UPDATE: Rev. Dowd has graciously joined the comment thread.
Thank God For Evolution! is available as a free pdf download. If you haven’t read the book and don’t plan on it, please keep your comments about the book and the author appropriately humble. Don’t expect a creationist debate in the comments of this post. Also, I am not a scientist, and I don’t play one on my blog.
Dowd is an evangelist for the marriage of evolution and…..everything. Religion. Philosophy. Psychology. Politics. Human relationships. Education. Child-raising. Environmentalism. Marriage.
“What is the whole duty of man?” According to Dowd, it’s to discover and participate in the transforming power of the “Great Story” of “Creathism,” Dowd’s word for the marriage of a materialistic, evolutionary, basically pantheistic worldview with all our quests for meaning, improvement and knowledge.
When I first received Thank God for Evolution! to review, I assumed I was going to be reading an attempt to reconcile traditional Christianity with the consensus of modern science regarding the age and history of the universe. Ever since I read Conrad Hyers’ The Meaning of Creation and realized that the Bible wasn’t a science book and its inspiration wasn’t involved in the views of science in ancient cultures, I’ve not lost much sleep over the relationship of religion and science.
I was aware, of course, of the creationists who exert substantial influence in today’s evangelicalism. I learned long ago that the Hamm and Hovind video curriculum was already in the heads of most of my Bible students before I got them, and as soon as it became obvious that I didn’t buy creationism, I’d be made into an evolutionist by default. My response has been to teach the Bible as literature, avoid the controversy, keep my job and moderately frustrate the committed creationists who know me.
Michael Dowd is, to say the least, in the category of “now for something completely different.” For starters, his academic pedigree makes him “one of us.”
Michael graduated summa cum laude from Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri (affiliated with the Assemblies of God), where he received a B.A. in biblical studies and philosophy. He also graduated with honors from Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Seminary) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (affiliated with the American Baptist Church), where he earned a Master of Divinity degree. Rev. Dowd served as a congregational minister for nine years, pastoring churches in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Michigan.
Today, however, Dowd is a minister with the United Church of Christ and his theology is his own adventurous exploration of the “Good News of Evolution.”
That “Good News” isn’t just the facts of evolution. Dowd doesn’t waste your time on that one. If you are a doubter about evolution as a given in science, all I can tell you is that this book is hardly aware of your existence. Dowd- rightly- says that the discussion about the basic facts of the “Great Story” have really been settled among 95% of scientists and debate with creationists isn’t where the action is. (He’s remarkably generous with creationism, as he is with all worldviews.) The mission now is to make everyone, no matter their religion or lack thereof, into a person who sees what Dowd sees in the story of the universe: The Gospel of Evolution and it’s world changing implications
By now, some of you should see a face and hear a voice dimly in the background. Let’s be quiet and listen….
“The Cosmos is all there is, ever was or ever will be….”
Yes, let’s welcome to our blog post this evening the spirit (so to speak) of Dr. Carl Sagan, former prophet and evangelist for the religion of personal meaning via understanding that we’re all related to one another through the story of the universe.
Thank God for Evolution! is Carl Sagan on steroids. Where Sagan waxed occasionally poetic and promised that human beings could find the only answers that mattered in the stars, Dowd is a full rock band with sound system and light show. Evolution and its ability to transform everything and everyone is the most exciting story there is, and we are on the verge of an incredible social and planetary revolution as human beings come to understand who and what they are in the evolutionary story. There really are no limits to Dowd’s claims for what evolution can mean to your life. “Zealous” doesn’t start to describe him.
As I said at the outset, Michael Dowd is an optimist. He’s so optimistic that he’s never seen a philosophical or religious claim, teaching or confession that can’t be clarified, improved or powerfully reinterpreted by evolution. That optimism is on display in the large number of endorsements for the book; endorsements that run the gamut from Nobel prize winning scientists, theologians, new age personalities, philosophers, Buddhist monks, atheists, apostate episcopal bishops and many more characters with a stake in seeing evolution triumph as a unifying worldview.
Optimistic? I’ll say. According to Dowd, Christianity just needs the truth of evolution to get out of its “flat earth” constructs (Dowd’s word for pre-scientific reality maps) and into “evolutionary faith.” Christianity needs to become “evolutionary Christianity” if it is going to speak meaningfully to the world today. (Yes, you’ve heard that one before. “Bishop” John Shelby Spong is an endorser.)
The “Gospel?” That’s the message of evolutionary Christianity, not the message of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascended reign of Jesus. In fact, the word “Christ-like” is about as good as it gets with Jesus in Dowd’s book. Jesus shows us just how good a person we could each become if we let go and let the evolutionary universe get ahold of you. If I were debating Mr. Dowd, I’d have one point: “What Jesus means to Michael Dowd.” The whole story of Dowd’s confident retooling of Christianity to fit his worldview could be told right there.
Evolution has the answers to what the Bible actually means by “sin.” (Reptilian brain, etc.) It has the answer for what it means to know God. (The universe as a whole is what we mean by God.) It puts the Bible in a place where it can be understood for what it is. (A text that tries hard to help us be good people living good lives in a good creation. It just didn’t have the whole story.) Evolutionary Christianity will clarify the problems with “private” revelation and help us to see that God really speaks the language of “facts,” and we all know who can understand that language, now don’t we? That’s right Johnny. Scientists who are here to help us.
The Trinity? Authority of Scripture? The God-Man? Heaven? Judgment? Your belief system can really be a lot less cumbersome if Dowd is correct. All this is just metaphor and “flat earth” concepts; “truth” in a considerably less “truthful” form.
What you’ve got here, despite Dowd’s relentless optimism, is a very attractive form of pantheism, the philosophy C.S. Lewis said he would embrace if he weren’t a Christian. Dowd makes a small and sincere attempt to differentiate his views from pantheism, but I’ll wager no one who passed a freshman philosophy course is buying it. God IS the total reality. Personality in the universe is….those of us who are self-aware persons. It’s a materialistic universe and there is no God beyond it, in it, before it or transcending it. God is. Salvation is. Reality is. God can’t be denied because he is the one totalizing fact that can’t be escaped. The truth of the universe as science describes it is the truth of evolution is the truth of religion is the truth of (fill in the blank.)
Dowd defines himself as a Christian (or part of the Christian tradition,) but his Christianity exists as a metaphor for pantheistic, evolutionary materialism. His “Christ-exalting” philosophy, at the end of the day, is just his chosen optional way of describing the same world where the atheist says there is no God, where the Muslim finds Allah and the Hundu finds Vishnu. Dowd is blunt on this point: Whatever your worldview, evolution will work for you. That’s the added bonus of discovering that all our ways of conceiving of truth are acceptable in this reality we can’t escape or avoid. If you want the truth, talk about evolution. If you want transformation, let evolutionary thinking and the “Great Story” of “salvation” through an evolving universe transform you.
At one point, Dowd tells a story about a questioner who asked where a particular dead friend “was.” Dowd’s answer: being consumed by bacteria. And sitting at the right of God, reigning with Christ, if you’d like to see it that way. No difference. All the same thing.
Now that’s optimistic, because is Dowd is right, Jesus was eaten by bacteria too.
There are a lot of good and helpful aspects to this book. I thought the section on brain development and the insights of evolution on human behavior, especially addictions and sexual behavior, were very good. Much of what Dowd says about prescientific conceptions is true. His recognition of various kinds of language is basic to talking about science and religion. His sense that the universe is glorious and that the universe speaks the language and glory of God is commendable. His own ethic of love, service, humility and kindness are obviously to be affirmed and celebrated.
I respect what Michael Dowd is doing and I believe it is a valuable contribution to the philosophical and scientific discussions of science and religion. I hope thousands and thousands of people gain the enthusiasm for science and knowledge that Dowd has and shares all over America. I would far rather my students hear his presentation than much what I hear coming from Christians in the creationist camp.
I agree with the director of the Vatican observatory that many Christians will find they have much less to fear from evolution than they thought, and much in the view of the universe Dowd communicates that Christians can affirm. Where Dowd is showing us the work of the creator God of scripture and the God who we know in Jesus, I can agree with him and appreciate him. But I believe Dowd’s optimism simply extends too far. Scientists do not deserve to be given the amount of unqualified confidence Dowd gives them. He reads like the press spokesman for the American Academy of Science. Christians cannot go all the way with Dowd’s view of knowledge, his view of scripture, his view of God or his view of Jesus.
Evolution is not a grand narrative. Someone’s presentation of selected facts and theories is a “grand narrative.” God is not tied to the language of “flat earth,” prescientific constructs, but he’s not revealing himself finally and authoritatively as science either. Christians believe God made himself known when he was incarnate in Jesus. (I can already hear how Dowd’s pantheism takes the incarnation and heads for an Oprah-esque version of Jesus as the proto-typical “All of us are God” position.)
Dowd needs to spend a year reading Karl Barth or Francis Schaefer to understand how Christians view this kind of unbridled optimism regarding general revelation. The God we know is finally, uniquely knowable only in Jesus Christ. The universe is God’s handiwork, but we cannot know the creator via the creation as we know him through the incarnation and the Word made flesh. (There it goes again. Evolution becomes conscious of itself and so on.) Despite all the wonderment of what we know about the creator as a result of science, we are left at the manger, the cross and the empty tomb with a different kind of knowledge and experience entirely. The Trinitarian God is far, far greater than the universe he has made. His greatness remains to be seen, because no matter how optimistic we are, eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has yet to reveal about himself in the universe redeemed by Christ.
One last note: It’s quite likely many in the emerging church will read Dowd, since lots of reconciliation in the air, and head right down the road to Pantheism and the New Age Movement. Make no mistake about it: when it comes to orthodox, historic Christianity, Dowd is not only wrong, he’s not nearly as impressed with Jesus as he is with evolution’s “grand story.” Pantheism has its appeal, but at the end of its road it destroys the incarnation itself by radical reinterpretation. It’s a great temptation in post-modern times to give heed to anyone selling the elimination of rancorous debate, and Dowd is surely enthused to do that. But once Dowd’s version of reality has been heard, Jesus Christ is not Lord and God any more than you are.