Grand narratives at the ministers’ retreat

Wareham, Mass. At noon, I got in my car and drove down the interstate to Wareham, to a retreat center where the district ministers group is having its annual retreat.

The featured presenters at the retreat are Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow. Dowd and Barlow travel around the continent spreading a new gospel, the good news a religion based on evolution, which they call “creatheism.” Drawing heavily from the writings of Brian Swimme, Ken Wilbur, and Thomas Berry, Dowd started out his hour-long presentation tonight by asserting that their creathism is a “meta-religion” that can encompass any other religious position, including atheism.

My immediate thought was, who needs a new meta-religion? If we have learned anything from the post-modernist movement, we have learned that these grand meta-narratives, these grand stories that claim to encompass everything else, have tended to be more destructive than constructive. Postmodern thinkers point out that some of the greatest tragedies of the modern era come from meta-narratives — the grand narrative of Nazism, a story of a white Aryan race ruling all other “races”; or the grand narrative of a colonial power like Great Britain, a story of colonialism told to justify tiny Britain ruling over the entire sub-continent of India. I’d rather cast my lot with Mahatma Ghandhi than the colonialism of Edwardian England.

As Dowd talked, I began to realize that an implicit assumption of any meta-narrative is that everyone is going to agree with it, is going to buy into it. What happens if I don’t buy in to creatheism? I’m sure Dowd won’t try to forcibly convert me, but he did say that everyone else’e religious position is, in fact, a subset of his religious position. I’m sure if I told him about my version of Transcendentalism, he’d tell me that I was, in fact, a creatheist just like him. Except that I’m not.

I think Dowd has accepted a certain mid-20th C. idea that in the end all religions have the same goal; different religions may take different paths to get there, but they’re all trying to arrive at the same mountaintop. Dowd uses the metaphor of those Russian nesting dolls, and he says that all other religions can nest inside his meta-religion. I don’t buy that idea. Mark Heim, a theologian at Andover Newton Theological School, has said that different religions not only have different paths, they also have different final destinations; the Christian’s heaven is not the same place as a Buddhist’s nirvana. I tend to agree with Heim, that different religions are not necessarily commensurable.

I was bothered by a few other minor points. One example: Dowd gave an overview of his “evolutionary arrow,” which he said was such an important concept that he sometimes gives an hour-long presentation on it. But I feel his evolutionary arrow, which starts with bacteria evolving into multi-cellular organisms and ends with the United Nations evolving into a better form of world governance, doesn’t work. It is not accurate to say that the evolution of bacteria is the same as the creation of the UN. Nor does evolution in the strict Darwinian sense mean “change in directions which make me feel comfortable.” Dowd seems to believe in “progress onwards and upwards forever.” After the horrors of the 20th C. (genocide, ecological disaster, things like that), some of us now question whether we were making any progress at all. We also began to wonder if part of the problem with the 20th C. was that uniformly applied solutions, which supposedly would result in progress for everyone, really only benefitted a few powerful people.

Another minor point that bothered me was Dowd’s use of the terms “day language” and “night language” to refer to the difference between what I would call mythos and logos. It’s not a bad distinction to make, but Dowd’s terms don’t accurately reflect the difference between the two kinds of language.

More than anything, I was bothered by Dowd’s pedagogical style. He depends on attractive “Powerpoint” slides to create continuity through his presentation. I felt he used his slides string together a series of basically unsupported assertions. Many of his slides had stunning National Geographic style photographs of plants and animals and landscapes, but because the photographs had nothing to do with the text printed on them, they only served to distract you from careful evaluations of Dowd’s assertions. In short, Dowd uses a rhetoric designed to persuade you, and to prevent you from thinking too deeply about what he says. The result is a presentation filled with half-truths (and some outright inaccuracies) that sounds plausible, but that prevents deep thought, so that you can easily be carried away with what he says.

Although a question-and-answer session was scheduled for the end of his presentation, Dowd decided to skip the questions and answers in order to show yet another video. I slipped quietly out the back, and went upstairs to think and to write.

3 thoughts on “Grand narratives at the ministers’ retreat

  1. Ed S

    In your next to last paragrah, the sentences beginning “In short,…” is a description
    of nearly every religious argument.

  2. Administrator

    JH — “Entertainment over enlightenment” — that’s harsh, but probably an accurate description of this particular presentation.

    Ed S — That’s certainly true in today’s culture. It doesn’t need to be that way, though — there are some very thoughtful people writing about religion these days who really do promote deep thought (Elaine Pagels and Bishop Spong come to mind as two of the better known examples) — problem is, they are almost completely drowned out by the cacaphony of half-baked religious ideas that permeate the wider discourse in our country today. Sometimes I think there isn’t much hope for religion in the United States….

Comments are closed.