Friday, July 18, 2008

The Gospel According to Evolution

Absorb it. According to Michael Dowd, that's what we're supposed to do with the New Story coming out of science. That's what religious traditions are "aching" to do. I'll wait for the aching. I suspect instead that the Story will seep into those traditions slowly, case-by-case, symbol-by-symbol. And the devil (you should excuse the expression) will be in the details.

Dowd, once a pastor but still an evangelist, is wasting no time with his own "evolutionary Christianity." His distinction between the language of the day (science) and the language of the night (religion) enables him to reinterpret symbols like the Garden, the Fall, Original Sin, and Satan (no need to excuse the expression, he says). Here's how it works.

First, some day language. Science reveals that our brain is an accretion of older brains. It evolved like a city, not from a master plan, but neighborhood by neighborhood. The first to arrive was our reptilian brain, consisting of the brainstem and the cerebellum. It's located down south. Above it grew our "old" mammalian brain (the limbic system), and above that the "new" mammalian brain or neocortex. What sets us apart is our fourth and newest brain, the prefrontal cortex. It lies behind the forehead. Take a look.

Our earliest brain keeps us breathing and looking out for safety and sex. The second gives us dreams and deep emotions. The third makes use of symbols; it's our chatterbox or "monkey mind." Our most recent brain is the source of consciousness and self-awareness, of purpose and planning, of complex choice. Neurologically, it's where your "I" resides.

The Biblical story of the Garden is "a superb night language description" of our brain's evolution, says Dowd. It captures the experience subjectively, from the inside. The story says that God led Adam and Eve to a place--a tree, it was--that knew good and evil. (Day language says our ancestors developed a prefrontal cortex, which enabled them to know the same thing.) The story says our parents "fell." They committed an Original Sin whose effects we have to live with, like it or not. (Day language says we've inherited the instincts of older brains, some no longer adaptive.) Is evil the serpent in the Garden or the reptilian brain? Dowd would answer unequivocally: it's both.

And Satan? Temptation "is something that every human experiences by virtue of having an evolved brain." Satan represents the dark side of our unchosen nature, the byproducts of its earlier brains. Seeing that side as "other," seeing it as personal, can help us deal with it. If we can give it a name, so much the better. It's how we get the heart involved, not just the head.

The day-night distinction reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA strategy, and it works with these Christian symbols of evil. NOMA puts science and religion in separate compartments. Science here, religion there, and never the twain shall meet. But compartments leak and meanings mingle and Dowd rightly recognizes that we can tell but one story. That's what happens at twilight, and that's what can cause a problem in the gospel of evolution. I'll illustrate next week.



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