Evangelist sees hand of God in evolution

Oakland Tribune

Dowd preaches 'sacred, inspirational' story of how universe was created

By Rebecca Rosen Lum

Long, lanky and athletic, the Rev. Michael Dowd paces the stage, gesticulating, his voice moving from a whisper to a gleeful roar.

"The atoms of our bodies are literally stardust," he tells the rapt crowd. "The carbon and the oxygen and the nitrogen were formed inside red giant stars. The gold and silver and other heavy metals were formed in supernova stars that then explode" -- his voice reaches a crescendo -- "with this tremendous metal-rich stardust."

He is an itinerant preacher with a cosmological message to spread. Evolution is God's work, he tells his audiences.

A passionate preacher with a Pentecostal style, Dowd has undergone his own evolution.

So serious is he about his "responsibility to find more sacred, meaningful holy ways of promoting evolution" that Dowd has taken to criss-crossing the country in a van with his wife, science writer Connie Barlow.

Raised as a Catholic, Dowd underwent a born-again experience after wrestling with drug, alcohol and other problems. Newly convinced the world began 6,000 years ago, he showed up to evolution talks to argue.

While a student at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo., Dowd stormed out of his biology class, saying Satan had a foothold at the Christian academy.

Then he was born yet again.

For starters, his professors at Evangel believed in evolution yet were devout.

He was introduced to a Buddhist-Christian Monk whom he describes as the most Christ-like man he had ever met.

"My head said, 'Get him saved,' but my heart said, 'Get him to mentor you.' "

He discovered the works of Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, whose "The Universe Story" offers a view of the cosmos that embraces science and faith.

When he heard a talk on "The Universe Story" his reaction was immediate and visceral.

"I had goose bumps up and down my arms and legs and I started to cry," he said. "From then on, I became very passionate about evolution."

He met Barlow at a New York City talk by mathematical cosmologist Swimme.

"She was in the sciences, communicating evolutionary sciences in the most soul-nurturing ways possible," he said. In their travels, Barlow puts on workshops for children at zoos, arboretums, Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Today, he and Barlow have garnered plenty of media attention touring the country in an oversized 2003 white Dodge Sprinter with "Jesus hearts Darwin" emblazoned on the side and a license plate that says "Ecozoic."

They stay in the homes of supporters, and he speaks to groups of Unitarians, Mennonites, Buddhists, Quakers and humanists. He has not been invited to address fundamentalist congregations, but he did meet with 125 moderate to liberal evangelicals at a conference in the Bahamas.

"We're going to see this evolution theology movement come into the mainstream," he said, chatting over a Formica table in a McDonald's -- the only place in San Francisco's Mission District with parking spaces large enough to accommodate his 20-foot-long van.

"We see the sciences as revelatory," he said. Fundamentalists believe "all the really important revelation happened in Biblical times, and we are saying no."

Superagent Jillian Manus is handling his latest book, "Thank God for Evolution." She sent copies to 10 friends. He cut a planned stop in Sausalito to fly to New York to meet with publishers.

Through the use of mythic, poetic language, Dowd believes he can inspire believers and non-believers to grasp evolution -- and the universe -- as a continuous revelation.

"Any God that can be believed in or not believed in is precisely not what I'm talking about," he tells a congregation in a video clip. "Do you get that? I'm talking about something that is undeniably real. whether you call it God or not is up to you."

Dowd said 10 to 15 percent of people on either end of the belief spectrum will never embrace his message, no matter how hospitable the messenger.

He doesn't blame fundamentalists for tuning out evolution.

"They've only been exposed to (it as) a mechanistic, uninspiring, soulless process," he said. "Until they've been exposed to a sacred, inspiring version they should reject it."

Evolution is not the savage process the term "survival of the fittest" would imply, he said.

Rather, "All of nature is in an act of holy communion," he said. "It's always saying 'take, eat, this is my body.'

"It's not survival of the most ruthless, it's survival of the most cooperative. Mutual benefit is all throughout nature."