Monday, December 28, 2009

"Thank God for Evolution"

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.


  1. I had a hard time getting through it. I saw him speak at a GA and, to tell you the truth, his complete enthusiasm was a little off-putting. I liked several of his points, but would be really curious to how conservative Christians react to his theories. I felt I was a little bit of an easier sell then someone more fundamental in their beliefs.

  2. Erik: May I suggest you read Wright's "Evolution of God" in context of Dowd and your insightful experiences. The basic issue that Wright is talking about and what appeared to be Dowd's ministry is reconciling the world religions with one another and simultaneously religion with science (evolution and continued discovery). His pretext is that religion like all other human creations has evolved through the millenniums, but have remained relevant by offering two critical psychological elements: social salvation and individual salvation, where he uses salvation in the ancient Greek literal "salvus": as "intact or whole, in good working order and literally translated to be “May you be in good health”.

    What Dowd's ministry was attempting to reconcile the biblical metaphors but then Wright looked at the Abrahamic religions with a critical exception; they all also hold to the "chosen" status, meaning that each faith experience, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and even Bahai hold that they are uniquely chosen with a special (even personal) relationship and scripture with God. This special designation than permeates throughout the denominations---Catholics are the direct lineage of the One Church, Roman or Orthodox, then the Reformation Protestants hold to their special status going back to a fundamental personal experience to Calvin's view of those who are ordained or by fate from the onset or then to the american flavors of evangelicals who are born again and thus have their special relationship where they will not be left behind. This is just Christianity---Islam is no different as is Judaism.

    The barrier of a global enlightenment is religion's reconciliation which comes down to that "special" schism of over 1/2 the world's population. Of course UU's have already found a way in this reconciliation effort both within religious traditions and with science.

    And when you lay over Stewart's Evolution's Arrow perspective that now humans are aware of evolution and therefore are now placed forever in the position of either accepting to use evolution to continue to move forward or choosing to ignore it and becoming obsolete as a species. Evolution is unmerciful and what is it that humans have that other species do not---the ability to cooperate and collaborate at ever larger and more complex systems---what Wright calls non-zero sumness---which he points to religiously as moving to moral truth through an ever increasing moral imagination aka the ability to have sympathy and empathy towards strangers.

    Living amongst the center of the evangelical world I have come to realize that their theology is not about extending this moral imagination outside their defined boundaries---yes they use this Subtitutionary Atonement which is quite belief. What really cuts into their faith experience is what Ehrman's research holds, that the Bible and specifically the New Testament has been changed 500,000 or more times from the original text. That in early texts Jesus was not divine, but wholly human----and therefore the lynchpin to all Christian beliefs that their personal relationship with Jesus---is an illusion.

    My thoughts are that the evangelical movement is beginning to flame out with their demands for a theocracy and attempts at it. Evolution has a way of making those unwilling to join the whole extinct.

  3. Both Ehrman and the Wright book are on my list of books to get to...Dowd, incidentally, quotes extensively from Wright's earlier work on Evolutionary Psychology.

    Interestingly, Mainline Protestants are wisely letting go of the "only one way" point of view; see the book "A Multitude of Blessings" by The Rev. Cynthia Campbell, who is president of the PC(USA)'s McCormick Theological Seminary, about ways that Christians can respectfully engage and dialogue with other faiths.

    I am also cheered by certain evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Francis Collins, who embrace pluralism, science, or both.

  4. Funniest thing, I just hugged Michael in my local grocery store! He and Connie are temporarily living on Whidbey Island while he is treated for a malignant tumor or tumors on his spleen. He's lost his hair and is weak, but his spirits are high. He and Connie will be joining my congregation as members this coming Sunday. His treatment is going well and he is confident of healing.


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