Some months ago I started reading Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution. Didn't get very far, but that's not the book's fault; I'd been reading a series of books on theology and Christian history, and I just needed a break. I have picked it up again and I'm about halfway through it.
Dowd is probably familiar to many UUs. He's spoken at many of our churches; his wife and collaborator, Connie Barlow, is a UU herself. And he's been featured in UU World. I first heard of him when he spoke at my church about 5 years ago. He gave a great talk, and I admire the work he's doing.
A one-time Pentecostal who believed the Bible literally and later evolved his own thinking and theology, Dowd is now an "evangelist for evolution." His basic position is that a major obstacle, at least in our culture, to the acceptance of the indisputable evidence that science has produced about the age of the earth and how life and even the universe itself have evolved over time is that people long for and even need a mythopoeic (or mythopoetic, if you prefer)approach to information like this that touches so deeply our human identities. He's part of a group of writers, scientists, and others in the loose Epic of Evolution movement for such an approach to convey the science of evolution.
Evolution is a particular hobby horse of mine. As the son of an Anthropologist who grew up in a rural part of the country in which Bible Belt fundamentalism was quite pervasive, I got quite accustomed to arguing the topic with my schoolmates. I read in 8th Grade a terrific account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, written by the science fiction and science fact writer L. Sprague DeCamp; that led me to Irving Stone's biography of Clarence Darrow, who in my high school years, when I eagerly looked forward to becoming a lawyer, was my hero.
But I never had any difficulty in reconciling my acceptance of science and my belief in God. Certainly that wasn't an issue in the Episcopal church where I grew up. And I know there are millions and millions of Christians who feel the same. Indeed, as I've posted before, my experience of awe and wonder at the findings of science have in their own way reinforced my basically theistic worldview. (I recall sometime in my middle-school or teen years arguing the point with a fundamentalist friend, and making the analogy between God and evolution and the many changes in shape a ball of clay might take under our hands as we made a clay figure.)
It's worth noting that in the church in which I grew up, the notion of Jesus as "personal savior" was also not emphasized. Jesus as the Son of God, yes. Jesus as resurrected on Easter, yes. But the meaning of his crucifixion and resurrection were far, far more obscure and complex. "Redeemer" and "reconciliation" were favorite words. But when a new priest came to our parish when I was in, I think, 6th grade or so, he asked me about the popularity of "Jesus Saves" billboards, tracts and bumper stickers -- and in such a way that it was very clear to me he was a bit scornful of the theology they reflected.
By contrast, the fundamentalists around me had a very clear, concise understanding, embedded in that "Jesus Saves" message: Jesus died as the punishment for our sins--but we had to accept that death on our behalf, or we'd get the punishment we deserved, eternity in hell, when we died. That's why, to them, it was so critical to "accept Jesus as your personal Savior."
I don't know when it happened, but sometime over the last 10 or 15 years, a penny dropped for me about why the fundamentalists were so invested in the literal interpretation of the Creation Story: Because it was the fundamental underpinning of the Jesus Saves theology, or, to use the bigger word I've been using these days, Subtitutionary Atonement. Their understanding/definition of Jesus's mission was rooted in the literal Fall, the literal Original Sin of Adam and Eve. Take away that story literally, and it pulls the rug out from under the whole Jesus Saves/Substitutionary Atonement theology.
I recall making that point to Dowd during a talk-back when he visited my church, and I remember he, while taking note of the point, seemed not to think it was that big a deal. And reading his book, I now understand why -- and I see his point.
Among Dowd's goals is to reach out to the fundamentalist and evangelical communities and help them accept the science by reframing the old literal doctrines as meaningful metaphors -- rather than simply rejecting them as silly superstition. Indeed, he's attempted to make this book accessible to Atheists and Evangelicals alike. The details of his approach and argument I'll save for another time. But it's a fascinating and even audacious endeavor, and given his background, if anyone can do it he might be the person.
Thank God for Evolution is a sprawling book, and tries to do many things, perhaps too many. It is part popular science book, part popular theology book, and even part self-help manual, all wrapped up in a polemic on behalf of pluralism, diversity, the environment and science itself. At times the earnestness with which he writes can become a bit much, but I suspect that is for an audience for whom that earnest voice is critical to reach.
I'm looking forward to the rest of it.
3 hours ago