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Book: Thank God for Evolution

Dowd, Michael. Thank God for Evolution. New York: Plume, 2007. 380 pages + front and back matter. ISBN: 978-0-452-29534-6.  (All numbers in parentheses are page numbers from this edition of the book.)

I was interested in this book from the moment I saw the title, not because I immediately expected to agree, but because it, along with its blurbs and description, takes a celebratory approach to evolution. My own position is that evolution is a fact and a valid theory, but it requires some theological work to deal with that. So a book that claims that evolution is not only compatible with Christianity, but something that Christians should thank God for, sounds pretty challenging to me.

The early pages of the book set some pretty high standards. In the “Author’s Promises” Dowd makes some very strong promises, claiming that he is bringing forth a new form of Christianity. For example, speaking to “devoutly committed Christians” he says that “. . . whether you consider yourself conservative, moderate, or liberal, my promise to you is that the sacred evolutionary perspective offered here will enrich your faith and inspire you in ways that believers in the past could only dream of” (xxvi). He also expects that his exposition will be enriching to atheists and freethinkers, amongst many others. That’s a tall order, and if you read the complete section of author’s promises, you’ll find the mission gets even more daunting.

I was reading this book along with my Sunday School class, and I tried to look at it in two ways. First, I wanted to see how much it challenged my thinking and made me reconsider things I already believe. Second, I wanted to see how well it fulfilled the author’s own stated mission.

So how does he go about his task? He divides his presentation into five sections:

  1. The Holy Trajectory of Evolution
  2. Reality is Speaking
  3. The Gospel According to Evolution
  4. Evolutionary Spirituality
  5. A “God-Glorifying” Future

The first section lays out the view of evolution that underlies the rest of the book. I would summarize this by saying it’s a very directed and goal-oriented view of evolution. The evolutionary process is not just natural laws being laws; it is a process that is leading the universe, and of course our world, to ever greater heights. The second section attempts to relate the concept of revelation with science, and deals, in a sense, with epistemology. The third section attempts to restate basic Christian doctrines in terms of evolutionary theory. The fourth expands this into a more general spirituality, including presenting some ideas of spiritual disciplines. In fact, the fourth section goes so far as to discuss speaking in tongues and relating it to this evolutionary spirituality. The fifth section, to be honest, started to feel rather redundant, but I’d summarize it by saying that it restates the evolution of the entire universe such that it is leading to the fulfillment of the dreams of an American 21st century liberal. Many of these dreams are not at all bad–the question that remains is whether evolution is inevitably pushing in that direction.

As usual, let me state the positives of this book. I’m afraid my reaction is not all that positive, so this is harder than usual. The author’s style is engaging, though I must temper that note by noting that it seems redundant from time to time. The section of spiritual disciplines and some on evolutionary psychology were interesting, though understandably a bit basic. I’m not sorry I read the book, but it doesn’t go onto any of my “you ought to read this” lists.

There are a some things this book is not. It is not an outline of evolutionary theory. There are some basic descriptions of evolutionary processes, but nothing that I find challenging, and I am not trained in any of the natural sciences. (I should note, however, that I’ve been reading books on creation and evolution since I was about 10 years old.) It is not a deep book of theology. While it runs through a number of theological concepts, the major contribution, in my view, was in redefining terms. It does not deal extensively with scripture. If you want to look at how to interpret scripture in the light of the principles expressed here, your guidance is limited to telling you not to take the Bible literally, and to look for revelation of God in the ongoing, evolutionary story of the universe around you.

Before I discuss the success of this book at attaining its stated goals, I want to write a note on accommodationism. Accommodationism is the view that science and religion can be accommodated and need not conflict. The problem with this is that it doesn’t define “religion” and “science.” My religion and mainstream science can be accommodated, but let’s say someone believes that the only way to faithfully read Genesis 1 & 2 is as historical narrative description the creation of the world, then that particular form of religion and mainstream science cannot be accommodated.

I might want to suggest that this view of Genesis 1 & 2 is less important or less essential, but it’s not my place to tell others what about their belief system is essential. I can suggest, but obviously the decision is theirs. I cannot claim to have accommodated their faith to science unless, in the process, I have respected what they regard as important.

Similarly one must define what one means by science. I see science as a way of studying the natural world. If something is supernatural, it can only be observed by science as (and if) it impacts the natural world in a measurable way. So I don’t understand science as the one and only way to know. Yet there are those who do. If one believes science is the one and only way to know, then accommodation with religion will again be impossible.

Thus accommodationism itself tends to become a scientific and religious position on its own, rather than a reconciliation of other positions. In accommodating science and religion, proponents often alter the components in ways that will not be acceptable to adherents of the supposedly accommodated views.

Note that I distinguish a form of political accommodationism, in which proponents of the teaching of evolutionary theory work together even though their positions on religious and philosophical issues may differ greatly. This is simply agreement on certain goals, something much different, in my view.

What Michael Dowd has done, in my opinion, is to create an accommodationist religious position, with some prejudice to both Christianity and evolution. It’s hard to say which takes the bigger beating, though I think Christianity in any orthodox form comes in for the worst treatment.

Evolutionary theory, it seems to me, loses as well, by being presented as a teleological process. It is a very optimistic view, which essentially holds that all the competition and death and suffering of biological evolution leads ultimately and (almost) inevitably to cooperation, enlightenment, peace, and joy. It’s not that I disagree with the kinds of goals that Dowd expresses. His hopes are very attractive. I actually wish I could believe they are as inevitable as he seems to think. I just don’t think it’s so.

Christianity comes in for redefinition. All the words are there, but they come into new meanings. You can claim that resurrection or eternal life means coming back as some sort of stardust (97-100), but that’s not what it means to most Christian believers, and I suspect you’re not going to find that many who want to exchange one view for the other. Similarly, the “realization” of various miracles (Appendix B, 357-370) is going to fall flat for most evangelical or orthodox Christians.

In fact, I would say that if you being this book as an orthodox or evangelical Christian, and substantially accept what it teaches, you will no longer be recognizable as a Christian, except in vocabulary. You’ll use some of the words that Christians use, but you will not mean the same thing. I try not to tell other people whether they can call themselves Christian; I believe God can deal with the labels issue. But these changes in vocabulary are so radical that they really no longer appear to relate to the same religion.

In a sidebar titled “Realizing ‘the Centrality of the Cross'” (210) there is a great illustration of what I’m saying. In describing the traditional Christian understanding of this phrase Dowd says that “. . . it is often taken to mean that only Christians who believe that God’s Son suffered and died on teh cross for their sins will ascend to a place somewhere outside the universe called heaven. Everyone else will be tortured forevere in hell. . . .” In its place, evolutionary Christianity would say that this refers to “vertical integrity,” or “getting complete with the past and being responsible for the future . . .” and “horizontal integrity,” “being in right relationship with my nested world.”

Now the vertical and horizontal components do form a sort of cross, but the only connection between those two views is in the vocabulary. Further, the orthodox position could be stated much better, and would subsume integrity, though in quite a different way. I do like the concepts of horizontal and vertical integrity, but they are not the essence of “the centrality of the cross.”

The main purpose for which I could recommend this book would be in order to understand this evolutionary Christianity movement. Many of the theological positions would be better studied from writers expressing theological positions such as process theology or panentheism. I rate the book three stars out of five.

I believe that both Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God and Richard Colling’s Random Designer provide a better presentation of ways to reconcile Christianity with evolution.

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8 Comments

  1. Michael Dowd says:

    Henry, thanks for your thoughtful review of my book! (You’re wrong on my espousing teleology, however. I don’t.)

    Are you familiar with this set of interviews I did last Advent?

    THE ADVENT OF EVOLUTIONARY CHRISTIANITY
    http://evolutionarychristianity.com/advent/

    I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the vast majority of the conversations.

    Co-evolutionary blessings,

    ~ Michael

    1. I appreciate the note, but I must mention that my Sunday School class in general was unwilling to spend the money to watch the videos. They felt they had gotten your point from the book.

  2. Randy Cathcart says:

    Thank you so much for your comments on this book. Like you, I was excited to find it because of its passionate assertion that Christianity and evolutionary theory are compatable. The farther I got into the book, however, the more disappointed I was with what I found. Rather than an attempt to work through the serious theological challenges and benefits of formulating a Christian understanding of evolution from Scripture, it seemed to take a ‘From a distance, the world is blue and green’ approach. By this, I mean that if you get far enough away from the specifics of Scripture and the personhood of God, you can’t see the messiness that complicates things, and you can arrive at a form of spirituality that is pliable enough to allow easy adoption of all evolutionary tenets. So while I applaud the author for broaching the topic, I am still looking for something that will help me work through some unresolved inner conflict over these issues.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I agree very much with this:

      By this, I mean that if you get far enough away from the specifics of Scripture and the personhood of God, you can’t see the messiness that complicates things, and you can arrive at a form of spirituality that is pliable enough to allow easy adoption of all evolutionary tenets.

      I think one might say that Thank God for Evolution moves us far enough away so we can ignore the problems, but does not really solve them.

  3. Michael Dowd says:

    They’re not videos, but audios. And only one of the 38 reflects my points of view. The other 37 are RADICALLY different than what I offer.

    ~ Michael

  4. Michael Dowd says:

    Randy, you will find what you are looking for in spades in the 38 interviews and 6 panel discussions here: http://EvolutionaryChristianity.com

  5. Randy Cathcart says:

    Michael, thank you for directing me to these interviews and discussions. I’m excited to look into them. As a recovering 7-day literalist, I still have some study and prayer to do if I hope to have a cogent theology that embraces God’s truth in Scripture, his truth in the rest of the universe, and his truth in my experience. Thankfully, it sounds like there are many others grappling with these issues, and I’m glad we can learn from each other.

  6. Li Kong says:

    Some might suggest that there could be an evolution of languages from apes to human languages. Discuss.
    Refer to the website address for the derivation of modern English as follows:
    http://www.englishclub.com/english-language-history.htm
    No doubts English language has its derivation from Germanic languages due to their invasion during 5th centurary A.D., many of the modern English words have the same written and spoken words from old English. Or in other words, modern English words might turn up to be the mixture of native languages and Germanic languages as a result of invasion. However, no matter how English languages change, it has still been from human languages since it is the mixture of English languages and Germanic languages. American languages might well be mixed with Latin words and some of their words might have the prefix or roots words to be derived similarly from Latin words. Thus, English languages have not been evolving instead, they tend to borrow from foreign human languages to form part of their languages so that the languages would be changed from time to time. No matter how it changes, it still adheres with the principality that one language might adopt foreign human languages to be added to be part of their languages. The same is in Malaysia. Some like to use Allahmad to be part of their English word and it means Oh! My God. since Allah is the God of Muslims. They simply borrow word from other foreign human language to be part of their English.

    The same as Spanish. Refer to the website address for the derivation of Spanish as follows: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_language
    Spanish has its derivation from Roman languages and many of Spanish words are quite similar to Roman languages.

    From the extracted examples, it gives a clear picture to us that human languages have not been evolved themselves. The reason why there would be change of languages has been merely due to one country’s language has adopted words from another country to form part of their languages so as to cause the change. However, bear in mind that despite there could be change of human languages, it is simply due to one country’s language adopts another country to be part of their languages. Or in other words, no doubt how the human languages have been transformed, it would still be human languages since it tends to use foreign words to form part of their languages so as to create new languages.

    All the apes’ languages, whether they are in Africa, Eastern Countries or Western or etc., sound alike and none of them sound like human languages. Even if there would be change of apes’ languages from Africa due to the influence of apes from Eastern Countries, the change could be within the spoken apes’ languages since none of them could speak human languages. As apes’ languages are entirely different from human languages, how could apes be evolved from human beings then?

    Even if you would try to train any apes in any region to speak in human languages, none of the apes could be able to learn that type of skill to speak in human languages. As that is so, how could human beings be evolved from apes unless there would be a proof that apes could be trained to speak human languages?

    If human languages could be evolved from apes’ languages, some spoken words from human languages would have identical sounds as apes due to the borrowing of words from apes from another from other regions or countries for the transformation. As none of the spoken words from human languages would have the identical sounds as apes, how could human beings be evolved from apes?

    If human languages cold be evolved from apes’, many languages should have certain similarity with apes’ languages. Not only that, some human beings might understand apes languages due to the similarity of their languages with apes. Why is it that none of the human beings could understand apes’ languages? As that is so, how could human beings be evolved from apes?

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