Book Review by Fr. Mervyn Fernando

The Sri Lanka Island

The occasion of the bicentenary of Darwin's birth (Feb 12, 2009) is bound to rekindle the Science vs. Religion debate, or more accurately Science vs. Christianity debate, since the other major religions, notably religions in our part of the world, Buddhism and Hinduism, were not historically involved in it. It is therefore a happy surprise to see Revd. Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution (the title itself is startling for a traditional Christian) hailed as the final answer to the problem. The 2006 Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology/ Medicine, Craig Mello makes bold to say, "The science vs. religion debate is over. Michael Dowd masterfully unites rationality and spirituality in a worldview that celebrates the mysteries of existence and inspires each human being to achieve a higher purpose in life. A must read for all, including scientists". The other numerous enthusiastic commendations of the book by prominent scientists, philosophers and theologians, running into 6 pages of small print, are in the same vein.

What is unusual about Dowd's book is that it is not just an erudite academic discussion of the problem; it is rather an all-encompassing and wide-ranging exploration of science, religion and spirituality which speaks not only to the mind but also to the heart, in an unabashedly personal way, without betraying the hard truths of those subjects. The sub-title says it all: how the marriage of science and religion will transform your life and world.

The Gospel (Good News) of Evolution

The bottom line of Dowd's solution is to take the wind out of the sails of the science vs. religion debate by taking a meta-view of both science and religion, a view as comprehensive as to include cosmic history, psychology, mythology, sociology, spirituality and the human future. Though one may quarrel with some particulars of the argument regarding science or regarding religion, on the whole it is believable, inspiring and intellectually challenging. It does speak authentically to both mind and heart. A good part of the appeal of the book is the engaging verve and infectious enthusiasm with which he does it, without however sacrificing solid science and good religion. Dowd is passionately convinced about the grand story of Evolution revealed by modern science which he reads as a marvellous on-going revelation of God (or the Transcendent) in and through the evolving Nature/World - the Gospel (Good News) of Evolution. And for this he says we, of this day and age have to be deeply thankful, because our forebears of even a century ago were not vouchsafed this grand and exciting vision of the Universe. So, very understandably he has dedicated his whole life, ably supported by his wife, to preaching this Good News.

The great and Grand Story of evolution that Dowd refers to is humanity's common creation story as told by the sciences during the past 100 years or so - the 14 billion year story of cosmic genesis - from the big bang onwards through progressive stages of galaxy formation, of the birth of planets, of the origins of life on earth, of the development of consciousness and culture in the human species and onward to the ever widening circles of communities, local, regional and now global. And he is very conversant with what modern science has to say about all these. To quote Dowd, "The Great Story is quite simply, the sacred story of everyone and everything. It springs from the grand narrative of an evolving Universe of emergent complexity and breathtaking creativity. No human story is left out. The Great Story can thus help us understand cultural, as well as natural history in ways that honour and embrace all religious traditions and creation stories". He goes on to say that this story is not yet over; evolutionary change at all levels is going on, and now at this human stage, we bear responsibility for how the story will unfold in the future. We are evolution become conscious of itself (Julian Huxley, Teilhard de Chardin). Very importantly this Story is open to, and even welcomes, multiple interpretations. The Big Bang origin of the Universe is almost universally accepted, as of now, in the scientific world but what it means in different religious/spiritual perspectives or even to an individual, will invariably differ. Dowd makes much of the distinction between Event (factual, measurable), Story (subjective) and Meaning (highly subjective). The root source of conflict in personal and social life and among the religions is the tendency to confuse Meaning and Story with Event. Unconsciously we assume that what actually happened is not only our story about what happened, but also what we make that story mean; and if the other disagrees he/she can only be mad or bad!

On the other hand, some of the old creation myths of ancient peoples will have to be re-interpreted in the light of the new data of an evolutionary Cosmos. "Because creation stories of classical religions and native peoples emerged well before the revelation of an evolutionary cosmos, those venerable stories can fulfil their deep-time potential only if the ancient cosmologies are creatively re-interpreted to mesh with the fruits of today's science". Note the positive attitude Dowd takes towards the ancient creation mythologies; he does not dismiss them as nonsense, rather situates them in their respective Sitz im Leben, recognizing their potentiality to be fulfiled by the new science. In fact, the new cosmology can be meaningfully interpreted as a new mythology. (See e.g. The View from the Center of the Universe by Primack and Abrams, a very insightful presentation of the mythology of modern cosmology).

Flat-earth faith-evolutionary faith

One of the major planks of Dowd's thesis is that God's revelation comes through Nature and its unfolding evolution as discovered by modern science, which he sees as a vehicle of God's revelation. Here we may recall that for St.Thomas Aquinas the first revelation of God is found in the book of Nature, and later in the book of the Bible. Now we know it is an on-going process, not a static one; and our understanding of it is also open to change and revision. Science is quintessentially falsifiable and revisable. Dowd calls this revelation through Nature and science, public revelation, namely a revelation open to all irrespective of religious or ideological persuasions. In his view, revelations enshrined in some religious traditions - the Scriptures-are private revelations As such they are (1) meaningful only to the respective believers and (2) as Scriptures, namely as the written Word, not that amenable to change. These scriptural traditions, pre-dating a Copernican understanding of the cosmos, fall under the category of what he calls "flat-earth faiths". "A distinction must be made at this point between flat-earth faith and evolutionary faith....What I mean by flat-earth faith is not people believing the world is flat. Rather it refers to any perspective in which the metaphors and theology still in use came into being at a time when peoples really did believe the world was flat - that is when there was no reliable way for humans to comprehend the world around them by means of science-based public revelation. Religious traditions that are scripturally based, and whose texts have not changed substantially since the time of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Hubble, Crick, Dawkins, and Hawking become, necessarily, flat-earth faiths when interpreted literally". Dowd goes onto say, very consistently, that the same applies to eastern religions and their scriptures - Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism - as well; they came into being in a "flat-earth epoch", and if they are interpreted literally today, they are flat-earth faiths. I have added emphasis to "interpreted literally" because the critical challenge to the peoples of the Book is reconciling, in Dowd's language, private revelation with public revelation. Devotees of the Book may not take kindly to the expression "private revelation"; they would ask, "is revelation contained in the Bible, Koran, the Thanak etc. merely private revelations." ? They would insist that their Scriptures are meant for all peoples, though their message may be directly accessible only to the respective believers.

This does not deter Dowd from being hopeful, and even entertain a deep conviction about the need for traditional religions to become evolutionary not only for their own good but also for the future well-being of humanity. Referring to Christianity he says, "Evolutionary Christianity is an integral formulation of the Christian faith that honours biblical and traditional expressions, conservative and liberal, while enthusiastically embracing a deep-time world-view. Evolutionary Christianity interprets the entire history of the Universe in a God-glorifying, Christ-edifying, scripture honouring ways" (author's emphasis). Dowd believes that all religions have begun the task of moving from flat-earth understanding of their core insights to evolutionary interpretations of the same. The process is perhaps too slow and too haphazard. A mere catching-up exercise will not suffice to maintain the relevance of the religions to a modern vision of the world, its enlightenments, technological achievements, global concerns, anxieties, crises etc. Dowd's book makes us painfully aware of the warning of the Gospels that new wine cannot be put into old bottles.

Belief in God

Dowd's understanding of God mocks the most vexed question of the de-Christianised West, "Do you believe in God?" The public revelation of science has shown us that the whole of reality is creative in a nested emergent sense; smaller realities are contained within larger ones, each element being whole and part - a whole/part, or holon, a key concept in the philosophy of Ken Wilber, following Arthur Koestler. So, we might say logically, Ultimate Reality or God is the One and only Whole that is not part some larger, or more comprehensive reality. Because we humans are a subset of the Whole we cannot step outside it to grasp the full nature of that Ultimate Reality which will always remain both known and unknown. The sciences put together reveal that "Creation is a self-organizing, nested emergent process of divine creativity - creative wholes that are part of larger creative wholes within still larger wholes". As Wilber suggests this "holarchical (or nestedly hierarchical) vision of reality will form the solid foundation for the science, philosophy and theology of the 21st century. (see, A Brief History of Everything)

Scientists and theologians are grappling with the riddle of the world in two different languages. "Scientists using objective language see the Universe as evolving in accordance with the dictates of natural law, the happenstance of initial conditions, the unpredictability of chaotic components, and the striking dependability of evolutionary emergence. Theologians using subjective language speak of "the Creation" as having being sourced by God's will and maintained by God's grace. Only now we can appreciate that these are different ways of speaking about the same fecund processes. To argue over whether it was God, evolution or the self-organizing dynamics of emergent complexity that brought everything into existence is like debating whether it was me, my fingers tapping the keyboard or the electrical synapses of my nervous system that produced this sentence"

And if you ask Dowd whether this is a God you can worship and pray to, he says: "I offer a resounding Yes!", and may I add, for very cogent reasons.