Friday, July 4, 2008

The Pastor and the Atheist

They met at a talk by Brian Swimme on the Universe Story. He was a pastor, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. Before that he had been a fundamentalist Christian and an ardent anti-evolutionist. She was a science writer and an atheist. An odd meeting, to be sure. What did they do? Get married.

It took a while, of course, but a few months after they tied the knot, Michael Dowd asked Connie Barlow if she wanted to become an evangelist. "Of evolution," added. Connie said, "I'd love to." So they took to the road, and for six years now have been bringing The Great Story to young and old--to agnostics, humanists, atheists, and freethinkers; to people of many religious faiths, liberal and conservative. I heard him speak at a Unitarian Universalist gathering.

Now Viking has just released a book that distills their message, Thank God for Evolution. It's loaded with endorsements from scientists (including Nobel Laureates), skeptics, seekers, and spiritual guides. It's worthy of all the attention. The book lays out where I was going to be five years from now. It got me there, with a few reservations, in a week and a half.

The story line is Thomas Berry's and Brian Swimme's (and that of others like Loren Eiseley before them) but it takes a step beyond. Berry said that the Great Story allows for the telling of all other stories. Michael Dowd says that all religious traditions are "aching" to absorb it. And then he takes that extra step, beginning an exploration of how one tradition--his own Christianity--would look with the story absorbed.

Simple distinctions open things up. If the universe is the Word, that Word is being revealed publicly to science and privately to religion. Moreover, science uses day language--that of facts and reason--while religion uses the mythical language of the night. Both languages are true, one objectively, one subjectively. For me, the public-private distinction limps at times, religion being far more collective than Dowd suggests. But the day-night distinction is clear and effective. I've used it myself to describe the workings of autobiographical memory, and it still evokes that haunting melody about the music of the night from Phantom of the Opera. Dowd uses both distinctions to frame the conflict between science and religion (and between religions), while giving all a place of honor.

Barlow and Dowd call their approach CREATHEISM. She's the creATHEIST, he the creaTHEIST. Creatheism has much in common with process theology and panentheism, but those, say the authors, have largely been confined to academia. Their approach could also be called the "gospel according to evolution."

I'll save the details for next week, but here's an indication of the spirit of this gospel. Dowd is a Christian who's proud of a connection with evolutionary biologist and evangelizing atheist Richard Dawkins. He includes in his book a different Dawkins from the one you may know. This one writes without anger about questioning tradition and relying on evidence, putting his thoughts in the form of a letter to his ten-year-old daughter. Dowd juxtaposes a quote from the Buddha.

Another indication is the story of an atheist's reaction to the Creation Evidence Museum, which was built near the site of dinosaur tracks in Texas. The atheist was Connie, and she was happy to be in this edifice of conservative Christianity, happy to see anything that provides meaning to "an otherwise 'amythic' and unstoried culture." Thus, she'd "rather have kids learn about evolution in meaningful ways in church than meaninglessly in school."

Thomas Berry said, you've got to hear the music of the New Story. Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow agree. Make it the music of the night, they say, and make it sacred.




1 comment:

Mary Johnson said...

John, although I have not commented on your site before, I especially enjoyed today's The Story-of-Everything Place, and I appreciate your blogs.
Mary Johnson