March 24, 2008

Michael Dowd and the Sense of Awe

I continue seeing Michael Dowd's quotes in various papers as he travels around preaching his "evolution theology." It's interesting. I'm not about to convert to any religion based on it, but one of the interesting parts to me is the sense of awe that Dowd is trying to communicate. I have what I think is a similar awe about life, the universe and everything; I get the same goosebumps, albeit without a need to posit anything supernatural being involved.

The latest such quotes are in conjunction with Dowd's current visit to the San Francisco Bay Area where he's scheduled to speak at several Unitarian Universalist churches. The Contra Costa Times published the story from which I've excerpted below:

Preacher mixes evolution with faith

... "The atoms of our bodies are literally stardust," he tells the rapt crowd. "The carbon and the oxygen and the nitrogen were formed inside red giant stars. The gold and silver and other heavy metals were formed in supernova stars that then explode" -- his voice reaches a crescendo -- "with this tremendous metal-rich stardust."...

So serious is he about his "responsibility to find more sacred, meaningful holy ways of promoting evolution" that Dowd has taken to criss-crossing the country in a van with his wife, science writer Connie Barlow...

When he heard a talk on "The Universe Story" his reaction was immediate and visceral.

"I had goose bumps up and down my arms and legs and I started to cry," he said. "From then on, I became very passionate about evolution..."

They stay in the homes of supporters, and he speaks to groups of Unitarians, Mennonites, Buddhists, Quakers and humanists. He has not been invited to address fundamentalist congregations, but he did meet with 125 moderate to liberal evangelicals at a conference in the Bahamas.

"We're going to see this evolution theology movement come into the mainstream," he said, chatting over a Formica table in a McDonald's -- the only place in San Francisco's Mission District with parking spaces large enough to accommodate his 20-foot-long van.

"We see the sciences as revelatory," he said. Fundamentalists believe "all the really important revelation happened in Biblical times, and we are saying no..."

Through the use of mythic, poetic language, Dowd believes he can inspire believers and non-believers to grasp evolution -- and the universe -- as a continuous revelation.

"Any God that can be believed in or not believed in is precisely not what I'm talking about," he tells a congregation in a video clip. "Do you get that? I'm talking about something that is undeniably real. whether you call it God or not is up to you..."

"All of nature is in an act of holy communion," he said. "It's always saying 'take, eat, this is my body.'

"It's not survival of the most ruthless, it's survival of the most cooperative. Mutual benefit is all throughout nature..."

If You Go

The Rev. Michael Dowd will "teach and preach" as he calls it around the Bay Area this month. He will appear at:
  • # 7 p.m. Friday, Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 2950 Washington Blvd. in Fremont. 510-252-1477
  • # 9:30, 11:15 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday, Unity Church in Marin, 600 Palm Drive, Novato. 415-475-5000.
  • # 7 p.m. April 3, Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 300 E. Santa Inez Ave. in San Mateo. 650-342-5946
To be clear, I don't see anything particularly "holy" about nature. The implications of that word are unclear; what is holy and what is not holy? I think that's just a word that we humans like to attach to anything that inspires that sense of awe, that feeling of being something very small but capable of grasping little bits of something much, much larger than ourselves. The universe and all of its intricacies inspire such feelings directly among those of us, from whatever persuasion of philosophy we may come to it, who make some attempt to understand it. Religions are, in part, an attempt to make that which inspires such a feeling more comprehensible. In religion, motivation is ascribed to something that its creators place "behind it all." The interpretation of those motivations often becomes the work of some priestly class, whether that class be a formalized one or not. I think all of that is unnecessary and even confounding. If I may be so bold as to redefine the word "divine" for a moment, I think that there can be no better personal relationship with the divine than one in which one rolls up ones sleeves and plunges up to the elbows in it in an attempt to understand some aspect of it and communicate that one facet to others who are, in turn, exploring their own areas.

Who doesn't feel a certain awe at the realization that everything of which we are made was produced in the hearts of great cosmic fusion furnaces that once burned and then burst into showers of particles? Who hasn't considered the infinitesimal odds of each atom in our bodies coming together to create us as we are? Who can fail to perceive some connectedness to all of life and the universe upon arriving at the knowledge that at every instant we are exchanging discreet packets of energy with our surroundings, with all that we see and touch and many other things of which we will never be aware? It is nothing if not astounding. Inserting some abstraction in the middle of it, though, absolves us from doing the work needed to find answers. If we can never hope to know the omniscient will of some demiurge, of what use is any attempt to do so? There's a degeneracy in that way of thinking, a laziness and a hopelessness that I do not think should be our proper lot as a species. No knowledge is forbidden other than that which we forbid to ourselves. Dowd, I think, has come to something like this realization, but continues to couch it in religious terms. It may all be semantic games; it's too bad he's never really gotten his hands dirty with the details of any of it so far as I know.

Still, I think that if he ever came to Massachusetts I would want to go hear what he has to say firsthand. I think I should like to talk with him about it. His assertion that he isn't interested in a theology based on belief is interesting in itself; what he thinks the implications of this might ultimately be for religion would be worth hearing about in thinking on Dowd's message. If belief doesn't matter, why have particular religions at all? If there's no empirical support for various dogmas, why not simply do away with them in favor of direct experience? Of what use is any a priori prohibition, concept of "sin" or sacredness?

I may yet have the chance to check this out, though. It looks like he's doing a swing through New England in June, with stops in Rowe, MA and Willington, CT. Road trip, anyone?

Sphere: Related Content