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Preachers of a New Pentecost

Two evangelists of evolutionary spirituality are carrying the message of science and spirit to grassroots Christianity and beyond
by Carter Phipps

“Humanity is the fruit of fourteen billion years of unbroken evolution, now becoming conscious of itself,” declares the middle-aged speaker as he walks back and forth in front of the audience, punctuating his points with a dramatic gesture or a momentary pause. The reverend is in his element, and today he can feel that the crowd is in the palm of his hand.

“When the Bible speaks about God forming us from the dust of the Earth, it's actually true,” he exclaims, articulating his words like a verbal challenge. “We did not come into this world—we grew out of it, just like an apple grows from an apple tree. That statement from Genesis is a traditional way of saying the same thing. We are not separate beings on Earth, living in a universe. We are a mode of being of Earth, an expression of the universe.”

Dressed in nondescript slacks and a conservative button-down shirt, Michael Dowd actually looks like the Christian ministers I remember from my youth: the wholesome, boyish looks; the clean-cut aura; the warm, inviting smile that whispers of faith and conviction; the natural sense of connection with his audience, be it one person or several hundred. And of course, there's the passion.

“Do you get this?” he asks the audience, eyes bright, searching around the room for response. “I mean, do you really get this? We are the universe becoming conscious of itself. We are stardust that has begun to contemplate the stars. We have arisen out of the dynamics of the Earth. Four billion years ago, our planet was molten rock, and now it sings opera. Let me tell you, this is good news! And I love talking about it!” The last words come out as a shout and he jumps up to add emphasis, overcome by his own ministerial spirit. The crowd at this mid-sized venue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, laughs, enjoying this unusual preacher of an unusual gospel, although old-time Pentecostal-style passion wasn't what they expected when they signed up for an evening lecture on the “Epic of Evolution.” And the evening is just getting going.

“We are the first culture that has access to the most esoteric piece of wisdom in human history: When you look at the night sky, you are not looking at the present moment.” The speaker now is a woman, Connie Barlow, Michael's partner in the evening's presentation. “Our grandparents did not know this. Telescopes are time machines. All that scientists can see in the night sky is deeper and deeper back into time. And if you connect the events back in time in a meaningful way”—Connie pauses, readying the punch line—“you get what is perhaps the best description of the universe—story. It's a great story.” Connie is the science writer and Michael is the former Christian pastor, and over the course of the next two hours, this husband and wife tag team duo of science and spirit take turns awakening this attentive audience to our cosmic evolutionary heritage, a story that they say can and will help save this world. “As we integrate the great story of cosmogenesis, the epic of evolution, into our lives,” Michael declares, “we will see a worldwide spiritual revival.”

There have been tougher crowds for Connie and Michael, venues where they were lucky if they could convince the audience that the dinosaurs didn't die out five thousand years ago in Noah's flood. Today's audience—liberal, open-minded, Boston intellectuals—is a little more the norm, if there is such a thing for these two apostles of evolution. It's been two years since Michael and Connie quit their day jobs, gave notice on their apartment, set up a bed in the back of their van, and set off on the road—self-styled itinerant missionaries evangelizing evolution on the highways and byways of America. Over that time, they have seen their share of places and people—school assemblies, Native American reservations, universities, Montessori schools, Quaker meeting groups, alternative spiritual communities, ecological conferences, fundamentalists, liberals, conservatives, all ages and all faiths. But whatever new and interesting audiences they find themselves in front of, their basic message is the same: the universe story—the great story of evolution from the Big Bang to human beings, from stardust to us—is the foundational spiritual myth of our time. It is the gospel of the universe, and Connie and Michael are shouting the good news to anyone who is willing to lend an ear. They are convinced that evolutionary spirituality is going to change not only Christianity, but every other religion as well, and in fact, every field of human endeavor. Why? “It is a story,” as Michael puts it, “that includes all of us. In this great story, there is no human story that is left out.”

It is said that those who are most passionate about religion, or for that matter about almost anything, are those who convert to the movement, not those who are born and raised already involved. The most passionate teetotaler is the former alcoholic, the most passionate Christian is the converted sinner, and in this case, the most passionate advocate of evolutionary spirituality is the former anti-evolution fundamentalist. Believe it or not, there was a time when Michael would more likely have been the heckler in the audience warning of the satanic evils of evolutionary theory. “I was once one of those people that you see passing out those anti-evolution tracts,” he admits. “I would argue with anyone who thought the world was more than six thousand years old.” He pauses, then smiles. “So whatever your name for Ultimate Reality is, he, she, or it obviously has a sense of humor.”

It's been many years since the days when Michael was a newly converted born-again Christian saving the souls of wayward scientists, and he has traveled a long road to his new Damascus. But just don't try to tell him that his evolutionary faith somehow means he's not a Christian anymore, or for that matter not a fundamentalist. “I do not consider myself an ex-Christian or an ex-fundamentalist. I'm not an ex-anything,” he says with a wry smile. “I'm still a fundamentalist; it's just that my fundamentals have shifted.”

Indeed, both Michael and Connie's fundamentals have shifted a great deal in the last two decades, and each has been able to parlay their strengths into a message that reaches audiences across the science and spirit spectrum, from Silicon Valley to the Bible Belt. Connie, who refers to herself as a “religious naturalist,” has spent fifteen years writing about the evolutionary sciences. But much of her worldview was forged in the deep ecology movement, and her spiritual sensibilities are gleaned almost entirely from the natural world. She easily speaks the language of science, and draws her inspiration from the powerful insights of great humanists and naturalists like Julian Huxley, Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, and Loren Eiseley, at least three of whom have a reputation of being avowed atheists. Michael, on the other hand, came to his evolutionary faith as a theist, with a deep connection to the Christian notion of transcendence, and he easily speaks the language of religion. Connie approaches this work from the bottom up, a naturalist reaching for the ways of the spirit; Michael from the top down, a God-inspired leader who has come to recognize the inherent divinity of the evolving cosmos. And in that meeting place between transcendence and immanence, they have long shared a common passion—a love for the work of Thomas Berry.

For a small but growing community of ecologically oriented Christians, the life and work of Catholic monk Thomas Berry has been a beacon of light in an otherwise dark theological landscape. With the help of cosmologist Brian Swimme, Berry has promoted a new creation myth for a global culture on the brink of ecological disaster. He calls it “The Great Story,” a revised Genesis based on our unfolding knowledge of the universe. For both Connie and Michael, coming across Berry's work was a dramatic event that eventually set their feet on the missionary road they travel today. “The first night I heard Thomas Berry's vision, about an hour into the evening, I began to tremble,” Michael recalls. “Goosebumps broke out all over my arms and legs, and I realized that this was my destiny. I was going to popularize this message for the rest of my life. I had received my calling as an evolutionary evangelist.”

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