Friday, July 25, 2008


The words lie at the heart of Christianity: "If Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain" (1 Cor 15:17). What does the resurrection of Jesus mean in the evolutionary Christianity of Michael Dowd?

Dowd addresses the question by establishing criteria for reinterpreting religious symbols. New understandings, he says, must make sense naturally and scientifically. They must be true to experience around the world, not just within a given faith. They must inspire--both the religious and the nonreligious. Above all, they must validate the heart of earlier interpretations.

The heart. That's where the devil gets into the details. Can it be replaced while keeping a religion true to itself?

Dowd's approach works well with symbols of evil in Christianity: the Fall, Original Sin, Satan. Here the "language of the day" (science, reason, fact) translates readily into the "language of the night" (religion, myth, metaphor). Come at twilight and you'll hear a story you can indeed call "Christian."

But it's not so easy with the resurrection story. Like other miracle narratives, it is to Dowd a "meaningful night language expression of something about the nature of Reality." That something is this: pain and suffering can be redemptive, death is not the final word, one can transform troubled relationships and unjust social structures. To Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, the resurrection means that "something happened after the death of Jesus that had startling and enormous power."

One could extend this line of thinking. At the core of cosmic evolution lies a truth: death is generative. When early stars died, they produced the heavy chemical elements from which our earth was formed, from which its (carbon-based) life emerged. When mountains on that earth eroded, they produced the soils on which that life could root itself. As life sprang up, many forms went extinct. Had they not, earth's web of life would not have its present structure.

The death of Jesus takes this truth to another level. Extraordinary new things--a vision, an ethic, a church--came out of his death, out of all proportion to his life. These emergents can be verified historically. They "rose up." Nothing could be more generative.

But Christianity makes an additional claim: a body rose. It says it isn't metaphor but history. It says that Jesus ate. Liberal or conservative, one must at some point recognize what a tradition has been saying from the very beginning. Words must be honored, and here's the catch: what's night language to Dowd is day language to Christianity.

Dowd would claim that he is "validating the heart" of the resurrection story, that he is getting at the core of the doctrine. But who gets to say what the heart is, Dowd or the tradition? At its core--not Dowd's, not mine--the tradition says that Jesus rose, body as well as spirit. Nothing could be more central.

Dowd clearly loves his Christian heritage and holds it sacred. Jesus loved his heritage too, but there was an occasion on which he cautioned his listeners about putting new wine in old wineskins (Matthew 9:17). Sometimes you need a new vessel, a new name. It's a tough call.




Anonymous said...

As time goes on, science appears to be something that people believe in more than religion (the people I see on a day-to-day basis anyway).

I see myself as someone who believes in Christianity and science. So often I meet people who believe in one or the other. Something that I have learned throughout my short life (I am 35 years old) is that there are few absoltues. A time goes by, the less black-and white things are for me.

Sharon Lippincott said...

In his latest novel, BRIDA, Paulo Coelho uses Brida's physics student boyfriend to make a profound observation after Brida tries to explain her faith in the supernatural, aka Celtic Witchcraft/Wicca. He gently explains to Brida that although he can't make any sense of her story, he recognizes the element of faith, and understands it, because there is so much in the nature of matter that has to be taken on faith.

Boundaries between the sacred and the scientific are blurring.