Episode 28: Michael Dowd - The Great Story - the Epic of Evolution

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In this age of uncertainty, fragmentation, and even despair, people yearn for certainty, but too often settle for adolescent polarizing, exclusivistic worldviews and understandings of reality that we see reflected in our time of penetrating globalization in tremendous political animosities, religious and ethnic warfare. The great 14 billion year Epic of Evolution, inspired by the telling of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, is a deep and coherent story which evokes meaning with an all-encompassing appreciation and wonder. It is a story which contains all stories, and which literally englobes all of the cosmos, excluding no one and nothing in creation. And in that way, illuminated by the "public revelation" of sciences from around the world in the last 300 years and ancient wisdom traditions, this Great Story - that matter, energy, and consciousness are one ongoing complexifying, unfolding, emergent process that we are all part of -- has the power to unite and deepen both science and religion in a new evolutionary worldview. It can unite peoples everywhere in a planetary identity, and orient us -- as cells do in a larger entity everywhere in nature -- to align our self-interest with that of our neighbors and the planet itself. Michael’s telling of his own transformative journey from his early years as a fundamentalist "evolutionary inquisitor" to his traveling the world now with his wife Connie Barlow as "evolutionary evangelists" is an enactment of this story. The big challenges of global warming, peak oil, the spread of terrorism, and the growing gap between the rich and poor, in this view are all seen as evolutionary catalysts, with a positive outcome we may create together in our lifetime. More details on this episode go to http://www.personallifemedia.com/podcasts/living-dialogues/episode028-michael-dowd-the-epic-of-evolution.html


Michael Dowd - The Great Story – the Epic of Evolution

Announcer:  This program is brought to you by personallifemedia.com.


Michael Dowd: I just wanted to say to you, Duncan, that I've done countless, well over 100 interviews over the years, and I've never had one that was as pleasurable for me, because this was a dialogue. It wasn't just you asking questions, but you clearly had done your homework. You are engaged and you're a leading thinker in this field and I'm not used to being interviewed with somebody that's a colleague, so it was a total treat for me to be on this program, doing a real dialogue, where I didn't know where it was going to go, and it was fun to see what emerged out of our conversation.

(intro music)

From time immemorial, beginning with indigenous counsils and ancient wisdom traditions, through the work of Western visionaries such as Plato, Galileo and quantum physicist David Bowen, mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness, evoking a flow of meaning. A dia flow of logos, meaning, beyond what one individual can bring through alone. So join us now as together with you the active, deep listener, we evoke and engage in living dialogues.

Duncan Campbell: I'm your host, Duncan Campbell, and as your host I'm welcoming my guest Michael Dowd, itenerant teller of the Great Universe Story. Michael Dowd may be known to many of you from his wonderful website, along with his wife Connie Barlow, called thegreatstory.org, drawing heavily on the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, who wrote the Universe Story, also known to many of you, and Brian Swimme known to you with children especially for his great book "The Universe Is a Green Dragon" and, in a nutshell, The Great Story is the story of our world. Of our cosmos, of creation itself, told from the perspective, as Brian points out, of the discoveries that have been made by science in the last 300 years, as well as the lore from ancient wisdom and many, many cultures that have contributed from time immemorial. So, Michael, it is a real pleasure to have you here in the studio

Michael Dowd: Great to be here, Duncan.

Duncan Campbell: One of the things that I think is most interesting about you, Michael, is that you and your wife provide, I would say, a very interesting sacred marriage between science and spirituality. One of the things that the two of you talk about is how science actually, instead of being opposed to spirituality in our time, can empower spirituality and a deep understanding of what many people call God or Creator or The Spirit or Consciousness itself. Conversely, spirituality has obviously informed the deep intuitions of the discoveries of science over the years as all great scientists have remarked. From Einstein going all the way back to Copernicus and the early greeks, and the people of course in the Vetha indigenous culture of India. All of them recognise that whatever practical we might say technology, or mechanical understanding of the laws of physics that may come into being, come into being through a deep spiritual intuition of the harmony and the mystery and the wonder of the cosmos. And so, in your own case, unfortunately your wife Connie Barlow cannot join us as she is recovering from a bit of the flue, and we send our very best out to her, and we note that she is a very accomplished science writer in her own right, no pun intended, and has published over 4 books and many, many articles and is the creator of a great many of what on the website are called evolutionary parables, which is really quite extraordinary and very fascinating for all age groups, for that matter, allowing people to understand very very complex issues in a clear and understandable way. Whereas you yourself have a Masters of Divinity, went to theological school and are a very gifted not only storyteller but we might say, in a way, an evolutionary theologian and itenerant preacher, teller of the gospel. Gospel in it's etimology of course means: good news and in our present day and time, with all the conflict and uncertainty highlighted by every time we listen to the media, any kind of good news, particularily a great story, is extremely welcome. And so, with that kind of introduction, what I would like to also highlight is your own personal journey. And here again we remark on the tremendous polarisation and conflict that there is between world views and understanding of reality in our time, which has it's reflection in tremendous political animosities, religious warfare all over the planet and so on. And you yourself embody a journey where in your own search for meaning you've been through two or three separate traditions and have wound up, we might say, with this meta-narrative of meaning, this great matrix story that can englobe, literally, everyone on the planet and, in particular, at one point, you were a fundamentalist christian, and you describe yourself in retrospect, now, as, then you were an evolutionary inquisitor, and now you are an evolutionary...

Michael Dowd: evangelist

Duncan Campbell: evangelist, we might say, yes. So let us start with your own personal story, and then we'll get into this great story, the story of the universe.

Michael Dowd: I joined the army in 1978 and went to Berlin Germany and while I was there had a very profound religious experience on a mountaintop outside of Frankfurt, and, came off the mountain and the next sunday went to church, this girl that I was interested in invited me to go to an assembly of godchurch and they were showing a film that was put out by the Billy Graham association and it was, you know, one of these grab you by the heart films. I remember afterwards the preacher asked if there was anyone that wanted to come down and commit their life to Christ, and I just bolted down to the altar and, you know, confessed my sin and professed Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior and it was a truly transforming experience of my life. For the next 4 year after that I was discipled and nurtured in a pentacostal charismatic, assemblies of God, bible centered, context. And the people I hung out with, and the books I read were all coming from this perspective and most of them were, in fact virtually all of them, were anti-evolutionary, so I naturally adopted a very anti-evolutionary perspective and came back to the states. I had hitchiked around europe, and then hitchiked in the united states, and went to college in 1981 at Evangel University, it's affiliated with the assemblies of God and the first day I walked in the biology class and the teacher held up the textbook that we were gonna use, and it just so happened i had used that same textbook 4 years earlier at the university of miami florida, and so i knew it taught evolution. I freaked. I just picked up my books, walked out of class, slammed the door and went to the registrars office and withdrew from the coursE. In fact, i told my roommate: "Satan obviously has a foothold in the school". It was the only way I could make sense of it.

Duncan Campbell: Anyway, for our lexicon here of our terms for the course of this discussion, evolution is in contrast to creationism

Michael Dowd: correct, yes. And although now I call myself an evolutionary creationist

Duncan Campbell: I know, but, just to get started here

Michael Dowd: yes, exactly, and so it was there... while I was there, and how i went from being an evolutionary inquisitor as you say to an evolutionary evangelist is that i met, well, first of all the bibilcal studies and philosophy professors at Evangel all had embraced evolution and so, em, i couldn't write these people off as being demonically posessed, but i also met a buddhist christian, i met a guy who had been a monk for 7 years. He had graduated from harvard with a degree in buddhist philosophy, went to india and was teaching there, but he had an internal bleeding and a catholic priest convinced him to to pray for healing, and he prayed and was healed, so he didn't stop being a buddhist he just expanded to also include catholisism, came back to the states, became a trappist monk for seven years, then went Yale divinity school, got his master divinity there and i met him when he was back in the Xurious Alay catholic chapel, it was a chapel at the hospital, and he called himself a buddhist christian

Duncan Campbell: what was his name?

Michael Dowd: Tobias Miekher. Toby was this amazing human being. I had never met anybody more liberal in terms of this theology. He called himself a Buddhist Christian. I didn't even know how to make sense of that at the time, because i was a fundamentalist, and yet he was the most christlike man i'd ever met. I had never met anybody more thoughtful and considerate and compassionate and sensitive, just this amazing human being, generous, and so my head said get him saved, but my heart said ask him to mentor you, and that's pretty much what i did, and he was very much into evolutionary theology

Duncan Campbell: So now, just before we move on to the defenition of evolutionary theology, let's talk about what was the crisis that led you to bolt down and profess that you were going to commit your life to Christ in that fundamentalist matrix there. What was missing from your catholic education? Let's start there.

Michael Dowd: yeah that's a great question, duncan. I think that it wasn't so much I wasn't conscious of anything being missing, what i was conscious of was that I was deeply struggling with my inherited proclivities, you could say, that's the way i say it now, or my unchosen nature, what christians call original sin, that is, those aspects of my nature that i was deeply struggling with, namely around sex, drugs and alcohol. I have a very addictive personality, almost everybody in my family on both sides are dealing with one form of addiction or another, and so i struggled a lot during my teenage years with that and i had the sense that, yeah, i needed to get right with God in order to find freedom around drugs and alcohol.

Duncan Campbell: And why was it then happening in, let's say, the catholic confessional or in mass, or whatever other rituals you might have attended as a catholic?

Michael Dowd: That's a good question, i'm not sure i have a good answer to it. I know that there was something about the fire, or the pasion or the certainty that pentacostal evangelicanism offered that i didn't find in my times as a roman catholic, but i don't consider myself an ex-catholic in the same way as that right now i don't consider myself an ex-pentacostal or an ex-anything, i've just expanded to embrace and include other perspectives without giving up or leaving or rejecting, it's really a transcendent include sort of perspective.

Duncan Campbell: Yeah, using the language that many people are familiar with from Ken Wilbur where as you pointed out in a recent talk, Ken Wilbur the noted philosopher based here in Boulder said no-one is ever 100% wrong

Michael Dowd: exactly

Duncan Campbell: So everybody has a piece of the truth and this formulation of transcendent include is meant to reflect really the spiral and dialectic nature of the evolution of matter, all together, since the very inception of the cosmos. Nothing ever gets entirely obliterated and that's a quite fasscinating way of describing it in your personal life because as it seems to me that one of the ways that you were bolting down in the front for was that direct experience, that direct transformative energetic experience and no amount of religious ritual or teaching or bible reading in itself will nencesarily get you to that point. We see the horrific results of fundamentalism in its other mask here, people who feel that the only way to express their own matrix of meaning is to exclude the rest of humanity, either condemn to hellfire or having to be eliminated from the planet as heretics or infidels or whatever the case may be, theres a very peculiar kind of paradox here that never gets acknowledged or resolved because the people that have that level of certainty are certain that actually it's "God's will" that the other people be exterminated so that those who are the true believers can be saved. So here what we have in the evolutionary story is the story of the entire planet, not only human beings, but all forms of life from the very inception and that is what i think is the great power of this as a matrix of meaning, is that it is all inclusive, noone is left out

Michael Dowd: exactly

Duncan Campbell: So perhaps you could proceed now to talk about what you mean by being an evolutionary evangelist and what is this new great story that is all inclusive?

Michael Dowd: yeah, well, i call myself an evolutionary evangelist in that i believe that evolution can be told, that is, the history of everyone and everything, the history of the universe can be told in a sacred, meaningful way that validates and furthers, it expands and deepens, traditional theology, morality and ethics. So it is a transcend and include sort of operation. The reason we, Connie and I, call the epic of evolution, the fourteen billion year history of the universe, the Great Story is that it's the story that includes all stories. No cultural story, no religious story, no ethnic story is left out. All human stories are part of the Great Story, part of the Universe Story, and when we look at the evolution of matter, life, consciousness and culture as one continuum, we recognise that we humans are not separate beings on earth, in a universe, we're a mode of being of earth, we're an expression of the universe. That we didn't come into the world, we grew out of it, in the same way that peaches grew out of a peach tree, so the sense of being identified, that we are the universe after some fourteen billion years of unbroken evolution, now beginning to become conscious of itself, becoming aware of itself, is a deep insight that all the religious traditions can't be faulted for not having known this, and yet different traditions did intuit in different ways, but we're now finding that every religion on the planet is integrating this knowledge at different speeds, and it's opening up their own truths.

Duncan Campbell: And here again i think is the, we might say, the power of story where, again, we've talked here about a matrix of meaning that, as you've put it in some of your own presentations, we are meaning making animals, we're meaning making beings, and we want to have that fire, that passion, that certainty that you saught as a young man in this age of tremendous uncertainty and anxiety and potential despair, and so people reach out in our modern contemporary world for meaning and purpose and to do so you have to tell yourself a story that knits together, if you will, all the fragmented particles of ones world and ones psyche, and in ancient times these stories were seen as literally embedded in the cosmos. They were either embedded in the sky, where the planets had names and they had personae, archetypal gods and godesses with stories associated with them, that the entire Babylonian culture knew, just to pick one, and so that it was an integrative worldview and all of the vicisitudes of human experience would occur within that great matrix so that people could understand conflict, love, desire, uncertainty and so on, according to the parables or stories of how the gods and godesses interacted with humans from mount Olympus let's say in Greece and so on. In other cultures, like the aboriginal culture in Australia, the stories were seen as literally embedded in the landscape and that they were sung into time, from the dreamtime, by the people themselves, so that they could actually be the ones who would dream the dreamtime and they were the vehicles for bringing into being a certain reality, even today they talk about songlines in the landscape, so, that particular geography has a sense of purpose and meaning and story.

Michael Dowd: yeah

Duncan Campbell: To this day, India, which i regard as the greatest indigenous culture on the planet that is still intact, has in their daily newspapers in the capital city Delhi or in Bombay, you can pick up the india times and you will see a little somethin called sacred space, that is on the editorial page, in which they have poems or stories, some written as long as three or five thousand years ago, in which the very landscape of india itself from it's point at the bottom of the subcontinent which is the residing spot of Shakthi to it's most norhern Hamalian mountains which are regarded as the body of Shiva, or the Maskenan Principle, contain messages and lessons and experiences that people experience every year, when the monsoons come there's a certain kind of poetry and meaning that is associated with that. So we've got people finding meaning in the sky, where they live, or in the land where they live, and as you've pointed out throughout history, every one of the matrixes of meaning that has been created makes sense in terms of it's own individual geography. And what we're called upon to do now is to explode beyond that to a planetary level consciousness where we have a single englobing story large enough and complex enough to include all of the beautiful individual stories and individual cultural stories from around the planet from the beginning of time. And just as we lean into the next part of this program i'll tell the little story that Joseph Campbell told that i think illustrates the dilemma of the modern society very well. He said that in our contemporary times we have made the only two mistakes about myth that can be made. He said all myths have the purpose of creating a context of meaning in which the individual learns how to grow up and become a mature individual, at individuate, and secondly how to bring that maturity into the service of community, to be in community, these are the two purposes of myth, and he says the only two mistakes you can make are the mistake of time and them istake of space, and all three of the great desert father religions have made those mistakes in spades in our time, and we see it reflected in what's going on today with israel and palestine, lebanon, syria, iran, the whole middle east, but particularily concentrated with the three great desert father religions in intense, apparantly implacable conflict, and he said that mistake is the mistake of space where they think that sacred sites only exist, let's say, on the dome of the Rakh which is claimed by both the judaic fundamentalists, the christian fundamentalists, and the islamic fundamentalists as the sacred spot and are all fighting over it. He said the full realisation is that sacred land is everywhere and if you think it's only in one spot you cannot sacrelise your own existance if you're not there. The second mistake is the mistake of time, the fundamentalists view that Jesus, for instance, or Mohammed, was the only prophet, or the last prophet, and the only carrier of truth. That the koran and only the koran embraces truth, or the bible, or the thora. And so he said: I contrast this with the great native american wisdom of Black Elk where Black Elk in his vision said: i understood more than i saw, i saw more than i can say, but what i can say is that i saw the hoop of my people and all peoples circling the sacred mountain, and the sacred mountain was mount Harny, which happens to be the sacred mountain for the lakota sue in the dakotas. But then Campbell said, and he said the all important thing: "but the sacred mountain is everywhere". And this, i think, is your great work and so, perhaps we could take the next few minutes with you maybe just telling in capsule form: What is our great universe story, from inception to right now, just in, you know, five or six minutes, that just gives this opening for everyone to participate

Michael Dowd: Great question. The story in a nutshell is the idea that matter, energy, consciousness, spirit are one unfolding complexifying reality and that we see that the universe has gone from simple atoms to more complex atoms to molecules to more complex molecules to creatures to more complex creatures to societies and more complex societies and it's one unfolding process, one emergent process that we're an expression of, and in that same way you look at human culture and we've gone from where we cooperate at the scale of a family and clan, prior to language, then when we had symbolic language, words to communicate, we were able to cooperate at the scale of a tribe, and then we see dominant leadership, supporting a number of tribes cooperating at the scale of a chieftain or a kingdom, and then we begin cooperating at scales of early nations and social democracies and so forth, so we see this trend toward greater interdependence and cooperation at larger and wider scale. What we also discover is that life prior to the human bacteria, to several times, figured out how to align the selfinterest of the individual, the selfinterest of the part, with the wellbeing of the whole that the part was a part of and that process of aligning so that if the part does good to the whole it benefits, if the part harms the whole it's harmed, that way of aligning so it's genuinely in the selfinterest for the part to do well to the whole, that's the key to, that really is one of the major keys to our becoming sustainable and we get this through see, reading, you could say, Gods word, that is Gods word not as revealed merely in texts that were written several thousand years ago but Gods word as that is the reality of how life has evolved. That God primarily... what i see as the word God, and what I mean from this great story perspective, God is not so trivialised as a supreme landlord residing off the planet and outside the universe but God as a sacred name for that ultimate reality that includes yet transcends all other realities. Like the largest nesting dolls, think nesting dolls, a fundamental truth that we now understand is this idea of nested creativity, subatomic particles within atoms within molecules within cells withing organisms within planets, and God is a sacred name for that ultimate reality that includes yet transcends all others. And from this perspective we can see that God, the whole, the whole personified, has been revealing truth in and through the scientific community and in and through the whole community of humans, ever since there have been humans, and we're seeing religion moving from private revelation, religion based on private revelation, you know, Moses goes to the top of the mountain, God reveals something, and then he tells other people about it, or, you know, the apostle Paul struck down off a horse and then something has been revealed, and then he tells other people, so other people then have to believe it or not believe it. So private revelation produces religious believers, belief is the important thing, having the right beliefs

Duncan Campbell: yes

Michael Dowd: Whereas public revelation is that revelation that what is being revealed about the nature of reality coming through the entire community of scientists worldwide, atheist scientists, buddhist scientists, christian scientists, hindu scientists and so forth, and so we recognise now that what we're seeing is a time where public revelation, that is what is being revealed through science, through the entire range of sciences, is validating yet furthering, it's expanding and deepening as i said before, our traditional understandings of morality, theology, ethics and this sort of thing. So i believe that evolution, this is part of what i see as the great news or the gospel of evolution, is that this sacred understanding of evolution, which is not the same as a mechanistic, chance, purposeless understanding of evolution, but this sacred understanding of evolution, this nested creative understanding, will help i believe usher religion into it's greatness; I don't think any religion could come into it's glory, no religion could truly emerge into it's full potential, until deep time was understood, because all religions came into being when people thought the earth was flat and stationary, dome heavens, and the sun and the stars all revolved around us. So we're in a terrible exciting time where science is, I think, expanding in deepening religious insights and helping to realise them, that is, concepts that we thought were merely otherworldly or supernatural we're now recognising help in this world referent, so it's not merely what we're seeing, many people, young people especially, are seeing that otherworldly notions or unnaturaly, you could say supernatural, or even unnatural interpretations of core theological concepts are being seen as trivialised versions of those.

Duncan Campbell: In fact you had a wonderful quotation from Einstein who said: to read the sacred story literally is to trivialise the great archetypal power and mystery that they contain. And he was talking about reading the book of Acts in the bible, but it could be applied to any story and private revelation, whether it's Mohammed or Moses or Jesus for that matter, understood as private revelation can only give birth to belief and that is what Joseph Campbell meant about making the mistake of time. To think that a persons revelation of the divine happened only once, with one individual and everyone after that whether they be jewish or whether they be christian or whether they be muslim has to stand in the lineage of a single person who God had and everyone else is in the process of maybe trying to get it but having to be a good obedient believer and ordered to stay safe and so on and thus actually forfeiting the direct experience alltogether this was behind all the revolutionary movements and religion and thinking throughout history rebelling against that kind of dogmatic private revelation. But if we look at say Jesus and Buddha in a different light, perhaps the way that your mentor Tobias Miekher looked at them, we see that in a sense they can be seen as bridge people from private revelation to public revelation and direct experience. Many of the parabels of Jesus are pointing out parables, whether it's the woman at the well, or the marriage of Canaan, or the prodigal son, where he is literally saying the kingdom of God is here, right now, and you shall be even greater than i, and it's not somewhere else, but of course it doesn't serve institutional purposes to preach that kind of religion because it would be too unruly and they could not control peoples minds and souls that way and they would fear a certain kind of spiritual anarchy, which is exactly what we're taling about, of self governing, selfrealisation, like the cosmos itself. You pointed out i think very beautifully, that in the cosmos when one particular cell, let's say, or group of cells, tries to assert itself and its own interests against the whole, what we today call cancer, it actually gets wiped out and subsumed by the greater healing power of the organism of the universe itself, in other words those cancerous cells do not survive from an evolutionary perspetive, and this is why we've got such a distortion of darwinism where the survival of the fittest became the slogan that the Robert Barrens of the nineteenth century saw to enshrine to justify their own law of the jungle, as they called it, you know the survival of the fittest, we have to look out for number one and it's just the nature of things its the way things are. Darwin himself was so intimidated by this that even though the last book he wrote, the descent of man, used the word love and cooperation maybe a hundred times more than this survival of the fittest, it was buried, it was never given, really, the recognition that this was his mature work and he was too timid, frankly, to bring it forth publically because he was afraid of being himself wiped out because it didn't serve the purpose of the people that were then benefitting from the prior interpretation so, again, this revisioning of evolution that you're talking about is really concistent even with Darwin's mature work

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell