A Pentecostal, Evangelical Naturalist?!
I’m often described in the mainstream media as an ‘evangelical minister’ or ‘Pentecostal preacher’, even though I speak far more often in moderate and liberal churches (and in secular settings) than I do in evangelical, Pentecostal, and Emerging Church venues. Not surprisingly, I’ve been asked on a number of occasions, by both religious liberals and conservatives, “In what sense do you consider yourself a Pentecostal evangelical, and how does that mesh with your being an outspoken religious naturalist?”
For 33 years I’ve proudly called myself a Pentecostal, though my political and theological views are by no means right-wing, and for the past two decades I’ve tended to say “evolutionary Pentecostal” or “Pentecostal naturalist” for clarification. My experience in Pentecostal and evangelical contexts has been almost entirely positive—indeed, salvific—and continues to nourish my life and work.
I was raised Roman Catholic and struggled with sex, drug, and alcohol-related issues in my teens, during the mid 1970s. Soon after my 20th birthday, I had a born again experience and went on to graduate from an Assemblies of God college and an American Baptist seminary. I pastored three churches in the 1980s and 90s and have been an itinerant evolutionary evangelist for the past ten years. Speaking in tongues (see below for my naturalized interpretation) has been a vital part of my spiritual practice for decades.
The primary reason I unabashedly call myself an evolutionary Pentecostal, however, is this: The core tenets of the evangelical-Pentecostal tradition accurately reflect the nature of the Universe and the human condition so long as they are REALized—that is, interpreted as undeniable in a this-world realistic way. And, yes, as I shall explain below, it is quite easy for an evolutionary evangelical to translate faith statements such as the following in natural, science-based (demythologized), and profoundly life-giving ways . . .
For me, these core evangelical teachings have become more meaningful and inspiring now that I interpret them in ways that mesh with a 21st century understanding of reality. What God/Reality has revealed through evidence about the nature of the Universe and our own inner workings now fundamentally shapes my religious interpretations.
I foresee a time, not long coming, when millions and eventually tens of millions of evangelicals and Pentecostals delight in discovering that their religious identity and salvific faith do not, in fact, require beliefs that fragment one’s experience of the world. Almost all of us are quite comfortable in partaking of the fruits of the scientific enterprise when it comes to how we travel long distances (jet planes instead of carriages) and how we deal with injury and disease (X-rays, MRIs, antibiotics). For me, one of the greatest miracles is that I can receive information from anywhere in the world and from almost any time in history—and that I can press a little button and have my own thoughts and insights join that glorious parade. Why should we not, then, also value what science teaches us about ourselves and our collective journey: about how we got here, what a glorious role we get to play in the body of life, and the grandeur of this amazing Universe?
Referring to myself as a “born again, Spirit-filled Christian naturalist” has everything to do with personal experience and with language I find inspiring. It has nothing to do with otherworldly, unnatural beliefs. For me, supernatural beliefs have been REALized through many years of learning and exulting in God’s work as presented through the sciences. I do not feel diminished by the shift; rather, I feel uplifted. Thus I consider myself a religious naturalist, and I celebrate being part of that group, too.
As an evolutionary Pentecostal evangelical naturalist, I cherish the very same doctrines and teachings that other Pentecostal and evangelicals cherish. But rather than interpreting the core elements of my faith in unnatural and otherworldly ways, as I used to, I now interpret these concepts in natural, undeniably real ways. As I write in Chapter 4 of Thank God for Evolution (in the context of distinguishing public from private forms of revelation),
A distinction must be made at this point between flat-earth faith and evolutionary faith, as I shall use these terms throughout the rest of this book. What I mean by flat-earth faith is not people believing the world is flat. Rather, it refers to any perspective in which the metaphors and theology still in use came into being at a time when peoples really did believe the world was flat—that is, when there was no reliable way for humans to comprehend the world around them by means of science-based public revelation. Religious traditions that are scripturally based, and whose texts have not changed substantially since the time of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Hubble, Crick, Dawkins, and Hawking become, necessarily, flat-earth faiths when interpreted literally.
An evolutionary form of a religious tradition differs from its flat-earth form in a striking way. The evolutionary version is grounded in knowledge rather than beliefs and in the authority of cumulative wisdom (what God has been revealing through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence) rather than the authority of an ancient past. Thus, every meaningful religious meme in my tradition—God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, sin, salvation, the kingdom of heaven, the return of the Lord—I now interpret as night language. Night language carries an inspiring interpretation of reality that gives voice and meaning to real human experience—experience that may or may not be fully explicable even today but that would have been outright impossible to understand objectively prior to what God has revealed in the past two hundred years through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence (see here and here).
How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? Why do we struggle with inner feelings and impulses that tempt us to act in ways detrimental to ourselves and our loved ones? And why have other cultures answered these same questions in different ways? These and other big questions cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Yet answer them we must. Thus, long before modern science could be recruited to the task, ancient cultures gave useful and inspiring answers—answers that now compel literalistic forms of religions to engage in endless battles with the scientific worldview.
Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It wasn’t just difficult to have a natural, factual understanding of infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Similarly, it was impossible to understand the large-scale structure of the Universe before telescopes allowed us to see galaxies. I prefer to think of the venerable answers recorded in ancient scripture not as supernatural but as pre-natural (and unnatural, if interpreted literally). Indeed, they could not have been otherwise.
REALizing Core Evangelical Tenets
1. The faithfulness of God and the authority of God’s word. I no longer imagine an invisible landlord or an otherworldly king whose main business is engaging in unnatural acts—that is, supernatural interventions. Thanks to a science-based, deep-time worldview I now know God; I do not merely believe in Him. For me, the word God is a compelling way to personalize my relationship with Inescapable Reality, especially when I am humbled by awe, gratitude, sorrow, confusion, or disappointment. Under these circumstances, “God” is to whom I am spontaneously led to pray. Similarly, “the authority of God’s word” no longer applies merely to ancient mythic texts; I now recognize evidence as modern-day scripture and facts as God’s native tongue. Only by submitting to ‘the authority of God’s word’—that is, by aligning with Reality and living integrously—can I know heaven, not just mythically but really—here, now.
2. The necessity of Christ and the centrality of the cross. This core evangelical meme teaches that, as individuals, we are saved by grace through faith—and that, as a species, our salvation really does hinge on both horizontal (ecological) and vertical (evolutionary) integrity. The stories of Jesus the Christ in the early Christian scriptures reveal a divine man who was the very embodiment, the incarnation, of what I now regard as the four essential characteristics of “big integrity”: trust, authenticity, responsibility, and service. I choose to believe that this is not a coincidence. ‘Jesus is Lord’ and ‘Integrity is my religion’ are night and day language reflections of each other.
3. The need for conversion. This teaching I now enthusiastically interpret through the lens of what God has been revealing through the sciences of neurobiology and evolutionary psychology (see chapters 9 and 10 of TGFE, and here, here, here, and here.) Thanks to the prefrontal cortex, which is the locus of our sense of the divine and the brain component concerned with good judgment, we have the opportunity to habitually choose to abide “in Christ”—in deepest integrity—and thus to override ancient instincts for safety, sustenance, sex, status, and such. These are instincts that other animals are incapable of choosing against. But we can. To walk the path of integrity, however, a conversion experience of some kind is generally required. That is, we must choose this path above all else, and do so with vigor, time and again. The support and accountability of community in this effort is crucial, hence the need for what early Christians referred to as ‘the body of Christ’. It is now widely accepted that integrity is a precondition for true joy. Indeed, I would argue that integrity is everything. With it, heaven on Earth is ours. Without it, hell is the inevitable result. Getting right with God (abiding ‘in Christ’, in integrity) really is the only way we will ever experience ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.’ Thus, evolution matters—profoundly and practically. Without a meaningful deep-time perspective grounded in our best collective understanding of the Universe and our role in it, we can’t possibly know what integrity (i.e., right relationship to reality) is, much less know how to live in it.
4. The call to live the gospel in word and deed. Evangelicals and Pentecostals alike have a robust and honorable tradition of supporting one another in growing and living in integrity, doing important work in the world, and sharing with others the good news they have experienced. I stand firmly in this tradition. The only difference for me and for other evolutionary evangelicals is that the good news, or gospel, we share is informed by cumulative knowledge. What I call “The Gospel According to Science: Evolutionary Good News” has everything to do with celebrating and evangelizing the saving good news that God has been revealing through the entire range of sciences and for centuries. It has nothing to do with believing literally in past miracles or so-called supernatural events. The idea that the gospel—God’s Great News for Humanity—is merely (or mostly) about saving select individuals from the torment of an otherworldly hell when they die degrades and defiles this teaching. ‘The gospel of Jesus Christ’ is infinitely more real and more inspiring than cosmic fire insurance!
In sum, traditional evangelical language supports both my walk with God and my commitment to an empowering and unfragmented view of the world. The following declarations are my way of translating traditional belief statements into experiential truth:
1. “I believe in the faithfulness of God and the authority of God’s word” becomes . . .
Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity is my religion. I trust life. I trust time. I trust the truth.
2. “I believe in the necessity of Christ and the centrality of the cross” becomes . . .
I know that Integrity is the key to joy and that I cannot walk this path alone; I need others. Living “in Christ”, with no resentments, no secrets, or unfinished business, I know the peace that passes all understanding and can embrace my mortality and honor death as no less sacred than life.
3. “I believe in the need for conversion (i.e., that one must repent of sin and accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior)” becomes . . .
Lasting freedom and happiness will elude me unless I make right relationship to Reality/God my highest commitment, and keep choosing Big Integrity as my compass one day at a time.
4. “I believe that we are to live the gospel in word and deed” becomes . . .
How can I not express love and compassion, share the good news, and do everything in my power to ensure a thriving future for planet Earth and for the millions of species that constitute my larger family? What greater calling could there be? What more honorable legacy could I leave?
Note on Speaking in Tongues
The defining characteristic of Pentecostalism is ‘speaking in tongues’. What follows is a naturalized interpretation of this spiritual gift, which I present as one of the ‘evolutionary integrity practices’ in my section on ‘evolutionary spirituality,’ pages 212-14 of Thank God for Evolution.
Speaking in tongues has been a significant part of my spiritual practice for half my life. Speaking in tongues has its detractors, but there are sound evolutionary reasons for its effectiveness. The following practice will REALize the act of speaking in tongues, because it doesn’t require you to believe anything. It’s an experience available to anyone who tries it.
How I speak in tongues is simple. I pretend I can speak a foreign language; vocalizing nonsensical sounds in a gentle, melodic, or rhythmic way. I encourage you to try it, right now. Do it in whatever way comes naturally, for a few minutes or longer, until it becomes effortless. Now speak in tongues again, but this time inaudibly, though perhaps still moving your lips. Then continue this ‘speech’ without moving your lips; have it happen just internally. Whichever form suits you best, you should notice almost immediately that your awareness expands. You are more aware of what you see and hear and feel—without trying. Just as a person who speaks a foreign language can also think in that language, if you can speak in gobbledygook, you also can think in gobbledygook. Because you cannot think in made-up syllables and in English at the same time, this practice effectively silences the verbal part of your brain. It gives your Monkey Mind a banana to chew on. Speaking in tongues (outwardly or internally) makes it easy to attend to noticing what’s real and what’s important in the present moment, rather than falling back into distraction. It’s no coincidence that many report feelings of ecstasy and a sense of the divine when speaking or thinking in tongues.
When speaking in tongues first came to me a few months after my born again experience in 1979, it truly was baptism in the Holy Spirit, as my Pentecostal Christian tradition had taught me. ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ is a resonant way to describe this experience using night language. Speaking in tongues is immersion in the holiness of this moment, this time and place. I often do it intentionally, to quiet my mind while driving, for example. Or it may arise on its own, especially when I am overcome with gratitude or overwhelmed by beauty. On such occasions, emotions take control of my body: arms lift skyward and I babble away in gentle ecstasy.
While there may be documented cases of people ‘speaking in other tongues’ who were actually speaking in a language that they had not yet learned (e.g., Acts 2:8), for most Pentecostals the experience is an incoherent babble—as if they were speaking a foreign language. The emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits are the same either way. When I speak in tongues or quietly think to myself in tongues, even for a few moments, I usually feel a connection to God and to everyone and everything around me—a connection that is difficult, if not impossible, to experience when my Monkey Mind is doing its thing. My conscious mind is released from the bondage of words.
Speaking in tongues helps me give voice to emotions too difficult to express any other way. I thus often pray in tongues. Early on in our relationship, Connie and I occasionally relied on this gift of the Spirit during difficult times. I could express my anger, frustration, or disappointment to her, and she could hear it and respond similarly, and neither one of us had to deal with the aftermath of cleaning up hurtful words or compounding the problem by misstatements or misinterpretations. Recently, I have begun to rely on the gift of tongues not only for emotional expression in times of great feeling, or while in prayer. I now regularly think in tongues simply to still the otherwise constant conversation in my head, quieting the jabber of opinions and insistent trivialities that otherwise isolate me from the presence of the Holy Spirit. Quietly speaking and thinking in tongues, at will, has thus become my preferred form of meditation. The Great Story, Epic of Evolution, and Big History all help me understand how this gift of tongues is both a natural outgrowth of the human developmental journey (day language) and a gift of the Holy Spirit (night language). The Great Story thus helps me receive the blessings of an ancient spiritual practice, while living fully in our contemporary world.
Michael Dowd is America’s evolutionary evangelist. He is the author of the bestselling bridge-building book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World (Viking 2008 / Plume 2009), which was endorsed by 6 Nobel laureates and other science luminaries, including noted skeptics and atheists, and by religious leaders across the spectrum. Since April 2002, Michael and his wife, Connie Barlow, an acclaimed science writer and evolutionary educator, have traveled North America non-stop, and have addressed more than 1,600 religious and non-religious groups—ranging from Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical Christian churches, to Unitarian Universalist and secular high school, college, and university settings, to New Thought, New Age, and Eastern spirituality groups. Their passion is teaching and preaching the great news of what God is revealing through evidence about human nature, death, and the trajectory of big history, and how this can inspire people of all backgrounds and beliefs to live in integrity and to cooperate across political and religious differences in service of a just and thriving future for all. Their work has been featured in numerous national and local TV, radio, and print media, including The NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Discover, CNN, ABC News, and Fox & Friends. (Video clips and recorded interviews, here.)