusion is not to provide any useful information to the reader or student. Rather, it is provided as a “sweet spot”—a point of attraction into the text for the reader who expects such information, but who is not sufficiently analytical or well-informed to notice the unpleasant inconsistencies. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that there are a great many topics treated in the book that have no specific relationship to the central themes, but rather serve as a less demanding entry point for readers obsessed with details, but unready to face the demands of living spiritually.

Suppose then, that the revelators did not intend for the scientific material to be informative to the average reader, just attractive. Perhaps, since the revelators had nothing new to say on these subjects, they simply turned the problem of what to say over to a member of the Contact Commission.

In Christian apologetics the writings of the Apostle Paul are often classified as those in which he speaks “by commandment” and those in which he speaks “by permission.” The latter case thus applies to things that Paul wrote that he did not claim came from God. Rather, he claimed that God had extended to him permission to insert his personal views into his letter.

If I am correct that the science of the book is intentionally uninformative, then it seems reasonable to expect that the revelators may have simply asked Dr. Sadler or one of his associates to write up something to be stuck in the book. Certainly, the presentation and content of such material suggests strongly that it was not prepared by anyone with a technical education. As a boring repetition of unfounded assertions about the physical world, it does not seem to have been written by anyone who cared much about what they were communicating.

It is not, of course, sufficient to imagine Dr. Sadler secretly adding pages to the papers. The writing quality of the material is generally as good as the rest of the book, and superior to Dr. Sadler’s own published writing. In addition, the most suspect material (such as the core of paper 42) is embedded in a textual context that seems clearly beyond human thought in content and structure. Some person(s) or being(s) clearly added to whatever a Contact Commissioner might write and labored greatly to improve the quality of the writing.

The bottom line to all this speculation is, of course, the realization that the Urantian cosmology, which the book itself claims is uninspired, may have largely been authored in secret by Dr. Sadler and his associates. There may also be sections of the book where Dr. Sadler failed to create human-sourced expositions or deleted revelatory material with which he disagreed. The secrecy surrounding the genesis of the revelation and the incredible myths that have sprung up about it make it impossible to dismiss these possibilities.

Looking at the first 100 years (nearly) of the Urantia movement discloses a pattern of behavior by the movement leadership at any given time that fits well with these questions about motives for dealing with textual integrity.

We have been told by “old timers” that Dr. Sadler stated that the text was received in some unspecified manner through a “sleeping subject.” Our first question must be the veracity of this claim. Dr. Sadler told a number of people that the sleeping subject lived in LaGrange, Illinois, near where the Sadlers lived when first coming to the Chicago area. Dr. Sadler also is said to have claimed the subject was a member of the Board of Trade, with no interest in the peculiar phenomena that occurred during his sleep.

Ernest Moyer has devoted considerable time and effort into researching this story. In the end, Ernest was unable to find any person living in LaGrange during the years in question who matched the description given. It is easy to dismiss this as a non-finding, but it is just as likely, if not more so, that no such person actually existed—that they were a fabrication of Dr. Sadler. We can add to this the observation that, if the subject was genuinely disinterested in the phenomena, it was extremely unlikely that they would have accompanied Dr. Sadler to Chicago and remained under his (apparently ineffectual) care for years, if not decades.

If the sleeping subject story is essentially true, then the person must have been much closer to Dr. Sadler than the random trader from LaGrange. Possibly a member of the Sadler household. Probably Bill Sadler or Wilfrid Kellogg. It seems unlikely that we will ever know with certainty.

Moving forward in time a few decades, you have all heard from members of the Forum how secretively meetings were held and how Dr. Sadler read from the papers, inserting his own comments as he felt moved, and prevented the Forum from studying the papers privately and independently. These could be interpreted as the actions of a man who feels responsibility for what he has brought to the table but who is unwilling to expose it fully to critical assessment. Essentially, he is in the enviable position of being able to concoct any content and any interpretation of the text that he sees fit and impose it on the blindly faithful Forumites.

A number of unusual opportunities presented themselves to the students of the revelation in the early days. Allegedly, an opportunity existed to bring the book to print in the late 1940s at the personal expense of William M. Hales, Sr. Dr. Sadler refused to countenance this publication, insisting that printing be deferred until funds had been raised for the project from the entire Forum and not from one individual. We can understand the thinking behind this action, but we must also recognize that what appeared to be a conservative act protecting the text, may also have been an act of fear that allowed Dr. Sadler to retain personal control over the publication of the book.

As another example, in the 1940s a very successful and well-respected popular author, Harold Sherman, after spending some 20 years thinking about how the ideas of The Urantia Book might be efficiently presented to the world, came to Chicago to offer his services to Dr. Sadler. We know that Dr. Sadler feared his role in safeguarding the revelation was threatened by Sherman and his ideas. We also know that Dr. Sadler went to extraordinary lengths to ostracize Sherman from the Forum group and to render his helpful desires ineffectual. Again we must ask ourselves if this was a great missed opportunity for the revelation, allowing Dr. Sadler to preserve and strengthen his personal control, or a wise move that protected the text from some horrible corruption.

Again, consider the founding documents of the “movement”—the Declaration of Trust and the Constitution of Urantia Brotherhood. These twin documents have functioned so poorly over the past 50 years, it is hard to give any credence to the idea that they were celestially inspired, or even approved. Bill Sadler openly declared the probable unworkability of the Foundation/Brotherhood division in commenting on the situation. Why, then, were they adopted? Was it because of the extreme degree of control the documents afforded Dr. Sadler and the extreme degree of disenfranchisement the documents provided for everyone else? Or was it because of supernatural orders?

I have presented three instances from the early years in which actions were taken by Dr. Sadler that can be interpreted as zealously guarding the revelation or eagerly scrambling to retain as much control as possible over the outworking of the revelation.

The mythmakers of Urantia contemplate this situation and declare Dr. Sadler the savior of the revelation. But a secular assessment of the situation would seem to indicate that, while Dr. Sadler was not trying to harm the revelation as he understood it, he was definitely trying to keep as much as possible under his personal control, and would cheerfully fabricate messages and revelations to bolster popular belief in his guidance. His actions have sometimes been reported to have been motivated by personal fear of hostile spiritual forces he thought were arrayed against the revelation.

Strangely enough, understanding this dynamic has not been sufficient to correct it. The negativity, control, and invasive micromanagement are built into the governing documents and the mindsets of the leaders of the organizations, who have gradually self-selected into their roles. In the years since publication of the book we have seen innumerable well-conceived efforts in translation, dissemination, outreach, etc., fail from a lack of organizational willingness to relinquish authority and control.

The Urantia movement seems to have a particularly bad track record in the way it handles volunteers and specialists. Unfortunately, the governing bodies of the Foundation and the Fellowship are, for the most part, populated by generalists. Such people, in their unfamiliarity with operational detail, tend to be inherently distrustful of specialists who would try to help them master the complexities of a modern, growing organization. Such people cannot cooperate effectively with those most dedicated to helping, because of their distrust. As a result of this focus on the retention of social control, valuable volunteer efforts are undervalued, ignored, dismissed, or forcibly suppressed as they were under the leadership of Dr. Sadler himself.

This situation is symptomatic of the despotic organization and operation of the Foundation and the Fellowship for all these many years. In each case, Dr. Sadler and his associates took advantage of every legal angle to assure that readers of the book would be almost completely disenfranchised from any decision-making regarding the publication and dissemination of the text. This fear-driven and inappropriate reaction to the mere possession and control of the text has produced a publisher that usurps the role of a church and is accountable to no one. It has also produced a membership organization that makes it actually or nearly impossible for its members to influence the policies and actions of its officers. Both organizations signally fail to support, motivate, reward, or properly recognize the unsolicited work of volunteer teams with affinity for a specific service.

Successful pluralistic organizations do not arise by design alone. In fact, over-design may become an impediment to change and progress, as seems to be the case with the Fellowship and Foundation. I believe that the time has come to correct this error, but I do not claim to offer a detailed, explicit solution. While it is true that I have many specific opinions on the matter of organization, I do not claim these opinions should be taken uncritically. A successful organization will not arise from my suggestions or those of any team that does not fully represent the diverse interests of the readership.

Unless Urantia Foundation has a change of heart and decides to pursue its genuine religious purpose, it seems most unlikely that any reformation of structure or behavior can occur on that front. Obviously, the Foundation can easily continue to do what it has been doing, with or without lawsuits, but it must accept that, as the book becomes well-known and multiple publishers are developed, it will no longer occupy a central position in the movement.

The Fellowship is also likely to fade in importance unless it finds ways to restructure itself to promote member involvement and to support the ministry of all Urantians. Of the many possible approaches to rectification, I most prefer one in which the members of the Fellowship undertake the reformation themselves. I refer, of course, to the oft-discussed constitutional convention.

The key to enabling a broad Fellowship reform is to empower the membership to reform the organization in any way on which a majority can agree. But the constitution of the Fellowship makes no provision for amendment by convention, thus denying this major power to the polity. Empowerment thus comes to mean the amendment of the Fellowship constitution to provide for the calling of a binding constitutional convention, with the customary powers and prerogatives.

Once such an amendment has been accomplished, if there remains sufficient interest in reformation, a convention could be called by a majority of members, including members-at-large. This would be a fairly large and complex undertaking. Many individuals with experience of the existing organization would be drawn to participate in initiating major change, but they would be influenced now by input from a much larger group, with less commitment to the status quo. The organizational framework emerging from such negotiations and compromises would ultimately be far more robust than the present church-like constitution. One might look approvingly on plans that would provide for continual review and reformation of the organization,

Absent change in the Foundation and Fellowship organizations and relationships, why would anyone look to either for movement leadership?

We should each be moving ahead to engage our own networks, to plan our own projects, and to conduct our own ministries with no need to seek permission or approval. Let all those who will, join us in our efforts, while we take care not to become dependent on a single individual or a small clique with political motivations.

If the work is worthy, it will prosper.

Friends, the time has come to be about your father’s business. Let us join in friendship and fellowship as we move forward into a new era of individual freedom and personal choice. Let us go forth exhibiting divine love towards all, in every walk of life.