Evolutionary Evangelist Preaches Reconciliation Between Science and Religion
SEATTLE, WA. September 30, 2005 — The evolution vs. “intelligent design” debate currently raging across the United States is just the beginning, just the tip of the iceberg, judging by the attention a self-styled “America’s evolutionary evangelist” is generating. Rev. Michael Dowd travels North America preaching a gospel that is billions of years old.
For the past three and a half years, Dowd has lived on the road with his wife, acclaimed science writer Connie Barlow, offering programs on what they call “the marriage of science and religion for personal and planetary wellbeing.” Their work takes them to liberal and conservative religious and educational settings across the continent. Rev. Dowd has spoken to hundreds of groups and tens of thousands of people of all ages, sharing what he says is “a message of realistic hope and inspiration, grounded in reason, inspired by faith.”
“We are in the early stages of one of the greatest and most far-reaching transformations in human consciousness ever,” claims Dowd. “What most people do not yet realize is how the present conflict between science and religion will stimulate both to mature in healthy ways. Neither will drive the other into extinction and both will evolve considerably.”
“Very quickly,” Dowd says, “well within the first half of this century, we will all – believers and atheists alike – come to appreciate how evolution is a gift to religion, and how meaning-making is a gift to science.”
He believes that in the classroom, where science is learned, a whole new era of excitement is dawning as students are taught that the discoveries of science raise the same deep questions that have stimulated philosophers, mystics, and saints for millennia — and that a rich diversity of interpretations is available.
“As religious traditions come to embrace the science-based history of cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity in sacred ways,” says Dowd, “each tradition’s own unique insights will be seen in larger, more meaningful, more realistic ways than ever before. And we will find common ground that today seems nearly inconceivable.”
“One can begin to sense the immensity of this coming transformation,” Dowd suggests, “by reflecting on how a sacred understanding of natural history can provide ways of thinking and talking about Ultimate Reality, or God, that religious believers and scientific skeptics can both celebrate.”
Let’s Stop Trivializing God, The Universe, and Our Role in Evolution!
Michael Dowd September 30, 2005
Do you believe in life?
Well, do you?
This is an absurd question, yes? Of course! It doesn’t matter whether we “believe in” life or not. Life is all around us, and in us. We’re part of it. Life is, period. What anyone says about life, however, is another story, and worthy of belief or disbelief. If I say, “Life is wonderful,” or “Life is a jungle,” or “Life is unimportant; it’s what happens after death that really matters,” you may or may not believe me, depending on your own experience and worldview. What we say about life — its nature, its essence, its purposes, its patterns, its meaning — along with the metaphors and analogies we choose to describe it, is wide open for discussion and debate. But the reality of life is indisputable.
This is exactly the way that God can be understood, and is understood by many, from the perspective of the Great Story; that is, when human, Earth, and cosmic history are seen as an inspiring, sacred narrative. This way of thinking about deep time, the divine, and the emergent complexity of life offers a refreshingly intimate, scientifically compelling, and theologically inspiring vision of God that can serve as common ground for skeptics and religious believers of all kinds.
Ever since human beings began telling stories about life’s big questions — Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? How does one live an honorable life? — we have used analogies and metaphors based on our experience to describe the nature of reality. Some cultures looked up, out, and around, and (given their experience) proclaimed, “Mother.” Other cultures did the same and said, “Father.” Both are true. That is, both are accurate, albeit metaphorical reflections of the way reality is actually experienced in different parts of the world, by different peoples. The simple yet rarely appreciated fact is that every religion makes sense given the bioregion in which it emerged and the plants, animals, terrain, and climate its early believers reflected upon. A religious concept such as “the lamb of God” could only emerge in a culture familiar with sheep.
The varied ways by which earlier societies referred to reality or spoke about the divine, however, is not central to my point. Rather, I suggest that for peoples alive today, any understanding of “God” that does not at least mean “Ultimate Reality” or “the Whole of Reality” (measurable and non-measurable) is a trivialized, impotent, and inconsequential notion of the divine.
One of the most significant scientific discoveries (revelations) of the last few hundred years, and something that could not have been known (revealed) prior to telescopes, microscopes, and computers, is that reality as a whole is creative in a nested directional sense. Subatomic particles reside within atoms, which comprise molecules, cells, organisms, and societies, like nested dolls of increasing size and complexity. Outward, we find planets within star systems, within galaxies, within superclusters of galaxies. And at every level, each whole/part (“holon”) expresses its own unique form of creativity (the power to bring into existence): Stars create most of the atoms in the periodic table of elements. Atoms of hydrogen and atoms of oxygen, when bonded in partnership, create water. The Sun and Earth together create fishes and forests, dragonflies and dancers. Human cultures create art, music, religious theologies, and scientific theories.
Reality understood as “nestedly creative” is not a belief. It is an empirical fact accepted by virtually everyone, religious conservatives and atheists alike. “God,” from this perspective, can be understood as a legitimate proper name for the largest “nesting doll”: the only Reality not a subset of some larger reality — that which sources and infuses everything, yet is also co-emergent with and indistinguishable from everything and anything.
There are, of course, innumerable other ways one can speak about Ultimate Reality and/or theologize about God. But if “God” is not a rightful proper name for “that Reality which transcends and includes all other realities,” then what is?
This way of thinking sheds new light on traditional religious understandings of “God’s immanence and transcendence.” As the largest “nesting doll,” God — that is, Reality as a Whole, measurable and non-measurable — embraces, includes, and is revealed throughout the entire Cosmos and in all of life (is immanent and omnipresent). God is the great “I Am” of existence. Yet as the source and end of everything (as Ultimate Reality surely must be), God is also more than the material world (Reality transcends the physical).
This understanding of the divine makes questions like, “Do you believe in God?” moot. Any “God” that can be believed in or not is a trivialized notion of the divine, and certainly not what I am talking about. Like life, reality simply is — no matter what beliefs one may hold. What we say about reality, however — the stories and beliefs we hold about its nature, purposes, direction, and so forth — is open for discussion and debate. But one can hardly deny that there is such a thing as “Reality as a Whole” and that “God” is a legitimate proper name for this Ultimacy. (The transparency of this point is surely one reason why, as I share this perspective across North America, it is readily embraced by theists, atheists, agnostics, pantheists, and panentheists alike.)
Lately I’ve even been wondering if this way of thinking about God might not be the only understanding truly worthy of the name. Clearly, this “God” trumps all other gods. Whatever any person or tradition might say about the divine, the undeniable fact is: Reality Rules! That which is fundamentally and ultimately Real always has the final word. Everything bows to it, with no exceptions. Traditional language declaring “God is Lord” and modern expressions like “Time will tell,” "Nature bats last," "Your ego does not run the show," and "Creatures evolve by adapting to their environment," point to a similar (if not identical) understanding and experience.
Supernatural, exclusively otherworldly images and concepts of the divine notwithstanding, when “God” is understood foundationally as a sacred, proper name for “Ultimate Reality” or “the Whole of Reality, measurable and non-measurable,” everything shifts: Theists, atheists, agnostics, pantheists, and panentheists can stand on common ground and move beyond the quagmire of old disputes. When “God” is understood as no less than a sacred name for the Whole of Reality, new possibilities open for ways of thinking about creativity, intelligence, “the Universe,” and our role in the evolutionary process that can go a long way toward ending the war between evolutionists and those who espouse “intelligent design.”
From the perspective of the Great Story (i.e., the epic of evolution understood in a sacred, meaningful, inspiring way) “immanent creativity” may be a way of speaking about the source, nature, and process of emergent complexity that both evolutionists and proponents of intelligent design can live with. Consider: there is no inherent conflict between “immanent creativity” and a mainstream understanding of biological, cultural, planetary, and cosmic evolution. As well, the phrase “immanent creativity” doesn’t imply, as “intelligent design” does, a mechanistic understanding of the Universe; “immanent creativity” does not presume that the creativity at work in the Cosmos necessarily stands outside the creation, in the way that, say, a clockmaker or engineer is quite distinct from the product each builds or invents. Although the metaphor of a mechanistic Universe helped birth the scientific revolution and served ably through the prime of the industrial revolution, scientists working today and in virtually all disciplines are moving beyond the constraints of a mechanistic worldview. Creative evolution, self-organization, autopoiesis, cosmogenesis, chaos and complexity sciences: these terms exemplify the shift from a mechanistic to a nestedly creative worldview. In the words of cultural historian Thomas Berry, “evolution is neither random nor determined, but creative.”
Scientists speak of “the Universe” (another name used by some for “reality as a whole”) unfolding according to natural law and species evolving by adapting to selection pressures within the environment. Theologians speak of Creation and all living creatures as coming into being as a result of God’s will and God’s grace. Only now can we begin to appreciate that these are different ways of speaking about the same basic process. To argue over whether it was God, evolution, or the self-organizing dynamics of emergent complexity that brought everything into existence is like debating whether it was me, my fingers moving on the keyboard, or the electrical synapses of my nervous system that produced this sentence.
Of course, this way of understanding the divine begs the question: Does this “God” evoke humility, love, trust, adoration, reverence, or commitment? Is this a “God” anyone would want to worship, pray to, or devote one’s life to serving?
I offer a resounding, Yes! The reasons unfold below.
If we wish to have a meaningful relationship with the Whole of Reality (both that which can be seen and measured and that which cannot), it is natural to use personal analogies to describe the nature of this Ultimacy. Different traditions, necessarily, use different images and metaphors to describe the nature of “Ultimate Reality” and our relationship with Him/Her/It. All such attempts to capture the essence of the Whole are legitimate. Most are helpful, and all are limited. Such are the deficiencies of human language and human experience.
Spiritual practices that have served many and have stood the test of time, as well as contemporary psychological research, have this in common: They suggest, at their core, that the path to wholeness and a right relationship to reality is not complicated. The peace that passes all understanding, recovery from addiction, salvation from sin, ongoing transformation, personal empowerment, enlightenment, dwelling in the kingdom of heaven, experiencing oneness with God — each of these can be found right here, now (and nowhere else!). How? Simply, get that you are part of the Whole, live with integrity, express your creativity, take responsibility for your life and your evolutionary legacy, listen from your heart to discern guidance from the source of your existence (whatever you may choose to call It/Him/Her), and love the Whole of Reality with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.
Prayer, from this perspective, is truly an intimate process, and one that even an atheist might embrace, because prayer is no longer an act of petitioning a far-off Supernatural Being to miraculously intervene in the world according to my wishes or desires. With an understanding of “God” as a proper name for Reality as a Whole, prayer can be understood analogously as a cell in a body communicating (or in deep communion) with the larger body of which it is part.
There is a profound difference between “believing in a personal God” and knowing God intimately, that is, relating to the Whole of Reality meaningfully, personally. “Believing in” God — that is, giving mental assent to the existence of a Supernatural Being — may or may not make a difference. When belief does not richly transform one’s experience, such belief becomes a booby prize. Relating to Reality personally, however — that is, knowing that you are accepted just as you are and trusting that everything real in your life can be experienced as a gift and blessing in disguise — well, this will virtually always transform your life.
The meaning and purpose of a person’s life (transformed or not) is how he or she contributes over time to the wellbeing of the whole. Similarly, the meaning and purpose of humanity is how we as a species contribute over time to the larger body of life. Traditionally, as in the Westminster Catechism, the issue is addressed this way: “Q: What is the chief end of man? A: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Here is a re-statement of same, from the perspective of the Great Story: “Q: What is our evolutionary destiny? A: To honor and celebrate the Whole with conscious reflection.”
When considering the role of the human in the evolutionary process, it’s essential to remember that, from an evolutionary perspective, we are not so much separate creatures on Earth, living in a Universe, as we are a mode of being of Earth, an expression of the Universe. We didn’t come into the world; we grew out from it, in the same way that an apple grows out of an apple tree. As physicist Brian Swimme says, “Earth, once molten rock, now sings opera.” And again, "The entire story can be summarized in a single sentence… The greatest discovery of the scientific enterprise is this: You take a great cloud of hydrogen gas, leave it alone, and it becomes rosebushes, giraffes, and human beings."
When the Bible (Genesis 2:7) speaks about God forming us from the dust of the ground and breathing into us the breath of life, we can now appreciate that this is a true, albeit metaphorical (mythic), description of the same basic process, with “God” as a personification of the Creative Reality that made it happen.
Concerning our evolutionary role, in the big picture as well as in the small and immediate, it is also important to realize that human destiny and the destiny of Earth are integrally linked. If we can know in our bones that everything that we are emerged through billions of years of evolution and that no species can live in isolation from others, then we will finally grasp that our future depends upon the planet’s future no less than a child in the womb depends upon the mother. This is one of the great lessons of evolution.
The entire enterprise is integral: soil, air, water, and species. There is (and ever has been) only one grand purpose for humanity: to further evolutionary creativity in ways lifegiving for the whole. As Thomas Berry has said, “The human community and the community of life will go into the future as a single, sacred community, or we will both perish in the desert.” The time is at hand now to become positive and conscious agents of the next stages of evolution, thereby enabling a future in which the vast diversity of life shall flourish. All other issues rest within that over-arching context, within that comprehensive understanding.
To sum up: (1) Because the entire Universe is evolving and we’re part of the process, and (2) because “God” cannot possibly be less than a proper name for “Reality as a Whole, measurable and non-measurable,” then (to use traditional language), “knowing, loving, and serving God” really is our way into the future!
How does one “know, love, and serve God” in an evolutionary context?
Personally, it means establishing a habit of reverence. It also means that nothing may be more important than fulfilling your evolutionary mission. By listening, noticing what’s real, both within and without, and pursuing the path where your own great joy and the world’s evolutionary needs intersect, you truly glorify God; that is, you bless the whole.
Collectively, as a species, “knowing, loving, and serving God” in an evolutionary context means, at the very least, two things. First, it means discovering ever more effective ways of bringing people together (in all our glorious and frustrating diversity) to really hear and get each other and then to make decisions accordingly. Second, it means re-organizing ourselves globally, nationally, regionally, and locally so that there are real and effective incentives for collaborating and doing the right, just, ecological, evolutionarily beneficial thing, and equally effective disincentives against lying, cheating, dominating, polluting, or otherwise doing the wrong, unjust, or evolutionarily harmful thing. Humanity will realize its potential by evolving structures of governance at all levels that align the natural self-interest of individuals and groups with the wellbeing of the whole (the body of life of which we are part as well as the whole of humanity).
Practically, this means putting in place laws, taxes, moral incentives, and other structures of support and accountability to help ensure that individuals, nation-states, and corporations benefit when they benefit the whole and are harmed when they harm the whole (and the more harm or benefit they provide, the more they’re harmed or benefit, in return). This process of aligning self-interest with the common good is the way that evolution has brought forth (the way that God has created through time) increasingly complex, interdependent systems.
Life, as we have only recently learned, has repeatedly discovered ways to build cooperative, interdependent wholes out of formerly competitive, “selfish” parts. Cooperative groups of self-replicating molecular processes formed the first simple cells. Groups of these cells formed larger and more complex cells, and these in turn formed cooperative groups of cells that became multicellular organisms. Groups of multicellular organisms formed cooperative insect societies and human social systems.
In the human realm this process has continued and has expanded considerably over the past 100,000 years. Collaboration initially existed only with small family groups. Through time, cooperative organizations progressively expanded in scale to produce multi-family bands, then tribes, then agricultural communities, cities, and empires, then nation-states, and now some forms of economic and social cooperation that span the globe. At each level, stories, beliefs, incentives, and structures of accountability emerged to support trust and collaboration and to protect against those things that erode trust: lying, cheating, dominating, freeloading, and so forth.
Our way into the future, individually and collectively, is to take this process to the next level, while honoring differences and nurturing the larger body of life upon which we depend for sustenance and inspiration. In so doing we will help ensure a just, healthy, beautiful, sustainably lifegiving future for all species. And if that doesn’t qualify as “glorifying God,” nothing does.
To read a provocative Q&A with Michael Dowd about his essay, click here: Let's Stop Trivializing God Q&A
The Rev. Michael Dowd is an evolutionary theologian, cosmic storyteller, and full-time, itinerant evolutionary evangelist.
A printable, PDF version of this essay can be found here: http://www.thegreatstory.org/trivializing.pdf
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION: Contact: Michael Dowd Email: Michael@TheGreatStory.org Phone: 425-760-9941