Finding My Religion

San Francisco Chronicle

By David Ian Miller

The evolution-versus-creationism debate is one of those perennial hot-button issues, like abortion and school prayer, that almost invariably leads to polarization. It seems as if you either think there's a place for teaching a biblical perspective in the schools, as many fundamentalist Christians contend, or you believe evolution, grounded in scientific fact, is the only paradigm worth exploring.

Michael Dowd is an itinerant preacher who believes he has found a middle path that transcends and includes both camps. For the past three years, Dowd, a nondenominational Christian minister, and his wife, science writer Connie Barlow, have been driving across the country, stopping at Christian and Unitarian Universalist churches, Jewish synagogues, Quaker meeting houses and Buddhist meditation centers to teach religious audiences about evolution. Their goal is to present a story of the universe, which they call the "great story," in a way that people -- whatever their spiritual orientation -- can embrace.

Dowd spoke with me on Friday from Sonoita, Ariz., where he stopped for a few days before hitting the road again. He'll be in Los Angeles later this week.

You're an itinerant preacher. Where do you actually live?

For the last three years, my wife and I have lived all over North America. We don't have a home. We don't have a storage bin. We don't even have an RV -- we've got a van. So we stay in people's homes while we're teaching and preaching.

What's it like being on the road all the time?

We stay with amazing people. Most of them are committed to a just, healthy, sustainable world, and so we learn from them and share what we learn from others. Often, they introduce us to their favorite places in nature -- waterfalls, meadows, streams, what have you. You wouldn't know about these places unless someone local gave you directions.

You're teaching about evolution in churches, which is kind of a radical concept. According to a Gallup poll from November, more than a third of Americans believe in the story of creation found in the Bible. Why would they listen to you?

The reason many conservatives reject evolution is that they've never been exposed to a way of thinking about it that makes sense and validates their spiritual insights. But one of my basic beliefs is that the person with the best story wins. So, when I speak to religious conservatives, the first thing I say is, "You're absolutely right to have rejected evolution." Because the only version of evolution that most of us have been exposed to is a chance, meaningless, purposeless, mechanistic process.

That's not a version I'm talking about. What I say to them is, "If you'll allow me to, what I'd love to do is share with you a God-glorifying, sacred understanding of evolution." And, at that point, they let me speak.

What, in your view, makes evolution sacred?

Evolution is sacred when it's told in a way that edifies traditional religious traditions yet also stretches them to a new place. I see the entire 14 billion-year story of the universe as the story of God's creativity. It's the story of God's love, of God's grace. I mean, which makes more sense -- that God would have stopped communicating truth that is vital to our well being and destiny 2,000 years ago when people thought the world was flat or that God [has] continued speaking all along? When the Bible speaks about God forming us from the dust of the ground, and breathing into us the breath of life, that's a true story. It matches what science is telling us.

As [cosmologist] Brian Swimme says, "Four billion years ago, the Earth was molten rock, and now it sings opera." But rather than believing that the really important revelations from God happened 2,000 years ago, I believe that God's revelations are happening all the time and will continue to happen. That's the sacred story of evolution.

Other than the Bible, how else do you think those revelations are communicated?

The primary way that God has always communicated is through feelings, circumstances and relationships. God uses whatever technologies and communication tools we have at any given moment. Before there was written language, people communicated through stories. So God communicated with humans through stories, rituals and rites of passage. When writing came into existence, God could then inspire people to write things down. And when science developed as a way of organizing written language, then God was able to use science to communicate.

What do you think God is?

When I use the word God, what I'm referring to is the whole of reality -- seen and unseen, transcendent and immanent, measurable and nonmeasurable. An analogy that I often use is nesting dolls -- you know, the Russian nesting dolls?

That's a small doll that fits inside a larger doll inside of an even larger doll, and so on?

Yeah. There's a fundamental truth about the nature of the universe, about reality itself, which is like these nesting dolls.

What view is this?

It's the idea that reality consists of nested forms of creativity and intelligence. That is, we have subatomic particles within atoms, atoms within molecules, molecules within cells, cells within organisms, organisms within planets, planets within galaxies. And, at every level, there is an intelligence that the other levels don't have access to. I mean, no matter how smart my kidney cells get, they're never going to fully comprehend the wisdom and intelligence of my body, because they're a part of it.

What does that have to do with God?

If this idea of nested intelligence is a fundamental truth that we can agree on, then what shall we name the ultimate reality, the only form of intelligence that's not a subset of some larger reality or creativity? Traditional names for that ultimate reality have been the Goddess, or God, or Allah, or, as the Greeks refer to it, Kosmos. We realize that we have different names and understandings of this ultimate reality because we're a subset of it.

How does science fit into that view?

If God is a sacred name for the whole of reality, then scientists are empirical theologians -- that is, everything we learn about the nature of reality, we're learning something about the divine.

I want to ask you about your own personal story. For a while, you were an anti-evolutionary fundamentalist. How did that happen?

I was raised a Catholic but then had a born-again experience when I was a teenager, and that's when I became a fundamentalist. I would stand outside where people were teaching about evolution and pass out pamphlets. I used to argue with anybody who thought the world was more than 6,000 years old.

What changed your view?

I embraced evolution for two reasons. One was that most of the faculty at Evangel University, a Christian school where I was a student, believed in evolution. So I couldn't write them off as being demonically possessed. I mean, these were very godly men and women. Another reason was that I met a Buddhist Christian who became my teacher. He literally was the most Christ-like man I've ever encountered. And yet his theology was so liberal. My theology said that he was going to hell, and that I should get him saved, but my heart said, "Ask him to mentor you." So my world expanded. I ended up pastoring three churches over about a decade.

And while I was at my first church, I was introduced to the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. They wrote the book "The Universe Story," which provides a big-picture history of the cosmos that bridges the gap between science, religion and the humanities. The first night that I heard their message, about 45 minutes to an hour into the program, I had goose bumps up and down my arms, I started to cry and I realized, "Oh, my God, this is what I'm going to spend the rest of my life doing, popularizing this perspective."

After that, I started waking up at 4 a.m. and studying cosmology, biology and evolution, and learning more about how to tell the universe story in a way that reached people.

If you look at what's going on in this country right now, you see fundamentalists working very hard to keep the study of evolution out of the classroom. Does that concern you?

Not really. I see this as normal -- to me, it's right on schedule. Right now, the way evolution is being taught is not meaningful. It's part of the disconnected set of raw scientific facts that don't show people how evolution can connect with their God concepts, with their religion.

Do I wish that creationism be taught in school? No, absolutely not. But it feels like a natural growth process that is going to swing back the other way. We're seeing a conservative backlash, which just completely makes sense to me, given where we are evolutionarily. When you look at the history of evolution, you realize it is constantly filled with setbacks. The things that drive evolutionary creativity and transformation are chaos, breakdowns and bad news.

What do you mean?

The dinosaurs are the biggest, easiest example of what I'm talking about. The world was filled with these amazing, majestic beasts, but their level of intelligence could only go so far. The dinosaurs died out in a major catastrophe, and yet mammals would not have been able to flourish had that not been the case. So, that's an example of chaos -- really bad news catalyzing and allowing for new creative possibilities.

But how much time do we have for creative possibilities? If we don't do something soon about, say, global warming, we're in trouble, right?

Global warming is something that we will not be able to avoid. It will force us to make changes at a faster rate, and on a larger scale, than we ever dreamed possible. But here's the interesting thing: When you look at evolution, complex adaptive systems can respond faster the more complex they are. And human beings, like it or not, are interconnected in some profound and complex ways all over the world. I believe we will make changes in the next 30 to 60 years that we can't even fathom. And it will be the bad news, it will be the stupidity, the chaos, the George Bushes of the world, that end up catalyzing some of that change.

How do you see Bush helping the cause of evolution?

I didn't vote for him, but I thank God for George W. Bush, because he is helping catalyze the rest of the world. I mean, how many millions of people were united for peace for the first time in human history, thanks to George? I have a lot of faith in chaos, especially the more complex we become. Ultimately, I'm not an optimist, because an optimist is somebody who believes that it doesn't matter what we do; things will get better and better. I don't believe that. I'm an ameliorist: I believe that what we do is going to make a huge difference. There is no guarantee one way or the other, but when I look at these long-term and short-term trends, I am very hopeful.


During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include, Wired News and The New York Observer.