Thank God (?) for evolution

Frederick News Post

By Ron Cassie

Last month marked the 200th birthday of a man many fundamentalist Christians hold in deep disdain to this day.

Charles Darwin, like Galileo centuries before him, was a scientist who sought greater insight into the mystery of the world around him. Also, like Galileo, Darwin did not claim to disprove God's handiwork in the universe.

"The Origin of Species" altered the understanding of existence forever, and remains the foundation of natural science, 150 years after publication. But some religious people still condemn it and consider its tenets in adamant opposition to their belief in the God of the Bible.

It is a biological and spiritual gap Rev. Michael Dowd wishes to reconcile.

Author of the best-seller, "Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World" (2008), Dowd argues that rather than disproving the existence of God, Darwin actually presented majestic evidence of the true and divine nature of His creation.

Dowd calls it "The Great Story."

The evolutionary evangelist will present his book, endorsed by five Nobel laureates, and his unifying theory of Darwin's discovery and religious belief, at the Unity Church in Frederick on Friday..

Rev. Toni Fish, of the Unity Church, invited Dowd to speak as part of Frederick 's Season of Nonviolence, which runs annually from late January to early April. The program commemorates the anniversaries of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassinations.

"He does a beautiful job of bringing all the various areas of science together, describing how they are woven into this beautiful story -- a myth that represents the truth," Fish said.

Fish said she wanted to include Dowd in the Season for Nonviolence because the story of evolution and diversity holds universal appeal.

"My individual story, or my culture's story may be different than someone else's, but it is part of the same whole," Fish said. "So much conflict today in the world comes from us holding our culture out as entirely different when it is part of the same story."

Raised Catholic, Dowd had a born-again experience while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany in 1979. He eventually became a Pentecostal minister. Later, however, he became friends with a former Trappist monk, described as a "Buddhist-Christian," who helped expand his own thinking evolve.

Over time, Dowd began to accept broader spiritual and scientific ideas, including evolution and underwent what he called a second born-again experience.

Today, Dowd and his wife, Connie, who holds a degree in biology from Michigan State University, drive across North America in their Dodge van, which they call Angel. They set up laptops and on-the-road offices in host families' guest rooms as they move from speaking engagement to speaking engagement. They sleep in the van each night.

Dowd considers carrying the evolutionary message his life's mission.

"Science has always been presented in a way that is devoid of meaning in the way that religion is," Dowd said in a phone interview earlier this week. "So why would anyone trade science for religion? My work is about helping the religious community embrace science -- with the interpretation that it is deeply magnificent and inspiring."

Dowd said it is the literal interpretations of the Biblical creation story that limit the power and scope of God's endeavor.

"Human beings have always needed to have a way of looking toward the future with trust rather than fear, look back with gratitude, and look to their present life with the hope and expectation necessary to be in action," Dowd said.

"Religions have traditionally performed that role, but no one until recently has pointed to science as offering, empirically, the same things."

As Dowd sees it, the Earth and cosmic history are part of a multi-billion-year holy narrative. It's a story he believes to be more compelling, elegant and inspiring than that of a supernatural power from outside the system acting in seven days.

Dowd doesn't discount Christianity, but joins it with this "holy narrative" of evolution.

The proof that life is everlasting, Dowd said, is evident in the cycle of chaos and breakdowns from which ever newer and greater changes have brought ever more complex and diverse species and associations.

He compared the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth in the universe with the story of Jesus' death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter.

And as life in the universe has grown increasingly diverse and interconnected Dowd said, human beings have recognized and responded in similar fashion with new tools, such as the World Wide Web.

"We do not get that from the ancient religious texts, but from the scripture of the universe itself," Dowd said.

The Vatican might quibble with his theology, but it is sponsoring a five-day conference to mark the 150th anniversary of the "Origin of the Species." It has decreed recently that evolution is not incompatible with Christianity.

Dowd's preaching is built around the concept of "global integrity," which he defines as the "right relationship at and with all nested levels, from the personal to the planetary, valuing the past, benefiting the future."

He believes metaphors such as "the survival of the fittest" and "nature red in tooth and claw" to be out-of-date, preferring "survival of those who fit best," to describe adaptation. He stresses human beings must understand our ecological associations, which he places in a sacred context.

"What, after all, is the food web, if not a variation of, 'Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you,'" he asked in response to a query on his website.

"When we speak of the 'interdependent web of life,' what we are really talking about is one big divine banquet -- holy communion' at the scale of the whole planet."

The idea of keeping a "deep-time" perspective as we act, Dowd said, is what a more traditional Christian pastor might call actingin Christ.

Ultimately, evolution study shows us hope, he said. It is proof that the future --in the long run -- has never failed to move the human condition forward.

Dowd's evolution ministry appears to reach a conclusion analogous to another religious figure's faith, albeit regarding the social evolution of mankind.

"Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long," Martin Luther King Jr. said 42 years ago at the 10th anniversary convention of the South Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, "but it bends toward justice."