College of Charleston students keep pouring in to hear the latest gurus debunk traditional faith. Last spring, it was Richard Dawkins. This time it was Michael Dowd.
On Oct. 23, Dowd lectured a crowd of eager guests about what he called “evolutionary spirituality.”
Dowd graduated from a Missouri-based fundamentalist Pentecostal college firmly believing in a young Earth and maybe even in a literal six days of creation. After serving in Christian ministry for several years, he had a conversion of sorts and became a missionary for a new passion: evolution.
I came away from his talk feeling that his new passion is essentially a repeat of the same old New Age religion that burst on the scene in the 1970s.
Like many of his generation, Dowd got fed up with the fragmentation of our modern world. Searching for some unifying principle in the universe to hold it all together led him not to the God of the Bible but to the idea that the entire cosmos is sacred. With the kind of reverence usually reserved for liturgical worship, he showed us slides of stars and galaxies and intoned “Thank God for evolution.”
Well, let me to put my own cards on the table. I am an orthodox Christian who accepts evolution, if by that you mean that it took God a long time to create what we see all around us.
My read of Genesis 1 is that if the first three “days” occurred before the sun and the moon were created, why not assume that the word “day” is not a 24-hour period? Also, since Scripture says, “A day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day,” it seems the first few chapters of Genesis are about the why of creation rather than the how.
If Dowd was only in Charleston to support evolution, then many of us could agree with Sgt. Joe Friday’s inimitable words in Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Dowd clearly wanted to take us beyond the facts.
He paraded before us a great number of scientific and religious figures who supposedly support his thesis that traditional religious concepts, especially those describing God, are part of “private revelation” and therefore not based on hard evidence. In their place, he says that there is such a thing as “public revelation.”
It takes an evidential view of reality. This requires him to dismiss the special revelation of the Bible as far too simplistic. In an obvious effort to get a laugh, he said the Old Testament boils down to “Obey the Lord or die” and the New Testament to “Believe in Jesus or fry.”
I was immediately reminded of the person who thought astronomy could be boiled down to “twinkle, twinkle little star.”
The pantheism that underlies Dowd’s thesis has a long history. It goes back through Aldous Huxley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean Jacques Rousseau and endless others who’ve identified divinity with all reality and vice versa. But the trade in for this sort of romanticism is that you’re left with no personal God, just an impersonal force. Consequently, one has no cogent explanation for personality, morality or individuality.
According to Dowd, people create gods out of a need to validate their existence. They personifying some feeling and call it God. But in reality, no personal God exists.
I wondered, if that was so, where does our sense of personal dignity come from? We know nothing comes from nothing, so do our personalities come from an impersonal origin?
Also, given an a-theistic basis how do you construct a private or a social ethic?
In grade school, we learned that it’s wrong to derive a conclusion in the imperative from a statement in the indicative. For example, when Marie Antoinette was confronted with her starving subjects, she did not conclude, “They must have bread.” She cynically said, “Let them eat cake.” The fact of their starvation did not contain in it an imperative to feed them.
But Dowd knows that you need a moral imperative, so he imports into his new religion an impressive litany of musts. We must have integrity, humility, responsibility, service, generosity and honor.
I might echo all of these as an orthodox Christian. But in my system, there is a basis for such oughts. They come from God’s revealed will in the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Jesus. They are why I need forgiveness on a daily basis. But if there is no God who speaks, reveals, communicates or is personal and moral, can there really be a basis for these musts?
It is illogical to say: “The seas are rising. Therefore, we must stop global warming.”
We need another clause: “The seas are rising. God mandates us to be responsible toward creation. Therefore, we must stop global warming.”
Finally, in Dowd’s doubtless well-intentioned effort to find a universal with which to unify all the fragmented particulars of our lives, he creates a monster. Since this unity must be all-encompassing, it includes the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, truth and error, sickness and health, etc. Everything unique disappears.
Despite his professed desire for it, there really is no “I and thou.” Not surprisingly, Dowd imported almost every value and ethic you could imagine except love. He must know that to have love, beyond mere genetic attraction, you need a cosmic lover. You need a personal God.
Dowd wants all religions to coexist. Who could be against that?
But his way of getting us there appears to say that all religions (in their essential core) are equally true. But after listening carefully, I think he means all religions are equally false — false in their specific teachings. His alternative raised more questions in my mind than answers.
The Rev. Peter C. Moore is the author of five books and serves on the staff of St. Michael’s Church.