'Evolution Evangelist' Sees God In Science

The Morning News | Northwest Arkansas

Michael Dowd Follows 'Cosmic Bread Crumbs' To Divine

By Bettina Lehovec 

Sample Image"Four billion years ago, the earth was molten rock. Now it sings opera." -- physicist Brian SwimmeAs a student at Evangel College in Missouri, the Rev. Michael Dowd walked out of his biology class, shocked that the textbook included the theory of evolution.The former United Church of Christ pastor once argued that the world was 6,000 years old at best. He now embraces a cosmology that spans nearly 14 billion years.The author of "Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life" spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville on Wednesday. His wife, science writer Connie Barlow, led a sing-along presentation on evolution for children and families.The couple has spent the past six years on the road, speaking to a wide range of listeners in homes, churches and schools. Religious audiences have included Unitarian Universalists, evangelical Christians, Catholics, Buddhists and Jews.Dowd proclaims something he calls "evolution theology" -- the understanding that the 13.7 billion year history of the universe is the story of an "emergent moreness" he considers God.

"Emergent moreness" points to the developing nature of all that exists, he said. Subatomic particles make up atoms which become more complex atoms which give rise to molecules and cells and organisms and ecosystems -- and then planets and solar systems and galaxies and the universe itself.This is what scientists call the nested nature of the universe -- the fundamental truth that all exists within the whole and that, with some setbacks along the way, the trajectory is toward greater complexity. Creation occurs on all levels, whether it's hydrogen and oxygen coming together to form water or stars being born from the same atoms that make up the periodic table of elements.Dowd asked audience members to think of Russian nesting dolls as a metaphor. These are the wooden figures that fit one inside another, from very small to largest. That which we call "God" is the largest nesting doll of all, Dowd said. It includes all the rest and is in all that is.Just as a molecule is in a drop of water and a drop of water is in a person, so each person is part of the vastness of the universe. Reciprocally, the universe includes the person and the drop of water within him."This is not just scientific, secular knowledge. This is religious knowledge. ... The history of the cosmos, earth, life and humanity as one narrative, one story ... is ultimate reality revealing itself to humans."Seeing life in this way gives humans an intimacy with the divine that's been lost through millennia, he contends."Studying evolution is like following cosmic bread crumbs back to God. Dinosaur bones and prehistoric artifacts are here to teach us faith, not test it."Life is something every human being can not NOT believe in. ... To get right with God, we have to get right with reality. To reject evolution is to reject reality and ultimately, God."Creation Myths A Metaphor For One RealityThe scientific facts of evolution comprise a "public revelation" of God's grace, Dowd contends. Unlike the private revelation that occurred to Paul on the road to Damascus, this one is equally accessible to all.Looking up at the night sky fills every human being with wonder, he said. No matter the names people use, the awe with which they approach that divine intelligence is the same.The various world religions are different metaphors for the truth of the whole -- that continually creating universe we all are, Dowd believes.Because humans are a smaller nesting doll, there is no way to get out of that position to look at the whole from the outside. We rely instead on analogies and metaphors to describe the essence of our unifying reality, Dowd said.People in different parts of the world encountered different aspects of that one reality -- and they described it in different ways, Dowd said. The creation stories of those who live in a harsh desert climate and those in a lush tropical climate are vastly different, for example. Yet each delivers a metaphor that's sound.When the Genesis story speaks of God creating man from dust, that's literal truth, Dowd said.Every creation myth is an attempt to describe the essence of reality grasped by human beings. Such an understanding can help people accept other religions and beliefs, Dowd said."They all make deep sense if you interpret their metaphors."Dowd showed images from the Hubble Space Telescope to underscore the grandeur of the universe. No belief system is needed to embrace that reality, he said. The fact that the cosmos, with its shifting dance of life and death, exists is evidence enough."It's not about believing in some theology. It's about what we know scientifically."Those whom Dowd calls "flat-earth Christians" are rooted in the evidential mindset of the past, he said. The term applies equally to Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. All the world religions were formulated when humankind believed the earth was flat.Evolution theology offers a radical third perspective to atheism and creationism or intelligent design, Dowd said. Viewed through this lens, we see Biblical tenets as metaphors for the ultimate reality that encompasses all. There's no need for dissension between camps.The concepts of heaven and hell can be reinterpreted to apply to mental states here on earth, Dowd said. When one is loving, caring, compassionate and integral, one experiences the peaceful sensation of "heaven." Similarly, when one is angry, fearful, bitter and unkind, one creates a "hell" on earth.When asked if he believes in God, Dowd answered with a flat-out 'no." Belief is not needed, he stressed. The reality of our own existence is enough. Does a person have to believe in a glass of water to make it real? he asked."Any God that can be believed in or not believed in is precisely what I'm not talking about."Dowd also shuns the label "environmentalist.""The earth is not our surroundings," he said. "The earth is our source."Being a Christian has absolutely nothing to do with belief, Dowd asserts. Rather, it is a way of following the example given by Christ. The word "Christian" means "little Christ," he said. He strives to follow that path by following the four signposts Jesus left us: humility, authenticity, responsibility and serving the larger good."For me, the story of Jesus the Christ is the embodiment of those four things -- the path to our species' salvation."Embracing a cosmic theology matters because one's world view impacts actions, Dowd said. He and his wife have made it their life mission to work for a healthy, sustainable planet.Their message attracted area resident Leigh Wilkerson, a self-described poet, activist and gardener. Wilkerson had heard the two speak before and coordinated their visit to Fayetteville.She's had a lifelong fascination with nature, Wilkerson said, yet Dowd and Barlow showed her something new -- the fact that science and spirituality could meet."Being exposed to Dowd and Barlow helped me recognize some of my own narrow-mindedness," she said in an e-mail sent out to promote the talk. "I believed for the world to change, more people would have to think as I do. After years spent in progressive, liberal and creative circles I am amazed that one of the most diversity celebrating world views I've ever come across is from a former evangelical Christian minister. ..."(Such a world view) could go a long way in creating a culture of peace, promoting social justice and preserving the earth as a viable ecosystem for us and our fellow creatures."BiographyMichael DowdEducation: Bachelor's degree from Evangel University in Springfield, Mo.; master's degree from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, now Palmer Seminary, in Philadelphia.Career: Pastor of United Church of Christ congregations in Massachusetts, Ohio and Michigan; author of the 1991 book, "EarthSpirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity;" religious organizer for the Washington, D.C., based National Environmental Trust; head of the government-funded Portland Sustainable Lifestyle Campaign in Portland, Ore.; campaign manager for the Global Action Plan EcoTeam and Livable Neighborhood programs in Rockland County, New York; itinerant "evolution evangelist" and author.