Unconventional gospel: Self-described 'evolutionary creationist'

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Ann Rodgers

The Rev. Michael Dowd set out to preach the gospel, and he figures that's what he's still doing as he and his wife live out of their car, preaching "the gospel of evolution."

Evolution, he said, tells the story of God's interaction with the universe, and can provide a framework for people of all faiths to work for a better world.

"I'm an evolutionary creationist. I'm a liberal conservative," said Mr. Dowd, who will speak Friday at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills in Mt. Lebanon. His view is not rare among evangelicals, though few have his zeal for the subject, he said. Part of his ministry is to zap caricatures on all sides of the evolution debate.

A June 2007 USA Today/Gallup poll found that 39 percent of Americans "definitely" believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." Another 27 percent thought that was "probably true," while 30 percent believe that God guided evolution. Just 13 percent said God had no part in evolution.

Mr. Dowd, 49, was raised Catholic -- a tradition that has long reconciled faith with evolution. But teenage problems with drinking, drugs and sex led to a conversion to Pentecostalism when he was 21 and a soldier stationed in Germany, he said.

"For the next five years the books I read and the people I hung out with were coming from a very anti-evolution, fundamentalist perspective," he said.

After the Army he enrolled at Evangel College in Missouri, an Assemblies of God school. Evolution was taught in the biology classes, but few students were exposed to it, he said.

"Most of the faculty would probably have considered themselves theistic evolutionists, but the vast majority of the students could go through the entire four years and, unless they're a science major, wouldn't have their worldview challenged," he said.

It was easy for him to accept evolution again, but it would not become important to him until years later. He studied for the ministry at what is now Palmer Theological Seminary, an evangelical school in Wynnewood, Pa., and became pastor of a dually affiliated American Baptist and United Church of Christ congregation in Massachusetts. There he began reading Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest and environmentalist who called himself a "geologian" or theologian of the Earth.

"I encountered a science-based understanding of the universe that talked about it revealing God's truth," Mr. Dowd said.

He spent several years organizing "sustainable lifestyle" projects in Oregon and New York, urging citizens to take such steps as recycling and composting. He also worked to get clergy of many traditions to support environmental issues before Congress.

But six years ago, after marrying science writer Connie Barlow, he embarked on his calling as an evolutionary evangelist. What Father Berry had done in a scholarly, liberal Catholic sort of way, he took on in a flaming Pentecostal sort of way. His book "Thank God for Evolution" is due out from Viking in June.

"Evolution theology, a sacred understanding of the whole story of the universe, bridges head and heart, it bridges faith and reason, it provides guidance and restores realistic hope" for a better future, he said.

The instincts left over from earlier times are "the unchosen nature" that many Christians call original sin, he said.

"Those instincts can sabotage us if we let them because the world they evolved in is very different from our world, which is based on commitment and responsibility," he said.

Some people who have attended his seminar have said "it was the first time that the humanists and the evangelicals in their family could find common ground and have a meaningful conversation," he said.