Biblical Christianity and the Great Story
A conversation between Michael Dowd
and a Christian college student
August 15, 2002
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Or click here to download a 2-page list of ways in which an evolutionary understanding of cosmos and life can enrich Christian experience.
"Evolutionary Christianity"Michael Dowd is now webmaster of a companion website, www.EvolutionaryChristianity.org. Evolutionary Christianity is an integral vision of Christian faith that honors biblical and traditional understandings, conservative and liberal, while enthusiastically embracing an evolutionary worldview. It sees the entire history of the Universe and emergent complexity of matter, consciousness, culture, and technology in a sacred, God-glorifying way. Sample faith-enriching pages on how an evolutionary understanding strengthens core Christian concepts of God, the Gospel, and others; see his take on "Seven Post-Biblical Revelations"; use the "Resources" page to visit excellent related sites on the web. (posted November 2004)
Student: Why do you call the universe story "The Great Story"? I've always heard that the Bible was the greatest story ever told.
Michael: For millions of people around the world it is true: the Bible is the greatest story ever told. But I'm using the phrase in a different way. Let me explain.
The reason I call the history of everyone and everything "great" is not because this story is necessarily the best or most powerful or most life changing. For some it is; for others it's not. I refer to the 13 billion year epic of divine creativity as "The Great Story" because it is the biggest story, the most encompassing. It is the story that embraces and includes all the others. There is no way of speaking about Reality and our relationship to it no secular or sacred story from any culture that is left out or not valued in this Great Story. Moreover, The Great Story also includes each of our personal stories our joys and struggles, our accomplishments and contributions what we're proud of as well as what we're ashamed of. All of it.
But in the sense that you mean, I think, it's really a personal thing. Every person gets to say what this story means to them, if anything at all. You may feel that what I call "The Great Story" is fascinating; it shows promise perhaps, but it's not great. No problem! Call it "The Fairly Decent Story" if you like.
The reason I experience the epic of evolution as "Great" with a capital "G" is that it touches my heart, captures my mind, and draws me into a state of reverence like no other story on the planet. It enriches my faith and is enriched by my faith. As the history of God's love and creativity, this story inspires and empowers me every time I hear it. I get goosebumps often just thinking about it!
What I'm calling "The Great Story" includes the whole Bible, of course. No biblical story is left out. Yet it also includes stories the biblical writers, inspired though they were, couldn't possibly have known: the story of the Chinese people, for example, or the story of the galaxies and our solar system, or of human history since the time that the Bible was written, or of your story, and mine.
Student: So you're not saying that the universe story is superior to the biblical story?
Michael: Absolutely not! Is a tree superior to its roots, or a human body superior to its liver? Of course not! Without roots there is no tree. But roots don't make up the whole tree either. The liver may only be a part the body; but without it the body will die. So one is not superior to the other. They operate at different levels of complexity.
The Great Story embraces, includes, and heralds the Christian story, but it also transcends it because it includes, too, many stories the biblical writers didn't know about: such as the story of the dinosaurs, or the story of how God created the atoms of your body, your clothes, and everything around you in the furnace of a supernova star which preceded the birth of our Sun. The Great Story says a resounding "Yes!" to biblical revelation but holds it in a much larger context than ever before. It says that the stories of the Bible are not merely literally true (some are, some aren't; that's for scholars to debate), but far more importantly; the biblical stories are cosmologically true. They are symbols that point to profound truths about the real world and the real human condition. Each biblical story is a metaphor for something real (though often invisible) and something important about the cosmos. But this insight is missed if these stories are interpreted only, or primarily, in a literal way. Many people (conservatives and liberals alike) are discovering for themselves the joy and freedom of interpreting the Bible as universally true in this sense. When biblical revelation is understood as revealing important truths (albeit symbolically or metaphorically) about the nature of Reality and our relationship to it, people invariably have a renewed respect and awe for scripture. It edifies their reading of the Bible; it doesn't diminish it.
Student: How did you come to this perspective? What's your spiritual journey in a nutshell?
Michael: I was raised Roman Catholic (I'm the oldest of four kids) and went to Catholic school through 7th grade. My parents divorced when I was twelve, and at the age of fourteen I went with a friend to a Baptist youth camp, which had a significant impact on my thinking. Five years later, while I was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Berlin, Germany, I had a powerful mystical experience on a mountaintop. I felt as if God had given me the eyes to see over vast stretches of geological time. And I heard that still, small voice of my heart say that I was destined to make a real and lasting difference in the world. The next Sunday I went to an Assemblies of God church for a special showing of a film produced by The Billy Graham Association. The film just reached in and grabbed my heart and quickened my soul. When it was over and the preacher asked if there was anyone who wanted to come forward to be prayed for, I nearly ran down to the altar. I asked Jesus that day to forgive my sins, to take up residence in my heart, and to become my personal Lord and Savior. I also committed myself to walking in his steps from that day forward. When I finished praying I felt lighter and happier than I had ever felt in my life. No one needed to tell me what had happened. I knew I had been born again because that's exactly how I felt.
For the next several years I was nurtured and discipled in an evangelical-pentecostal context. Six months after asking Jesus into my heart, I had an experience that some refer to as "the baptism of the Holy Spirit" while at a spiritual retreat center in the German Alps. I began speaking in tongues at that time and have maintained this ecstatic, meditative spiritual practice ever since.
These two experiences transformed my life. Although I had a solid religious upbringing, my later teenage years were marked by a personal struggle with drugs and alcohol. Once free of the enormous burden of these vices, my love of learning and passion for life resurfaced with a vengeance. I devoured anything I could get my hands on that offered a biblical perspective on life or insight into how I could experience a closer walk with God. I listened to Keith Green and other prophetic contemporary Christian musicians. I read Charles Finney, A.W. Tozer, Andrew Murray, Charles Fillmore, Ron Sider, and a host of other spiritual writers from different traditions. I read the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, twice, in less than six months. The second time through took me only six weeks.
While still in the Army, in the spring of 1981, I went on a pilgrimage to Israel and Ireland, spending a week in both places. It was during that trip that I experienced God's call to full-time ministry. I didn't know exactly what form or forms this would take but I knew I would be spending my life sharing the Great News of God's love. After getting out of the Army, before starting my first year at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, a liberal arts school affiliated with the Assemblies of God, I hitchhiked all around the country (literally!) from Miami to New York to Seattle to San Diego to Springfield.
Is this more detail than you want?
Student: No, not at all. Please continue. This is exactly what I was hoping you'd get in to.
Michael: Well...I'll just give you a few of the major turning points, the stuff that's relevant to our discussion. I don't want to take too much time on this.
The first day at Evangel was rather traumatic for me. I guess I just assumed, this being a Christian college, that all my textbooks would be written by born-again Christians. So when my biology professor held up a zoology textbook we were going to use, I gasped. I couldn't believe my eyes. Having encountered that same book four years earlier at the University of Miami, I knew that it taught evolution. Certain that the theory of evolution was of the devil, I thought to myself, "Satan obviously has a foothold in this school." I picked up my books, walked out of the room, and immediately withdrew from the course.
God's got a wonderful sense of humor, wouldn't you agree? I mean here I am now traveling the continent teaching and preaching a sacred way of seeing evolution! Being humbled is a good thing, right? I sure hope so, because God seems to enjoy humbling me! At least I know how Saul felt on the road to Damascas.
Over the months that followed, thanks to the patience and commitment of my professors and fellow students at Evangel, I eventually came to embrace evolution as the means, expression, and result of God's creativity over 13 billion years. This is still how I understand evolution today.
After graduating from Evangel with a double major in biblical studies and philosophy, I attended Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia, for three years. That's where I came to accept that, while the Bible was divinely inspired, it was also a book written by real human beings with real gifts and limitations, each with his or her own personal beliefs, judgments, opinions, and assessments about the world some accurate, some not just like the rest of us. Recognizing this, I realized that it was unfair of me to expect the scriptures to reflect anything other than the best understanding of the universe that was possible when they were written.
I pastored three congregations from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s: an American Baptist/Congregational church in western Massachusetts, a United Church of Christ church in southeast Ohio, and another UCC congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My parishioners taught me far more about ministry than I ever learned in seminary, and far more about life than I was ever able to teach them, I'm quite certain. Like I said, God seems to enjoy humbling me.
In 1988 I was introduced to the work of cultural historian and Passionist priest Thomas Berry. This marked another turning point in my life. The first night I heard Albert LaChance, a prophetic poet who had studied one-on-one with Father Berry for five years, tell the scientific story of the universe as a sacred story, I heard my heart say: "Michael, my boy, you're going to spend the rest of your life popularizing this story. Have fun sharing the great news!" Remembering my mountaintop experience in Germany, and my time in Israel and Ireland, a wave of joy and gratitude, and sense of destiny, washed over me that night, and that sense has never left.
Virtually everything I've said and done since that evening every sermon I've preached, everything I've written (including my book EarthSpirit), and everything on my website has been designed to fulfill on this mandate from God: to popularize The Great Story in such a way that others experience it for themselves as Great News and are inspired to serve God according to their gifts.
Does that answer your question?
Student: Yes. Thank you.
Michael: Thank you!
Student: Your website mentions that you also did work in the field of community organizing and sustainability. When was that?
Michael: In 1996, I was hired as Religious Organizer for the Washington, DC-based National Environmental Trust. I organized Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical religious leaders across the country on key environmental issues that were coming up for a vote in Congress. This was challenging but very rewarding work, though I don't think I was nearly as effective as I could have been. My first wife, Alison, had recently divorced me and this was a particularly difficult time in my life a "dark night of the soul" you might say. In 1997, I was hired by Global Action Plan, a non-profit environmental and community empowerment organization based in Woodstock, NY, to head up government-sponsored Sustainable Lifestyle Campaigns in Portland, Oregon and Rockland County, NY. I did this for nearly five years.
Working at the leading edge of the sustainability movement was deeply satisfying. I managed two state-of-the-art programs: the EcoTeam Program and the Livable Neighborhood Program. Municipally funded, both programs help neighbors get to know each other better, conserve resources, and improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. It was soul-satisfying work to be sure. Then I met Connie Barlow in 2000 and we married in 2001. Once we realized that we held the same vision to teach and preach the marriage of science and religion for personal and planetary wellbeing across North America and both of us felt called by God to begin right away, we launched our traveling ministry. We actually expect to be doing this for the rest of our lives. For us, there is absolutely no sacrifice involved. We can't imagine a more fulfilling way to live.
Student: You said earlier that The Great Story "enriches your faith". I'm assuming you mean that it enhances your walk with Christ or deepens your appreciation of Christian doctrine, or something like that, is that right?
Michael: Yes, exactly. And The Great Story also makes God's presence more real to me much more real!
Student: How does it do that? Can you give an example?
Michael: Sure. I'd be glad to.
First of all, we need to remember that when the Bible was written, people believed that the world was flat, stationary, and at most only a few thousand years old. Stars were seen as the pinprick holes in the canopy, or dome, of the heavens that allowed God's glory to shine through. The very real yet mostly intangible energies, forces, and dynamics within nature, within society, and within each of us realities that we all experience every day and which modern science usually describes mechanistically were described in biblical times using language of angels, demons, spirits, and other personifications. And quite naturally, Christian theology, doctrine, and creeds based on the Bible reflect this pre-scientific worldview. There's nothing wrong with that. It couldn't have been otherwise. It's a blessing, not a problem.
The challenge or really the opportunity is that we now live in a very different world, and our culture today uses very different metaphors and analogies for understanding and relating to Reality. So if we only use biblical language and metaphors, we are going to miss in a huge way what God is up to in our world and in our lives. Why? Because we're going to keep expecting God to show up like what we read about in the Bible, and, consequently, we're not going to notice God's presence and activity in our lives every moment of every day. As St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time, said in the thirteenth century "Any error about creation leads to an error about God." If this was true 750 years ago, how much more is it true today?
The other reason why it's important to use up-to-date metaphors and scientifically credible language when speaking about biblical truths is that if we continue to interpret our theology and doctrine in light of a first century worldview, we will grossly underestimate the this-world reality of important Christian concepts. Take the New Testament witness regarding "the second coming of Christ," for example. If we expect the physical and spiritual reality of this prophetic insight to show up in first century cosmological dress, we will be looking to the skies for a 6 foot tall, 170 pound man with long, dark hair, white robe, and sandals to literally descend on the clouds. If that's where we're focusing our attention, however, and if that's what we think Love Incarnate's "second coming" is going to look like, then we'll completely miss how this might be occurring right before our eyes but in a very different form than we might expect.
I'm not trying to criticize those who interpret the Bible or the second coming in this kind of an otherworldly way. That's exactly how I thought of it for a number of years. But now, in light of The Great Story the epic of evolution told as the history of God's creativity and self-revelation I believe we will miss the real power and significance of the biblical message for our time if we continue to view it through 2,000 year old lenses that is, if we continue to interpret the Bible as anything less than pointing in a sacramental way to the nature of the real universe in which we live and move and have our being, and our destiny within it.
Here's another example of what I'm talking about: To interpret the story of the birth, life, teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus as merely having to do with saving a select group of people (born-again Christians) from the fiery torment of a literal hell beneath the Earth when they die is to trivialize the gospel. Given the actual bad news that human beings experience around the globe today, added to the inescapable disappointments in our personal lives and sometimes deep emotional distress that is simply part of the human condition part of life after "the Fall" such an understanding would hardly be felt as "good news" by billions of people. A far richer interpretation of this story, it seems to me, is available when we begin to look at it cosmologically.
Student: You lost me there. Please explain what you mean by looking at the story cosmologically.
Michael: Well, for one thing, it tells me that when I feel like I'm in hell, I am! And if I want to be free of the torment that I've created for myself the literal hell of my own judgments, or from being out of touch with Reality as a result of my thinking, I need look no further than love, real embodied love. Great Heart is our salvation. And yes, this fact is universally true that is, it's true for all peoples everywhere.
From this story I learn that the only way I can be fully restored to the original blessing of immediate intimacy with my Source and my Life an intimacy that our ancestors palpably experienced on Earth for millions of years the only way I can regain this intimacy with God is to live with the "law of Love" in my heart: that is, loving Ultimate Reality with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength; and loving my neighbor (including my enemy) as my self. From the story of Jesus as it is presented in the gospels I learn that Reality itself is always ready to forgive me if I will simply turn around (repent), surrender to the wisdom of Infinite Grace (within and around me), and boldly yet humbly follow my heart.
From the gospels I also learn that suffering and death are not outside the redemptive will of God that on the other side of even the worst experiences that may come our way are resurrection power, freedom, and new creative possibilities.
These are but a few of the interpretive insights that become available when one opens to the cosmological wisdom of the gospels when one begins to ponder, "What does this story tell me symbolically about the nature of the universe, my relationship to it, and my role in its destiny?"
Student: I like that example. It rings true. And I think it could be helpful if I can just remember it! Could you give me more more ways of finding, what you call, "cosmological truth" in the gospels?
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