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Evolving Faith

Minister says you don't have to choose between God and Darwin

The much vaunted "fittest" in "survival of the fittest" can't include rigid fundamentalists who believe the Earth is a mere several thousand years old -- they're missing the long view, after all.

So says the Rev. Michael Dowd, a Pentecostal preacher, author and firm believer that evolution and Christianity can and must coexist. Dowd has done some evolving of his own: After straying from his Roman Catholic upbringing into a period at loose ends characterized by sex and booze, Dowd spent some years subscribing to fervent born-again Biblical literalism and, finally, to feeling called to preach the gospel of evolution.

Dowd will speak in Pittsburgh May 30 in support of a new edition of his book, Thank God for Evolution. For six years, Dowd and his wife Connie Barlow have been nomads, traveling by van from city to city, spreading their word.

"Many religious people reject evolution because they've been taught or told that it's contradictory to their faith," Dowd says by phone, from a stop in Dayton, Ohio. His interpretation is that life on earth has evolved, and continues to do so, and that religious creation stories are poetic myths that can help us understand the ineffable beauty that is science.

"For billions of years, life has found ways of creating greater complexity and interdependence," says Dowd, calling evolution a "holy trajectory." His notions, he says, are "God-glorifying," because they contend that evolution is the work of the Divine in action. People can call that God, he says, or just see it as the work of some greater, holier good.

"Jews, Christians and Muslims all talk about [humanity's] fall" from innocence, he explains. "Those are mythic terms, traditional poetic understandings that point to something that's true." That true thing, he says, is pure innocence tainted by self-interested mistakes: a universal theme in the human experience.

"I hold all these concepts, all these doctrines to be true in a symbolic sense. It's not about whether someone chooses to believe in the literal miracles of the Bible."

So if the doctrines are merely symbolic, why bother maintaining ties to Christianity at all?

"Every religion has its own gifts," he says. "Whether one interprets the stories of Jesus as complete fiction or myth, it doesn't matter. The person, the character of Jesus the Christ is the authenticity, trust and humility" that we need to coexist on the planet. What's most important, Dowd says, is that we realize our interdependence on one another and our role in the millennial symphony being played out on Earth.

But some of Dowd's former fellow-travelers are not convinced.

"Reverend Dowd may be well intentioned, well meaning," says Paul Abramson, editor of www.creationism.org. "I'd love to debate him, but I'd be sorry to embarrass him in front of a large group of people."

Abramson, who subscribes to a literal, Biblical narrative in which God created the universe in six days, says the title of Dowd's book is deliberately provocative. "[Dowd's] writing is a dime-a-dozen," he says by phone, from Indiana. "He should study creation science: There is good evidence that the earth is less than 10,000 years old."

Debating creation and evolution, says Abramson, is mostly just a distraction anyway: "The creation/evolution debate relates to how powerful is God. Is God honest? He said six days, the context seems to say six days, why can't it be six days?"

Dowd, says Abramson, is "dumbing down Christianity in a dangerous way."

But regardless of such criticism, Dowd says people get what he's preaching.

"About 75 percent of Americans we've found, from atheists to evangelicals, the vast majority of people across the spectrum have real enthusiasm for what we're trying to do," he says. "No religion could emerge into its full glory without an evolutionary perspective."


Rev. Michael Dowd speaks at 7 p.m., Fri., May 30. Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills, 1240 Washington Road, Mount Lebanon. Free.

Evolving Faith
The Rev. Michael Dowd.

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