It's not often that a Christian minister agrees with the New Atheist movement, but the Rev. Michael Dowd believes it's possible when it comes to what he calls the "idolatry of the written word."
A self-described "New Theist" — one who "value[s] scientific, historic and cross-cultural evidence over ancient texts, religious dogma or ecclesiastical authority" — Dowd believes that Scripture is outdated and fossilized and needs to grow and change with modern times, calling some injunctions "morally repugnant." As an example, Dowd points to how some parts of the Bible, such as stoning people for being disrespectful or executing them for working on the Sabbath, have been abandoned as "moral reasoning" — which he calls "secular reasoning" — has emerged down the ages. It's this pick-and-choose attitude to the Bible, he believes, that leaves some Christians, especially evangelicals, open to criticism from people such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
Dowd points out that the New Atheists have wasted no time in latching on to the "absurdity and hypocrisy" of some Biblical texts, and says, "Those of us who wish to continue calling ourselves Christian must no longer enslave mind and heart to inert fossils of ancient texts and creeds."
Q: What do you think of Dowd's claims?
Dowd is a heretic! Contrary to the Bible's claim to be a "living and active" document (Hebrews 4:12), Dowd ridicules it as inert, outdated and fossilized. He refers to biblical miracles as only "alleged" and his view of God is that there really isn't one. His "god" is not a person, but a personification of man's ideals.
We make God, essentially, and Dowd's "New Salvation" is no longer Jesus Christ, but simply a life well lived, whatever that means. This is not a Christian man, but a pagan with denominational credentials from the most liberal of Christian groups. How he's even allowed to keep them is beyond me, but it's come to a place where so-called ministers may denigrate the historic faith and still be given a platform to blaspheme — replete with applause and publication.
Dowd doesn't seem to recognize the difference between the Old Covenant and the New, or the Old and New Testaments. He thinks Christians cherry-pick our biblical morality when it is Dowd who fails to make proper biblical distinctions. Christians are not bound to ancient Israelite civil or ceremonial laws, but God's moral laws are eternal, like 2+2 or any other non-negotiable.
Dowd thinks that the Bible contradicts science, which it doesn't; and may I say that the Bible neither demands a young- or old-Earth perspective. I'm persuaded to an older model, but that in no wise garners any Darwinian allegiance, and many theologians and scientists argue intelligently in the other direction.
Finally, I think the concept of Scriptural idolatry is rather nonsensical. Jesus was the word made flesh (John 1:1-4,14) and the Bible is the word written (1 Thessalonians 2:13); since Jesus authored the Bible, obedience to it constitutes worship of God (John 14:15), not idols. We may not always understand Scripture correctly, but that's our problem, not God's.
Dowd is the idolater, and he's serving up hell. Run!
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church
I think this is a matter of picking your poison — the idolatry of the written word or the idolatry of the narcissistic mind. Me, I'll choose to err on the side of a centuries-tested, world-wide tradition, rather than setting up a shrine for my own opinion of the day (which I happen to know is almost exclusively self-centered).
It's true that there's a lot of outdated and offensive stuff in the Bible. And yes, I get tired of how many twists of the pretzel it takes, sometimes, to believe and teach some of the old doctrines with integrity. And yes again, Christian theology, and its repetition in rote prayer and song, is long overdue for an overhaul to bring it more in line with current intellectual and spiritual sensibilities.
All of that is true. But as someone who has to wrestle with all that every day, let me tell you: It's not as easy as it sounds.
Contemporary resources (prayers, liturgies, music, creeds) that bypass the icky old theology tend to be overly-earnest, politically correct and entirely unpoetic. They lack eloquence and gravitas equal to the tradition and don't yet offer an alternative theology rich and deep enough to invest one's life and death in.
And then there's the need for the humility of perspective and the realization that our reason is also time- and circumstance-bound. I thought the book of Revelation was one of those absurd, outdated Scriptures — but then came 9/11, and in the weeks that followed it, I couldn't stop reading this passage (Revelation 7:14-17): "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white … and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. …He will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
You can see by the ellipses that I threw a little bathwater out of this passage. But the baby's still worth keeping. Let's go a little slow, overriding timeless Scriptures with our modern genius.
The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George's Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge
Dowd proposes very high standards for his fellow Christians to aspire to. He calls on them to embrace an evidence-based view of human nature, death and religion.
I would call all people to similar aspirations. We should seek to be the best we can by sharing our understanding and wonder with everyone around us. The world is full of profound, amazing and staggeringly marvelous events, objects and people. The more we learn and grow, the more new things we can see and be a part of. Dowd speaks of the fascinating topics of supernovas, Ardipithecus, space flight and polar ice. Surely, whatever belief a person has, he or she can be astounded by the knowledge of what and who is in our world and universe. Dowd probably has a good point about avoiding the idolatry of the written word. We all should arise to the challenges new knowledge brings us.
Dowd has a point. In the early 20th century a theologian by the name of Rudolf Bultmann, one of the original de-mythologist thinkers, made the statement that nobody who uses the wireless (meaning early radio technology) could still believe in the three-story universe embraced by the first century. The three-story universe idea is that heaven is up there, we're right here in between, and hell is down there.
One of my favorite statements of Jesus is that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. Jesus said "mind." To me, if we do not think and use these marvelous minds that the Lord our God has given us, we are wasting a talent, something that Jesus did not like.
The other day I was having lunch with a minister friend who made the observation that back at the time of the Civil War, the South essentially stood for the Biblical view that slavery is OK. And my friend is right: Nowhere in the pages of Holy Writ is slavery condemned. But is there anyone alive today who believes that slavery is a good thing? Not in my universe.
To be a modern believer is difficult because we must integrate the ancient texts with what modern science knows. And besides, if we believe in the Living God, we believe in the one who is always creating, always re-creating. There's a passage in Revelation near the end: "Behold, I make all things new!" This is the Living God we're talking about here, the one who was and is and ever shall be, the one who was not pleased by those who worshiped idols. So have reverence for the Bible, but don't turn it into an idol. The Bible is not God; the Bible points to God, but the Bible itself is not God. So don't worship it.
One more thing: Don't be afraid of change. There is a marvelous line at the end of the musical, "Fiddler on the Roof." A child asks the rabbi as the people are fleeing another pogrom, "Aren't we going to wait for the Messiah here?" The rabbi wisely says, "We will have to wait for him somewhere else.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge
Dowd isn't a "new theist." He's an old idolater. He sits in condemnation of the Christian faith "which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3) and attempts to redefine it. He has placed himself on God's throne. He wishes to "continue calling [himself a] Christian", but he wishes to do so by changing or abandoning the Bible, the one authoritative, eternal document that God, through prophets, has given us that defines who he is and who his followers actually are. In effect, Dowd wishes to define Christianity by his own suppositions based upon the advice of others who may in fact completely reject Jesus Christ.
Romans 1:21-23 describes Dowd and all others who make his grievous error: "Even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man...."
It is man's ignorance that condemns God's wisdom. Certain requirements of the Mosaic Law directed at Israel as a nation are no longer required of us because New Testament Scripture teaches that they have been fulfilled through the work of Jesus Christ. Don't be fooled. If one refuses to know Scripture accurately and treat it with integrity, how can he sit in judgment of it, or even correctly understand it?
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the religion department at Publishers Weekly, in her book, "The Great Emergence," advances the theory that every 500 years the Christian Church has gone through tremendous upheaval. Beliefs are questioned and new ways of doing things are forged. She believes that we are at least 150 years into the latest emergence. Tickle identifies the eradication of slavery in Western civilization at the catalyst that plunged the church into its upheaval. The sacred text that Christians follow says in no uncertain terms, "Slaves, obey your masters (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, 1 Peter 2:18). Yet ethical people of all races no longer accept the institution of slavery as tolerable.
Tickle reasons that as people ascertain that slavery is not morally right, what other "moral reasonings" must ethical people critically examine and disregard? And of course there are many. Scriptures supporting disrespectful treatment of women, violent treatment of children, unequal pay, little or no care of the sick and elderly and disregard of the Earth are just a few subjects that conscience-driven Christians call into question.
However, there are saving graces to the Christian canon. One is the fact that it was written by many people, not just one person, so for any thinking person, there is always room for dialogue and opinions about the Scripture. The Holy Bible would do well to be put forth as a library, rather than as a book.
Secondly, the Bible is laid out in such a way that the way to salvation is paved with a methodological thought line and subtext. Throughout the scriptures we see God as making greater covenants with humankind through the likes of Noah, Moses, Elijah and the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, Christians finally arrive at this understanding of God: Through all of the Biblical missteps of humans and severe portrayals of God, we are finally called to accept, love and celebrate each other through the example of Christ, no matter what. We are called to stand up for injustice and pray without ceasing. It is not the individual stories that ultimately shine light on our way, however dark or light they may be; it is that message of all inclusion to which the stories point. The Bible has a revered place as the beginning of our journey. We travel forward from the Scriptures, involved in moral and ethical acceptance and change. God is our journey's end.
The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel
Dowd argues that Scripture is little more than outdated mythology written down and passed along to future generations, much to our great misfortune.
I disagree. The Scriptures teach eternal truths about our divine origin and potential. Prayerfully studying them draws us closer to God.
It is curious that a Christian pastor would argue that science has more to offer. Nowhere in his essay does he urge faith in the atonement of Jesus, the pivotal message of Christianity. Nowhere does he encourage belief in the power of prayer.
Dowd, in fact, encourages us to do the opposite of what Christ taught both by precept and example. Jesus quoted from and read Scripture and urged us to do the same.
The Biblical examples that Dowd offers as morally repugnant are drawn from the Old Testament and were, in Christian belief, superseded by Jesus' teachings of forgiveness and compassion. For example, Dowd refers to stoning. Christ's intervention in the attempted stoning of the adulterer, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone," represented more than secular reasoning.
Dowd advocates "evolutionary growth within our religious traditions." Yet the greatest evolution doesn't involve the preaching of dinosaurs and fossilized fish from the pulpit. From an eternal perspective, today's science of evolution is of little importance. The day will come when we will fully understand the relationship between scientific discoveries and the wisdom and power of God.
The evolution we should strive for begins when we sincerely try to follow the example of Christ. This is the evolution that delivers us "from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God." Without Scriptures, written and passed down through the centuries, we wouldn't know how to accomplish this.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
It pains me a bit to see a towering literary work such as the Bible described as outdated or fossilized, which I guess makes me an Old Atheist. Do we dismiss Dickens' novels for being too long or Chaucer for spelling funny? No, and we learn a lot from fossils.
Certainly the Judeo-Christian testaments reflect the places and times of their human authors, and are not to be confused with historical fact in every detail, or used to regulate behavior outside the context of religion.
Insisting on secular application of Biblical commands and prohibitions that violate contemporary standards and earthly laws is arguably morally repugnant. The texts themselves are incapable of enslaving anyone.
For example, a warning to avoid parasite-prone shellfish and pork in a hot location, pre-refrigeration, is now obsolete, but Jews are free to honor their faith's tradition by observing it. They just can't make others give up shrimp or bacon.
Dowd's piece, titled, "The Idolatry of the Written Word," on the HuffPost Religion blog, is worth reading in its entirety. That the Bible has grown musty in spots is just the beginning of what he calls his "big history" and "religious naturalism" theses.
He has also written a book called "Thank God for Evolution" and thinks that Christian scripture should be allowed to evolve and grow.
Perhaps a good project for some "In Theory" writers?
A wise elder once changed my life by saying, "The Bible is a slice of what we know about God. We can't possibly know all of God. Why would we want to say that everything knowable about God can be contained in this small book?" Finally, I had a way to intersect with the ancient wisdom, as well as a way to acknowledge — as my UCC brothers and sisters do — that God is still speaking.
The Gospel of John says, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (John 21:25).
Treading carefully, I would offer that it's not so much that Scripture is idolized, but that it is reduced, at least in some circles. By reduced, I mean read at a surface level, conveniently parsed into black-and-white rules and bumper-sticker quotables. It's one thing to read the Bible as though every line ends with "go thou and do likewise," and another to engage its context, original language, styles of literature, and the way in which individual stories, sayings, laws, and letters fit into the big story of what God has done, is doing and will do.
With study, we see that much of the so-called absurdity has a purpose. Things go wrong. People behave badly. Expectations are not met. Times of sadness stretch on beyond what humans think they can bear. Whether sailing in ancient Palestine or walking on the moon, humans encounter these challenges of body and soul. In Scripture we find the eternal truths of what God wants for us, how God finds us, and the lengths to which God will go to restore us. And when we read expansively, we hear the message, even if we've never sown a seed, or cast a net or tended the sheep.
The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church
Dowd describes himself as a religious naturalist who has developed his own theology, which he calls evolutionary theism. He describes God as a mythically inspired personification of forces and realities that were incomprehensible in pre-scientific times.
In reading background material on Dowd, I was surprised to find that he has a M.Div. from Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia. My surprise stems from the fact that much of his criticism of Scripture ignores two fundamental principles, exegesis and hermeneutics, basic course work for seminarians.
Exegesis is interpreting Scripture in the context of the time and culture it was written, and considering the circumstances addressed. Hermeneutics analyzes Scripture to determine what is an absolute commandment versus a cultural practice at that time. If these principles were judiciously applied, many of Dowd's criticisms would be answered.
Anyone who has studied Scripture knows there was revelation and truth in the Old Testament, but Jesus brought a greater revelation. He said, "Until John the Baptist, the law of Moses and the messages of the prophets were your guides. But now the Good News of the Kingdom of God is preached to you." (Luke 16:16)
Dowd is one of many persons throughout history who think they have a better idea that makes the God of the Bible obsolete. However, there is a huge difference between having information about God and knowing God personally. The apostle Paul says it well: "When we tell you about spiritual things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by God's Spirit, using the Spirit's words to explain spiritual truths. People who are not spiritual can't receive these truths. It all sounds foolish to them, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means."
Pastor Ché Ahn
I greatly admire the work of the Rev. Michael Dowd and have been inspired, both in person and through his writing, by his expansive views of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures and his ability to integrate the findings of science with the insights of religious faith. He is someone who challenges us to go beyond our comfort zones and to engage with ideas of the divine in new ways.
In terms of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, I am certainly not a literalist, believing that the meanings of many of the poetry, wisdom teachings, parables and historical insights are far greater than their exact language. One of the stories that I find most meaningful in the Bible is about the Good Samaritan. I don't believe Jesus was describing an actual event, but I do value its importance in encouraging us to act with compassion toward our neighbors, even those who do not have our same religious faith. To me, that lesson is much more important than the assertion that such a man ever traveled on the road to Jericho.
Another area in which Dowd encourages us to engage is with our beliefs about the relationship between science and religion. From his perspective, these two subjects are not in conflict but interact in ways that enhance the value of both. Early religionists had little understanding of the basis of the physical and psychological phenomena around them and were simply trying to make sense of their world with the only tools they had. Today we are privileged to understand much more about the way things work and relate. That does not invalidate the truths of the Scriptures. It calls us to engage with them in new ways.
So I guess if I were writing a book about the subject of religion today, I would entitle it, "Thank God for People Like Michael Dowd (and his wife, Connie Barlow)."
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills