Preacher, science writer teach on faith, evolution
S.J. Dahlman is associate professor of communications at Milligan College. Reach him at email@example.com.
“Nothing matters more at this time in history than what people think about evolution.” We might expect that kind of universal claim to come from a passionate evangelist, and in a way that’s correct. Except that this preacher, Michael Dowd, says evolution is the good news. Dowd, ordained in the United Church of Christ, and his wife of seven years, science writer Connie Barlow, travel the country full-time, preaching and teaching a surprising message: Rather than threaten or undermine faith, evolution can sustain, inform and even motivate religious belief. “Both of us have this passion of telling the story of evolution in an inspiring way,” Dowd explained in a phone conversation this week. “We share the same purpose of communicating a science-based vision of the universe in a religious way.” They bring their message to Northeast Tennessee on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, speaking at Holston Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church and First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. (For details, call the Rev. Jacqueline Luck at 477-7661 or the Rev. John Shuck at 543-7737.) Dowd published a 430-page book last fall with an eyecatching title: “Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World” (Viking). He also runs a Web site (thankgodforevolution.com). His missionary zeal for “evolutionary theology” comes from a conviction that evolution itself provides meaning to existence by creating — yes, creating — a “holy trajectory” from simplicity to ever-greater complexity. “Humans are part of that process,” Dowd said. “The universe became complex enough so that it could be aware of itself. We’re not separate from nature. It’s nature becoming aware of itself.” He believes that as religious traditions accept this understanding, “they’ll see their truths are more real, more visceral.” This view of the cosmos stands in contrast with evolutionary thinking that leaves little room for purpose or meaning. “When I talk to conservative audiences,” Dowd said, “I tell them they’re right to reject evolution mostly as a chance, purposeless process. I present evolution in a God-glorifying, Christ-edifying, Scripture-honoring way.” In his view, humans represent a high-water mark in evolutionary development: We are conscious of ourselves and seek relationships not only with other humans but with the “ultimate reality” itself. In Dowd’s vocabulary, the proper name we give that ultimate reality is God. Language is another bridge linking science and religion, according to Dowd. When we understand how language developed, he said, “All concepts of God and religion make complete sense.” All societies grow up with what he calls “night language … the language of dreams and metaphors that humans have used through their history to explain the world. “These stories speak deep subjective truth,” he said. “The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden — that’s profoundly true in night language. Then science comes along … and puts down night language, speaks only in ‘day language,’ which is literal and fact-based. Myths are pushed aside. Of course the religionists react against that.” But the two “languages” not only exist together. They help interpret each other. “Science and religion cannot be only reconciled — that’s lame,” Dowd said. “There’s mutual enhancing. The scientific enterprise can’t avoid the question of meaning, or it goes off into destruction. The Nazis showed us that. Religion is
enriched by being grounded in the world of day language and concepts.” At first glance, this sounds like the old argument that science and religion operate in different spheres and answer different questions. But not really: Dowd wants to “marry” science and religion, not divorce them. To him, scientific study is a spiritual discipline and religious belief must be informed by science. (“Facts are God’s native tongue,” he likes to say.) Thinking of evolution as the great purpose of existence, directing us to a God as “the ultimate reality,” doesn’t fit easily with long-held beliefs. Dowd’s most persistent criticism comes from “those who take their metaphors literally.” (His book includes about 120 endorsements from religious leaders, philosophers and scientists, including five Nobel laureates. Theologically conservative Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars are notable by their absence.) But look at the world through this lens, says Dowd, and we can see a 21st-century road to salvation. “Evolution understood in a sacred, meaningful way is really good news,” Dowd said. “It bridges all those old divides between head and heart, between science and religion.”