Monday, September 19, 2011

Evolution as Theology, Part 2

I picked up Thank God for Evolution at a steep discount when our local Borders was going out of business.  I'd read about it on other blogs and was curious enough to read it for myself and see what I thought of it.

I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting. The subtitle, How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, should have given me a clue about the optimistic giddiness I would frequently encounter in the book. It was so overwhelming, that Pollyanna optimism, that after reading the first chapter or two, I put the book down and didn't touch it for several months.

Dowd's own description of himself and his mission in the prologue to the book made me roll my eyes:
Itinerant Evolutionary Evangelist
Since April 2002, Connie and I have been full-time "evolutionary evangelists." We live permanently on the road, offering a spiritually nourishing view of evolution throughout North America. In the tradition of traveling preachers we gave up our worldly possessions, left our home and now carry everything we need in our van. We go wherever we are invited. Our goal is to inspire people of all ages and theological orientations to embrace the history of everyone and everything in personally and socially transforming ways. (pg.4)
It goes on like that for a few paragraphs with the following graphic inserted into the text:

It was just too much for me. I have an instant distrust of anyone who describes their particular view, and themselves, in such glowing, self-promoting, pat-themselves-on-the back terms, followed by a cutesy picture.

The whole prologue rubbed me the wrong way in terms of its presentation.  I wasn't looking for cutesy optimism.  I was looking for serious engagement with the issues at hand.  Disgusted and annoyed by the approach I practically gave up on the book.

A few months later, I decided to give it another go, moving past Dowd's personal commentary and into the heart of the book. What I found was sometimes interesting, sometimes very similar to thoughts I had already had about certain theological themes, and sometimes more giddy optimism.

In general, what Dowd does is re-frame traditional religious themes, usually Christian themes, in evolutionary terms.  "Original sin" is a remnant of our reptilian brain, our base, selfish instincts which had their place at one point in our evolutionary history, but which are counterproductive now that we are social animals with higher cognition and desires which don't directly rely on simple instinct in order to be fulfilled.  "Salvation" is an acknowledgement of the Whole of Reality and submission of our lower selves(reptilian brain) to our higher selves and the world at large.

Being "in Christ" and being " in evolutionary integrity" (or, deep integrity) are different ways if saying essentially the same thing.  One uses night language; the other, day language. To speak traditionally, deep integrity is the way, the truth and the life that Jesus embodied. "Christian, : after all, originally meant "little Christ." When I trust like Jesus, love like Jesus, live my truth like Jesus, take responsibility like Jesus, and serve the Whole like Jesus, I know heaven--even in the midst of the chaos and crucifixions of life.(pg 184)

When Dowd analogizes this way, it leaves me with diverging reactions. One part of me essentially agrees with what Dowd is saying while another part of me feels as if he is trying too determinedly to make things fit within a Christian frame.  It seems untenable to me, trying to shove new concepts into pre-determined shapes.

I can't help but think that Dowd has simply moved the conversation to a more abstract level without acknowledging what must be left behind once the move is made.

More on that later.


Sabio Lantz said...

Your last sentence seems inevitably true.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I share your prejudices on cheery self-promotion almost exactly.
"Spiritually nourishing" strikes me as the religious equivalent of those ultra-healthy eaters who describe their tofu or vegetarian dishes as "yummy." Sez who?

Full disclosure: cutesy words like "yummy" irritate me so much I probably can't judge the ideas objectively. (Shudder.)

You know my views from reading my longish pieces on evolution and how the Bible fits this remarkably well if you step back from literalism. I don't dislike their POV, but I share your suspicion of their presentation. Knuckleheads should be held at arm's length, even when they are right.