Thursday, August 26, 2010

#78. "Thank God for Evolution"


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In recent weeks I've received two comments from readers with opposite views. One said, "I do not find the themes in Wilber’s book at all interesting." The other said, "I have no interest in what Michael Dowd has to say."


I, of course, think we need to know about both authors.

Wilber is probably best described as a philosopher concerned with the big picture of the evolutionary development of human consciousness. In his book Sense and Soul he focuses on how religion and science became alienated from one another and what's needed on both sides for our culture to bring them together.

Dowd, in contrast, is an evangelist-- a "preacher" in the old time sense. 

But he's not a preacher of "that old time religion." He calls himself a "story-teller." He wants to spread the good news of the New Story of the Universe that's ours today thanks to modern science.

It's of interest that the phrase "marriage of science and religion" occurs in the subtitle of both Sense and Soul and Thank God for Evolution

Although they are coming from very different perspectives, these authors really are about the same thing.

Despite those differences, it's their common concern-- what I call, in the title of this blog, "the convergence of science and religion"-- that makes them both so significant.

In the last few posts, I've emphasized Wilber's insights into the social and cultural reasons for the split between these two basic areas of human life. In this and the next few posts I plan to share my thoughts about Dowd's practical concerns for living the New Cosmology.

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I've described Thank God for Evolution in several previous posts as "extraordinarily comprehensive." It really is, as I said in post #77 (From Theory to Practice), a "unique compendium or manual of praxis for living out the New Cosmology in everyday life."

It's almost 400 pages long, and it's such a vast treasury of practical ideas that I hardly know where to start in trying to describe it.

I think one of its most valuable things is the large number of small anecdotes that fill the pages. Dowd says that these down-to-earth stories about ordinary people have been included at the insistence of his wife, Connie Barlow. She has gone to the heart of his practical concern! 

Just reading the book's many anecdotal stories-- easy to find because they're printed with a clear background so that they readily stand out-- is a delight.

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Another thing which makes this book such a strong resource for anyone interested in the New Cosmology is the section called Who's Who. Dowd offers seven pages of brief biographies of the many influential thinkers and writers who have contributed in one way or another to our new understanding of the universe and of our place in it. With approximately 20 persons listed on each page, this Who's Who of the New Cosmology is-- as book reviews often say-- "worth the price of the book."

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Another especially valuable thing Dowd's book offers is the numerous quotes by many well-known people in our culture who help us to understand the new scientific story of the universe. When I first starting writing this post I thought I would simply list the names of all the people who are quoted, but the list would be much too long.

I decided instead to pick out the names of persons quoted that you are likely to recognize. It still comes to a long list, but I think it might be worth sharing, just to make the point that the thoughts of many well-known persons are available for helping us to understand the practical aspects of the convergence of science and religion.

Here's the list: Thomas Berry, Winston Churchill, Mary Conrow Coelho, Bill Cosby, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Loren Eiseley, Albert Einstein, Black Elk, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Matthew Fox, Steven Jay Gould, Vaclav Havel, Helen Keller, Miram Macgillis, Ashley Montague, Lewis Mumford, the poet Rumi, Carl Sagan, Carl Sandburg, Percy Shelley, Brian Swimme, Teilhard de Chardin, Alan Watts, Edward O. Wilson, Alfred North Whitehead, Robert Wright.

They are an example of the breadth of Dowd's efforts as a story-teller. 

And like the anecdotal stories, their quotes are highlighted and easy to find.

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Another example of Dowd's breadth in his story-telling efforts is his inclusion in an appendix of a letter written by the noted atheist Richard Dawkins. The letter is not addressed to Dowd but to Dawkins' own then-10-year-old daughter. I mentioned in the previous post that with Dowd's ability "to address believers, non-believers, and everyone in between," he is a model of the Post-modern Deconstructionist respect for the diversity of persons, perspectives and cultures that Ken Wilber describes. Dowd's inclusion of this letter is an excellent example of his openness. He's definitely not a preacher in the old time sense.

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With this collection of anecdotal stories about little-known people, the quotes from well-known people, and the Who's Who of influential New Cosmology persons, it's obvious that the New Story of the Universe is not just something which a few quirky members of contemporary society are interested in. It is what's happening in our world.

Neither gossip about celebrities, nor the corruption of politicians, nor the insensitivity of corporate executives is the whole story. They are not even the main story. No, even that's not correct. They're not the story at all!

The real story of our time is our gradual discovery of a far-deeper-than-previous understanding of our place in the universe and of our participation in the cosmic process.

So Thank God for Evolution is of the greatest relevance to our contemporary problems. As no other book I know, it helps us to see the big picture and to recognize that war, damage to the environment, the imposition of poverty or gender inequality, and the cover-up of child abuse are all "distortions of the cosmic process."

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Probably the single most significant thing about Dowd's book is his emphasis on the fact that the big picture we have from modern science is the birthright of every human being. He spells it out from the start. In the first pages of his Introduction he says, "The scientific story of the cosmos, Earth, life and humanity is now our shared sacred story-- our 
common creation myth."

And this common story of all humanity reaches back billions and billions of years. Every person on the Earth is "heir to a magnificent and proud heritage."

I see the most significant practical value of this book is in the help it offers us to update that common heritage. As the book cover says, bringing science and religion together can "transform your life and our world." While there are certainly many ways we can transform our lives, only communion with the Earth and one another in daily life can transform our world.

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Dowd points out that one of the major questions of our day is: Who can we trust? Given the ineptitude of politicians, the insensitivity to human suffering by leaders of corporations, and our betrayal by religious authorities, we repeatedly (if unconsciously) ask,"What can we count on?"

Dowd's main point is that in the context of the New Cosmology we see that "We can count on the universe itself." He doesn't mean the static universe of past ages, of course, but the universe as we know it today: the dynamic-evolutionary cosmos. It's the cosmic process itself that we can count on.

But to trust the evolutionary universe we have to be informed about it. 

We need to know the facts; our cultural awareness-- of our selves and of our place in the world-- needs to be updated. I would say, as a long-time teacher, that we "need better science education." Dowd puts it in religious language: "Facts," he says, are "God's native tongue."

Once we have the data modern science offers us, it's much easier to see that the dynamic universe can be counted on to continue in its evolutionary development. After fourteen billion years, it isn't likely that the cosmic process is going to do an about face. It's not going to make a "drastic U-turn," as Ken Wilber puts it.

With the facts available to us, we can trust that the universe is going to continue to develop in the directions it has been moving ever since the Big Bang.

I've mentioned some of the directions the cosmic process moves in repeatedly in these posts-- diversity, complexity and consciousness, for example. Some are easier to understand than others. Dowd lists seven of them and I could easily use a whole post just to describe them briefly. 

But the main point here is that we're just coming to appreciate these ongoing aspects of the cosmic process; we're just coming to realize that we can indeed count on the mystery of the universe to continue what it's doing. And that is a major change from both the religious and non-religious perspectives of the past!

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You may be thinking, "Well, I know a lot about all that. At least to some extent, I am familiar with the big picture that we have thanks to the New Cosmology." What you may be more interested now is how you can personally live it out in your everyday life.

If you've been thinking along those lines, Dowd offers an exercise to discern your calling. It's a way of matching your inborn talents and skills with your interests and concerns. By comparing "Your Joys" and the "World's Needs," you can figure out where you personally fit in, and what you can contribute, to our many-billion-year-old heritage.

This Discerning Your Calling Exercise is on page 178. It may only take you about 20 minutes, but you will find yourself refining it for days and weeks afterwards as you come to a deeper and fuller understanding of what might be your personal and unique contribution to humanity's Great Work.

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Another aspect of Dowd's book which makes it a great treasure is the collection of resources it provides for updating ourselves. If there's an aspect of the New Cosmology you feel weak about, help is available: Dowd lists several hundred books, in nine categories.

To give you some idea of the extent of these available resources, the nine categories and the number of books available in each category are listed below.

1. The Big Picture: 25 books.

2. The Trajectory of Divine/Cosmic Creativity and Human History: 23 books.

3. Living in Deep Integrity:19 books.

4. Parents and Children: 5 books.

5. Humanity, Technology and the Future: 5 books.

6. Evolutionary Psychology, Brain Science and Ethics: 23 books.

7. Visions and Tools for an Evolutionarily Sustainable Future: 20 books.

8. The Limitations of Flat-Earth Faith:12 books.

9. Toward an Evolutionary Faith: 52 books.

There's also a free study guide available on Dowd's web site: ThankGodforEvolution.com.

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I have just described a half-dozen major treasures in this book. You can see why, in earlier posts, I have referred to it as "remarkably comprehensive."

If you're wondering whether I think the book has any limitations, I've found one. It's Dowd's comments about ritual. I don't think they are wrong or incorrect, but they are inadequate.

I have struggled repeatedly-- and not yet satisfactorily-- to express my own thoughts about ritual and evolution, so I'm not being critical. I do think, however, that there's something more about the importance of ritual in our understanding of the New Story that still needs saying. I hope I will be able to express my thoughts about it more adequately. Eventually!

Meanwhile, in the next few posts I plan to share some thoughts about what I think are Dowd's own most significant and helpful ideas. Some have to do with things we don't often connect with science or religion, such as our need, in light of modern knowledge about how our brain works, to trust our shadow side. Others have to do with what Dowd calls "day and night language" and some changes he says the "old time religion" needs to make.

I find it all fascinating. Hope you do, too!

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1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.