Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Michael Dowd's God (Updated)

Update: Readers are urged to see Dowd's own further clarification in the comments.

Tell me about the God you don't believe in. I probably don't believe in that God either.
~Attributed to various people, including the late Rev. Forrest Church,
Michael Dowd, and others...

In Thank God for Evolution, Michael Dowd tries to square the circle: reconciling Theists and Atheists without insisting that either prove their own or disprove the other position. (He even quotes Richard Dawkins extensively and, largely, favorably.)

He starts by offering a conception or definition of God that is arguably different from the common one of many Westerners, whether they believe in God or not. The standard God-concept is of an infinitely super, sort-of-humanoid being that, while found everywhere in the universe, is nonetheless something apart from the universe. This is the God of the bumpersticker "Worship the Creator, not the Creation".* It's also the God of the famous Atheist Bus Campaign.

Dowd's God is, instead, perhaps most easily understood as "the Universe-plus" -- the "plus" incorporating the ongoing creative force inherent in life and in evolution as well as a not completely definable something more that encompasses everything. It's fairly similar to Marcus Borg's "God we never knew" -- a conception to which Borg gave the name Panentheism (as distinct from "Pantheism," the notion that the universe is God). It's also akin to the Dynamic Deism that David Pyle discusses from time to time. (See especially his response to my questions about his views of Dowd.)

At one point Dowd pretty much directly equates his conception of God and Borg's Panentheism, but then suggests that the term Panentheism might best be replaced as it hasn't adequately caught on. He offers, instead, the term "Creatheism". And here he gets particularly clever -- and I can't quite decide whether I use that term sincerely or with a dash of mocking irony.

"Creatheism" can be pronounced two ways, he observes, and offers himself (a theist) and his wife and collaborator, Connie Barlow (an atheist), as examples: He is a Cre-uh-Theist; she is a Cre-Atheist. In essence (and this is my summary, not his), he looks at this marvelous, creative, evolving universe and conceptualizes the totality of it as participating and residing in God. She sees it as not-God.

It's an approach that will most quickly resonate with liberal Christians who are already on board with, or at least open to, Marcus Borg's thinking, although for some may find too little of the personal God in his conception that is core to their own belief systems.

Whether evangelicals can bridge the gap between their own historic belief systems and what Dowd offers is another question. Some clearly have, and Dowd, who was once one of them, writes in a way that is profoundly respectful of those historic belief systems in order to help more of them cross that bridge. His biggest challenge to them is to let go of literal interpretations of scripture and adopt metaphorical ones instead. He gets enormous credit, in my opinion, for acknowledging and validating the deeper existential needs that such people seek to satisfy with their scriptural interpretations, and offering ways in which his metaphorical gloss and science-based understanding of the universe can continue to respond to and honor those needs. One of his most inspired catch-phrases is this: "Facts are God's native tongue." (I will discuss his analysis of the Fall and Original Sin in evolutionary terms another time.)

But I suspect that for many his reframed theology is simply going to be dismissed as apostasy. On the flip side, I wonder if the most religion-hostile atheists will find this to be a sufficiently new and different vision of God from the one they (often understandably and rightfully) deride that they pay attention to it, or if they simply dismiss it as old wine in new bottles.

And I would love to be proven wrong on either of those pessimistic doubts.

*An aside: The link is pretty much a random one from a Google search. Interestingly, I found almost as many links from Islamic sources as conservative Christian ones when I did the search on the phrase.


  1. Thanks for this post, DaryStateDad!

    As a minor point of clarification, I'm really neither a theist nor an atheist; I'm an transtheist - an emergentist. I'm a naturalist, an evolutionary humanist.

    Theism and atheism, as concepts, both came into being long before we had an evidential understanding of how the world, in fact, came into being. Given what we now know (not just believe) about evolutionary emergence, I see "theism" and "atheism" as outdated, unnecessary, and unnecessarily divisive concepts.

    When I use the word "God" in my book and public program, I'm always and only meaning a mythic-meaningful (for those who find the word meaninful) personification of reality. Throughout history, humans have always used personal metaphors and analogies when trying to describe and relate to a that which they could neither predict nor control, yet which they were nonetheless inescapably confronted by and bound to deal with on a day-by-day basis, week-by-week, lifetime-by-lifetime basis. Some experienced and thus personified reality as like a Mother, and others as like a Father. Still others personified reality (i.e., circumstances beyond their control) as Lord or King. Today many speak of Reality as a whole as "the Universe" or "Cosmos".

    It surely didn't take a theological rocket scientist to figure out that if you trusted what was undeniably real (i.e., had "faith in God") your life worked better than if you continually resented or resisted what was fundamentally and inescapably so. Naturally and inevitably, myths and legends about how "God" (i.e. reality) was our side and speaks to us uniquely flourished all over the world.

    The paradox today, of course, is that some of those who are speaking most "prophetically" (unflinchingly and uncompromisingly) on behalf of reality are the New Atheists, as I discuss on my podcast: The New Atheists as God's Prophets: http://bit.ly/1PppN2

    In any event, thanks again for the positive mention of some of my ideas. I greatly appreciate it!


    ~ Michael

  2. Thank you, Mr. Dowd. For lazy readers like me, here's a direct link to that podcast: http://bit.ly/1PppN2. I think you'll want to right-click on it to open in a new window.


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