EXTRACTS FROM ONLINE DISCUSSIONS WITH MICHAEL DOWD ABOUT HIS ESSAY, Let's Stop Trivializing God
Q: You speak about life and human culture evolving greater complexity, cooperation, and interdependence over time. Where can I read more about this?
- MD: There are three resources that I highly recommend for those wanting to learn more about modern responses to this question “Is there or is there not a direction to evolution?”:
- My wife Connie Barlow's book: Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life, originally published in 1995 by MIT Press and now self-published in paperback.
Q: It sounds like you’re saying that because we are here this proves that there is a god. And it also sounds like it would happen to be the god that Christians believe in. Am I missing something?
- MD: Actually, yes. I’m not meaning that at all. What I am saying is quite simple: A) There is such a thing as "Reality as a Whole" and B) "God" is a legitimate, proper name for this Reality. Any "God" that can be believed in or not believed in is exactly what I’m not talking about.
Q: When you speak of the sum total of everything being God, that sounds like pantheism to me. Do you consider yourself a pantheist, a theist, an atheist, or a panentheist?
- MD: All of the above and none of the above, simultaneously! Actually, Connie and I call ourselves “creatheists” (we coined the term). I pronounce it “cree a theist” and Connie pronounces it “cree atheist”, but we mean the same thing. Essentially we are both “religious naturalists” who ground our religious/spiritual orientation in the widely accepted understanding that reality as a whole is creative in a nested directional sense: atoms within molecules within organisms within planets within galaxies, etc, like nesting dolls, with each level or holon expressing its own unique form of creativity, and with greater complexity tending to emerge over time.
- A fairly major difference between creatheism and pantheism is that creatheism acknowledges that there is a non-measurable, non-material aspect of reality that transcends everything we can possibly know, think, or experience: what David Bohm called “the Implicate Order” and others have called, variously, “the All Nourishing Abyss”, “Pregnant Void”, “Quantum Vacuum”, “Akashic Field”, or “Realm of All Possibilities”, within which the Universe/Multiverse exists and which is its Source.
Q: In my opinion the ultimate question we face at this time is: "How should we live together?" And I believe this is best answered in a setting where a microcosm of the public can meet to answer that question, relying as best they can on reason and love. Do you agree?
- MD: Absolutely! As I mention in my essay, I see few things as more important than discovering ever more effective ways of bringing people together to really hear and get each other, and then to make decisions accordingly.
- Two other questions I see as equally important, however, are these: How can we further the evolutionary impulse and organize/govern ourselves as a species (globally, nationally, regionally, and locally) so that there are real and effective incentives for individuals, corporations, and nation-states to cooperate and serve the common good (each benefits substantially by doing so), and equally effective incentives against disregarding or damaging the common good? And how can the epic of evolution be told in a mythic way, as a big picture sacred story, so that it inspires and motivates billions of human beings with different worldviews to really want, and then to successfully manifest, this vision?
- These three, taken together, constitute for me “the ultimate questions we face at this time.”
Q: My dream is to find a common denominator that can bring us together to talk about our future in ways that can help us rise above our religious differences. Is this, in part, what you’re trying to do?
- MD: Yes, exactly. My hunch is that understanding God in a bridge-building, scientifically compelling, and theologically inspiring way, that makes sense to religious conservatives and liberals as well as to humanists and atheists, will go a long, long way toward realizing this dream.
- Christians and Muslims make up approximately 55% of the human population, and the majority of these are conservative. If common ground between monotheistic believers, those of other traditions, and those with no religious orientation whatsoever cannot be found in the next 50 years or so, I hold little hope for us as a species. Too many things need to change at too large a scale.
- I’m betting that one common denominator, perhaps the most significant of all, will be an inclusive, logically compelling, refreshingly intimate yet no less awe-inspiring understanding of God, such as I have tried to outline in my essay.
Q: It seems to me that your approach is based upon seeing the mysteries of the world as profound and encapsulating messages about how we should live. Is this accurate?
- MD: Not really. Yes, my approach includes that. But even more so, it’s based on seeing the known aspects of the world as profound and encapsulating messages about how we should live.
- When I was in college I was taught, following the 18th century philosopher David Hume, that you can’t get an “ought” from an “is” – that is, you cannot derive a system of ethics and morality from the natural world. This may have been true in a pre-evolutionary context, which is when David Hume lived. However, with the kind of 21st century understanding of evolution and/or ethics provided by people like Sharif Abdullah, Connie Barlow, Kern Beare, Don Beck, Thomas Berry, Howard Bloom, S. E. Bromberg, Andrew Cohen, Peter Corning, Terry Deacon, Larry Edwards, Duane Elgin, Matthew Fox, John David Garcia, Russ Genet, Ursula Goodenough, Billy Grassie, John Grim, John Haught, Francis Heylighen, Phillip Hefner, Barbara Marx Hubbard, L. Robert Keck, Albert LaChance, Bruce Lipton, David Loye, Miriam MacGillis, Joanna Macy, Gene Marshall, Lynn Margulis, Christian de Quincey, Ruth Rosenhek, Loyal Rue, Joyce Rupp, Peter Russell, Dorian Sagan, Elisabet Sahtouris, John Seed, Mary Southard, John Stewart, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, Ken Wilber, Edward O. Wilson, Robert Wright, and others who have contributed to a meaningful, even sacred, interpretation of evolution (see also here) and a solid science-based understanding of evolutionary ethics, it’s not at all difficult to derive a coherent system of morality from a careful reading of natural and human history. And, not surprisingly, what we find both validates earlier, traditional ethical systems while also raising the bar, by expanding our circles of care, compassion, and commitment.
- How has evolution consistently produced orders of complexity, interdependence, and cooperation at wider scale and evolvability? How has it led to greater differentiation, increased subjectivity, and deeper communion with itself and its Source over time? Learning these “laws of God”— what the Chinese call the Tao, or Way of Life — and applying what we learn toward the wellbeing of the entire Earth community and the further evolution of life and consciousness is good. Disregarding or violating these “laws of God” — that is, pursuing our own self-interest at the expense of the larger holons of which we are part (our familial, cultural, and natural contexts) or the smaller holons of which we are composed (our minds, bodies, organs and cells) and for which we are responsible (our children, neighborhoods, etc) — is wrong. It’s not any more complicated than that.
- Now that we know that “nature red in tooth and claw” and “the survival of the fittest” are woefully inadequate (though partially true) descriptions of the nature of nature over time, and now that we understand the centrality of symbiosis (mutually beneficial relationships) and how competition and cooperation drive each other to greater heights, we can begin to gain a new appreciation for how it is both possible and profitable to derive a shared ethical framework from natural history.
Q: But if we assume that everything, including “bad” or “evil” things, contribute to evolution, couldn’t such an approach be used to justify the behavior of an Adolph Hitler just as much as the behavior of a Mahatma Gandhi?
- MD: Hardly! Yes, those who seek to control via domination or oppression may try to justify their actions by appealing to evolution. This is to be expected. Certainly, many operating out of the so-called “social Darwinist” mindset of the late 19th and early 20th century attempted to do just this. But has not the consensus of human opinion over time (i.e., reality) judged these people harshly?
Q: I suppose. But what I’m trying to get at is this: If chaos and destruction play an indispensable role in the evolutionary process, as I’m sure you would agree, how can you say that those who seek to manipulate, control, oppress, or violate others, or those who knowingly pollute the air, water, and soil, or drive other species to extinction, are not furthering evolution?
- MD: Great question! At a narrow conceptual level, of course, you are right. Given the fact that one of the primary drivers of evolutionary creativity and transformation has been chaos, breakdowns, and bad news, yes, I suppose you could say that those who do evil (i.e., pursue their own self-interest at the expense of the wellbeing of the larger or smaller holons of their existence) can, at least in some sense, be said to be furthering evolution. So I agree with you that there is much to be cautious about here. But there is more.
- Recently, I was talking to my friend Tom Atlee about this very topic. Tom noted that, from a systemic perspective, great evil pushes established systems further out of balance, thereby increasing the chances that they will change. The Bolsheviks went off to WWI not only to recruit troops to their cause, but also to feed the internal contradictions of the Czarist government so that it would fall faster. Tom said he believes that, in this sense, the Bush administration may be the most transformational force on the planet, pushing all human and ecological systems to the breaking point, thereby virtually guaranteeing more speedy change (although of course this change can be "good" or "bad" depending on how we respond to their initiatives, so it has profound implications for our own ethical behavior).
- Hiroshima, Tom went on to say, allowed us to see the horrific potential of nuclear war back when only two bombs existed in the world. It is arguable, he said, that those deaths (which were less than the deaths caused by much of our saturation conventional bombing) have played a pivotal role in our not destroying all of civilization in a nuclear holocaust now that we have the potential to do so.
- Probing the patterns of evolutionary history, one of the most fascinating findings is that bad news so often catalyzes good news. (See: The Gospel of Evolution and Death through Deep-Time Eyes. Some people may take this to mean that anyone who creates horror in the world is playing a powerful evolutionary role. Not so: purveyors of immense evil may well be playing powerful devolutionary roles, which manifest conditions so untenable that surges of creative betterment may well ensue. Surely, the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs (and much of Earth life) 65 million years ago was devolutionary; the resulting biological impoverishment was the gap into which poured waves of fresh creativity.
- Indeed, those of us who hold a sacred evolutionary perspective recognize that we don't have to create evil, crisis, and tragedy in order to play a constructive evolutionary role. Our evolutionary power comes from our ability to creatively engage with and respond to the evil, crises, and tragedies that already exist and are increasingly emerging. Our life-affirming responses, designed to use the initiatory energies of our opponents for positive transformational ends — as Jesus, Gandhi, and Aikido masters, among others, so effectively model — exemplify the primary ethical grain of the evolutionary imperative, at least as I see it.
- A functional cosmology, at its core, provides a clear and faithful guide for discerning right from wrong: what is to be pursued, what is to be avoided, and why.
- Defining “good” (ethical/moral) behavior, as the Great Story does, as “that which preserves or benefits the larger and/or smaller holons of one’s existence over time,” and understanding “bad” (immoral/unethical) behavior as “that which harms or diminishes the larger and/or smaller holons of one’s existence over time” may not be a foolproof guide to knowing right from wrong, but it is a good start. And as we talk with one another in ever-widening circles, and really get each other’s perspectives, we will be guided even further.
- Actions that unnecessarily harm people, other creatures, or Earth’s life support systems should never be considered “good things.” Having said this, we often do learn something of vital importance when things go wrong, which can often (though not always) facilitate further evolutionary emergence. Whether it’s suicide bombers, a hurricane like Katrina, or the difficulties of living in a post peak-oil world, challenges may (or may not) evoke creative evolutionary responses.
Q: Buddhists generally do not talk about a creator-watcher-arbiter God (much less in human figure, white, male, etc.). Instead, from a Buddhist perspective the fundamental principle is the law of Dependent Origination (all phenomena originate depending on causes and conditions). Buddhist attitude to truth is open to new empirical and reasoned findings. We do not take old writings, authorities, majorities, etc. as the criteria of truth. And on Eternal Being, Buddhists consider all phenomena as impermanent because of Dependent Origination. Independent Eternal Being does not fit with an interdependent phenomenal world. So given all this, what, if anything, do you see this understanding of “God” as a proper name for “Ultimate Reality,” or “Reality as a Whole,” offering Buddhists?
- MD: Well, the first thing I’d say is that it’s certainly not necessary to use God language when pointing to the Whole of Reality. It’s legitimate to do so, for sure. And a growing number of monotheistic believers and those who grew up in these traditions find it fruitful, empowering, and bridge building to do so. But as I say in my essay, there are innumerable ways one can think and speak about Ultimate Reality.
- I’ve been invited to tell the Great Story — that is, the history of the Universe understood in a sacred, meaningful way — several times in Buddhist contexts. And on each occasion I’ve spoken about God in the ways I’ve done in this essay. Thus far, I’ve been warmly embraced and my message has been enthusiastically received.
- Contemporary Buddhists are in a rather fortunate position, I think. The debate about God language and evolution is not an issue they’re dealing with, or really need to deal with, at all.
Q: Not everyone will be moved by your reframing of God, as I’m sure you realize, either on logical grounds or because the scientific basis is not something that warms their hearts. Wouldn’t you agree that many people seemingly want and need a transcendent God that has been revealed to us in a more traditional religious way?
- MD: Perhaps. Time will tell, of course. But I'm betting my life that most people, including most conservatives over the coming decades, will joyfully, enthusiastically, and, for the most part, effortlessly make the shift to seeing God in this kind of a truly incarnational way. A God who is both transcendent and immanent (more than “the Universe” yet not less than “the Universe”) — a God who has been faithfully revealing Him/Her/Itself through science for the last several hundred years — is far, far more alluring and empowering for most young people than a solely transcendent God who stopped revealing truth vital to human wellbeing and destiny thousands of years ago, when people thought the sun and stars revolved around us.
- And my experience bears this out. I speak to several hundred people a week from all religious and philosophical backgrounds. Young people, including those who are politically and religiously conservative, have by and large responded very positively to my message.
The Rev. Michael Dowd is an evolutionary theologian, cosmic storyteller, and full-time, itinerant evolutionary evangelist.
A printable, PDF version of both Dowd's essay and the Q&A can be found here: http://www.thegreatstory.org/trivializing.pdf
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
- Contact: Michael Dowd
- Email: Michael@TheGreatStory.org
- Phone: 425-760-9941