Welcome to the Ecozoic Era

Meet Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, two evangelists of cosmic evolution.


Michael Dowd, tall and a bit gray around the temples, was pacing the sanctuary of my church with the athleticism of a twenty-year-old, gesturing wildly, even leaping off the dais. Our Western culture, he was saying, has historically thought of the universe as a mechanical thing, a clock created and set into motion by a clockmaker, who stood apart from it. But—and here Dowd’s voice quickened—there is no clockmaker hovering anxiously over his creation or, worse, having abandoned it. And there is no clock.

I had come to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing, Michigan, that Sunday morning expecting our usual low-key lay-led summer service. But on that day Dowd was our guest speaker, along with science writer Connie Barlow, who was delivering a similar message to our children. The Unitarian Universalist husband-and-wife team call themselves evolutionary evangelists. For the last three years they have been on the road, telling what they call the Great Story, the 13.7-billion-year story of the evolution of the universe, based on science yet infused with sacred meaning and awe. They crisscross the country in a white Dodge van they call “Angel,” which they live out of day to day. It contains a bed, bins of books and videos they sell to support themselves, and all their worldly possessions.

Dowd’s zealous preaching style reminded me of evangelists I’d seen only on television, yet it felt refreshing. And his declaration that there is no clockmaker was electrifying.

The clockmaker metaphor, which has been around since ancient times and was debated by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, was popularized in its modern interpretation by eighteenth-century Anglican priest William Paley. He argued that just as a pocket watch found in a field implied the existence of a clockmaker, the complex structures of life also imply the existence of a God who made them. In recent years proponents of intelligent design have adopted the metaphor in their argument against Darwinian evolution. Our Western idea of Cosmos as clock has also served scientists, Dowd explained, allowing them to pick it apart, examining each part to understand the whole, a process known as reductionism. But that view has also represented the universe in itself as devoid of meaning—a view that has set the stage for staggering human environmental destructiveness.

As Dowd spoke, I realized that the clockmaker and clock metaphor had deeply influenced not only our culture, but also my own thinking. Having grown up Christian, I still considered myself a theist. Yet my concept of God had transmuted over the years to something amorphous and unarticulated. I believed in God because I wanted to believe in God, but I didn’t know who my God was. What I did know was that the universe seemed meaningless without some concept of a deity, some organizing, benevolent force. I subscribed to evolution, but it did not inspire me—it seemed a cold-hearted vision of the universe. Dowd transformed my ideas, offering me a new vision of reality, evolution, and the divine.

If we are to deepen our understanding of the universe or of God, if we are to change our collective behavior and our destiny, Dowd and Barlow say, we need a new story, a story based in scientific discovery, but also reverent of the awesomeness of the universe. A better metaphor for the universe, they say, is a set of Russian nesting dolls, made up of levels of what they call nested creativity: subatomic particles within atoms, within molecules, within cells, within organisms, and so on. Each level is uniquely creative, that is, has the power to bring something new into existence. Stars create atoms; atoms create substances like the oxygen we breathe; human cultures create art, religions, and technology. The largest nesting doll is God—or Allah, Adonai, Source of Life, Ultimate Reality, Nature, the Universe, whatever name describes the divine whole for you, the ultimate creative reality that includes and transcends all other levels of reality. God is not outside of creation. God is an integral part of it—in fact, is it.

In this metaphor, we humans are nested within that divine whole. We were not plunked here by a maker separate from us. Nor is our existence a meaningless evolutionary fluke. The basic elements that make up our bodies—carbon, calcium, iron—were forged inside supernovas, dying stars, and are billions of years old. We are, in fact, made of stardust. We are intimately related to the universe. As early-twentieth-century British biologist Julian Huxley put it, “We are the universe becoming conscious of itself.”

Intrigued, I came back the next night for a workshop presented by both Dowd and Barlow. Bespectacled and soft spoken, Barlow has a calmer and more measured style than her husband, yet she is just as passionate about her subject, which is science. As visual proof of Huxley’s idea, she often displays the famous picture of Earth from space, the “Big Blue Marble” taken from Apollo 17 in 1972, showing our gorgeous blue and white globe floating in a sea of black. The picture is a dazzling reminder, she says, that our billion-year-old Earth has now evolved to the point that it can “send a piece of itself out to look back and say, ‘Whoa. This is who I am.’”

We humans, as the consciousness of the universe, now have an opportunity and a choice. For thousands of years evolution was a slow biological process. Now, with all of our technological power, we have become an evolutionary force in ourselves, rapidly accelerating the speed of change. Few species evolve solely by natural selection anymore; now the relationship of each species to humanity may determine its evolutionary course. We have become engines of evolution. If enough of us acknowledge this power, we can decide whether to use it as a creative or destructive force and to determine what will happen to life on our planet. And we can begin to grasp our purpose here.

That is why Barlow and Dowd left their jobs to become twenty-first-century itinerant evangelists, preaching and teaching the Great Story at churches and science centers, at conferences and on university campuses across the country. Their message embraces both science and religion. It offers a resolution to the debate over evolution and intelligent design. It draws in Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Christians; theists and atheists; scientists and philosophers.

But nowhere has the Great Story caught fire more than in Unitarian Universalist churches, which make up the bulk of Barlow and Dowd’s hectic speaking schedule. Now members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the UU congregation-by-mail, they have spoken to close to 200 of our congregations and are scheduled to speak to dozens more this year. Over and over, wherever they speak, they evoke that “Whoa” feeling I got at the Lansing church. The Great Story brings mysticism to humanism. It brings science to paganism and our historical Transcendentalist roots. Within our denomination, the Great Story may just be the theological bridge we’ve long been searching for in our collective spiritual journey.

The Great Story has its roots in the work of several early-twentieth-century scientists, including Julian Huxley and French paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Huxley—the grandson of Charles Darwin’s ally, Thomas Henry Huxley—was one of several scientists in the 1930s who synthesized Darwin’s theory of natural selection with Mendelian genetics. He believed evolution was progressive, that it generated greater complexity through time, though it could lead to dead ends, such as species extinction.

Teilhard, who in 1929 participated in the discovery of the Peking Man, was also a Jesuit priest who strove to reformulate Christian doctrines according to scientific understanding. He theorized that evolution led from the Alpha Point—which he considered “infinite disorder”—to the Omega Point, which in his view was Christ, the end of evolution’s progress and the final nucleus around which all the cosmos would eventually converge. The Vatican suppressed his writings, which remained unpublished until after his death.

In the late twentieth century, influenced by those earlier scientists, Passionist priest Father Thomas Berry and mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme originated the Great Story concept—merging scientific understanding with a reverence for the universe. In the 1970s and 1980s, as director of the Riverdale Center of Religious Research in New York, Berry gave a series of lectures on spirituality and ecology, which were later revised and collected into The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work. Dowd calls them the Great Story movement’s earliest scripture.

“It’s all a question of story,” Berry wrote in The Dream of the Earth. “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. . . . Our traditional story of the universe sustained us for a long period of time. It shaped our emotional attitudes, provided us with life purposes, and energized action. . . . We need something that will supply in our times what was supplied formerly by our traditional religious story. If we are to achieve this purpose, we must begin where everything begins in human affairs—with the basic story, our narrative of how things came to be, how they came to be as they are, and how the future can be given some satisfying direction.”

Berry has often been quoted as saying the Bible should be put on the shelf for twenty years while attention is paid to “the primary sacrament,” the Universe itself.

In 1982 Berry met physicist Brian Swimme, and the two began to build a movement—speaking, writing, and gathering together artists, scientists, ecologists, religious thinkers, and educators interested in their idea of a new story. In 1992 they coauthored the movement’s classic telling of the Epic of Evolution, called The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era.

Berry, now 91, calls himself a geologian rather than a theologian. He believes we are in the midst of a shift to what he calls the Ecozoic Era. Scientists typically characterize new eras by a massive change, usually caused by catastrophic breakdown; for example, the extinction of the dinosaurs, which scientists call the fifth major mass extinction, brought about the inception of the current Cenozoic Era. In Berry’s view, the ecological disasters happening all around us, including the sixth major mass extinction, are signs that this deep-time shift is happening again, that a new era is about to begin—or, in fact, has already begun.

But the Great Story’s message is ultimately one of hope. Its proponents believe that if enough people will embrace a new way of looking at the world and humanity’s role in it, we can become agents of a creative evolutionary process and live in a mutually enhancing relationship with all life on Earth. It is a utopian vision, but not an impossible one, they say.

“[W]e are in the midst of a revelatory experience of the universe that must be compared in its magnitude with those of the great religious revelations,” Swimme wrote in an essay in The Reenchantment of Science. “And we need only wander about telling this new story to ignite a transformation of humanity.”

That’s where Barlow and Dowd enter the story.

Dowd compares his own spiritual journey to St. Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus: falling blind, then seeing a new vision. For years, in his pre-UU days as a conservative Christian pastor, he had proclaimed evolution was “of the devil” and the root of most social problems. He would argue with anybody who’d listen, passing out tracts, boycotting classes, and demonstrating at events where evolution was discussed. Then in 1988, as pastor of a church in western Massachusetts, he took a class on “The New Catholic Mysticism” with poet Albert LaChance, who had studied with Berry and Swimme.

Dowd has written about hearing the Great Story for the first time: “I began to tremble. Goosebumps broke out all over my arms and legs. Then I heard that unmistakably familiar voice of Great Heart, my Lord, say to me, Michael, your calling and destiny is to evangelize the world with this good news. The science-based story of an emerging universe and the Bible are not in conflict. They are mutually enriching. Show others how this is so, and live it.” For more than a decade Dowd awaited further instruction, continuing as a pastor until leaving fellowship with the United Church of Christ in 1995. In his free time he studied the Great Story, meeting with Berry and others in the movement.

Then in 2000 he got a second message. A friend had invited him to a Pentecostal charismatic service near his childhood home in Poughkeepsie, New York. During the service, he recalls, she said she had “a word from the Lord for me: ‘My son, I have called thee home to reveal thy true mission. Step out boldly with thy beloved and fear not. For I will bless thy steps and thy ministry more abundantly than thou canst imagine.’” While the King James English amused Dowd, he was intrigued by the phrase “with thy beloved.” He thought to himself, “You’d better get moving, dude. You don’t even have a girlfriend!”

Several months later at a talk given by Swimme in New York City, Dowd met Connie Barlow, and the pair discovered their shared passion for spreading the Great Story. In seven months they were married. Like their message, the couple embodies the marriage of science and religion. The author of Green Space, Green Time and The Ghosts of Evolution, Barlow calls herself a classic humanist who operated from her analytical left brain. Then in the 1980s, she came across Huxley’s Religion Without Revelation, which used a “language of reverence” to describe the story of the universe. Reading it was a religious awakening, she says. His ideas—specifically that humans had a unique evolutionary role to play, that were we to go extinct, all our collected knowledge about the planet’s past would go with us—gave her a new view of humanity’s purpose.

Then in the early 1990s she, too, met Thomas Berry, whose ideas took Huxley’s a step further for her: Human beings were not only gatherers of knowledge but also celebrants of that knowledge. Though raised UU, she had always preferred to get out in nature than sit in church. But now she found her own way to celebrate the story of the universe, by attending pagan rituals at the Fourth Universalist Society on the Upper West Side of New York City. Singing, sitting in a circle, and looking into a flame spoke to her emotional, artistic right brain. “I was tapping into my evolutionary heritage,” she says, “into deep memories of a sense of feeling secure and in bonded relationship with my early hunting and gathering ancestors.”

In 2001, recently married and living just north of New York City, the couple was profoundly shaken by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and began to reexamine what they were on earth to do. In the months following, Dowd quit his job and Barlow quit her freelance writing work. They gave away all their possessions, bought a van, and decorated it with symbols of a Jesus fish kissing a Darwin fish. Michael has a New York driver’s license, Connie’s is from New Mexico, their business license is in Washington, their bank account is in Oregon, and they vote in Michigan. They expect to be permanent itinerants.

Barlow and Dowd’s mobile ministry is rapidly moving the Great Story beyond the circle of Catholic mystical thinkers it grew out of—beginning with Father Berry and continuing with such educators as Sister Miriam McGillis at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, and Father John Surette and Sister Mary Southard of SpiritEarth in LaGrange, Illinois. And it has taken root, most broadly and organically, among Unitarian Universalists. Some see the Great Story as the missing link among all of our diverse strains of thought: transcendentalism, humanism, theism, paganism and the Earth-centered traditions, and scientists. Barlow and Dowd are giving UUs “a shared language,” says the Rev. David Bumbaugh, professor of ministry at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago, that allows us to talk about what we have in common, which is “an inchoate mystical understanding of our existence.”

Well before The Origin of Species was published, Ralph Waldo Emerson declared the need for a religion that reflected the history of our own experience, which we should find in the natural world. Barlow and Dowd, Bumbaugh says, “are refocusing our attention on the spiritual quality of the world we inhabit.” He finds a “clear connection” between them “and what Emerson was suggesting.”

The Great Story also aligns closely with humanism. In fact, Julian Huxley coined the term “evolutionary humanism” to describe his own religious orientation. The first Humanist Manifesto, in 1933, called for a new religious understanding, one based in the world, not outside of it. It declared that human beings were a part of nature, and that the scientific method could help us deepen our understanding of who we were. To the first humanists, nature was not a “created reality,” Bumbaugh explains, “but a natural self-evolving process. That’s very much at the heart of the Universe Story. It sees the world as emergent rather than created, and human beings as a product of that world, not created to master the world.”

Like Unitarian Universalism, the Great Story movement embraces both theists and atheists. Dowd has coined the term “creatheist,” to describe both religious orientations within the movement. He pronounces the word creatheist to refer to himself, a theist who “knows that the whole of reality is creative and that humans are an expression of this divine process.” And he calls Barlow a “creatheist—an atheist who knows the same thing.

In some UU congregations the pair has visited, they found that tensions between theists and humanists had gotten so thick that the humanists had begun meeting separately on Sunday mornings. At one congregation, after hearing Dowd invite listeners to think of God as the “largest nesting doll,” one of the atheists came up and thanked him for “making it OK to use God language here in our church.”

Dowd believes the Great Story can also serve as a bridge between religion and science, particularly in the current debate over teaching intelligent design or evolution in the schools. “The version of evolution that most people have been exposed to,” he explains, “isn’t the Great Story—it’s chance, meaningless, mechanistic facts. The popular perception is if you want meaning and value, you need to go to religion for it.” This, in his view, is why intelligent design has such appeal in our culture—it imbues the universe with meaning. But the Great Story finds meaning in the universe by making science the basis of its religious worldview, rather than by molding the science to fit a preconceived religious perspective. In the Great Story, science is theology; it is our newest revelation, our modern scripture.

Scientists do not agree among themselves on whether evolutionary change is completely random or has direction, and some have expressed discomfort with the Great Story’s implication of directionality. One of those is John Hooper, a retired chemist and longtime Unitarian Universalist who has been advocating for better support of science education and policy by our denomination. “It’s true,” Hooper says, “that there’s a continuing increase in complexity. But the reason there appears to be directionality is because of adaptation.” The problem, Barlow explains, is that when evolution is presented as moving in a certain direction, people assume that it implies some design by an outside force. “Direction doesn’t have to mean determined,” she says. For her, a more accurate term is “evolutionary emergence,” which she defines as the natural process by which more complex life forms spring from simpler ones. On the whole, Hooper says, he believes what Barlow and Dowd are preaching is scientifically sound.

In this ministry, the first step is telling the Great Story. The next is to invite their listeners to find what Father Berry calls our Great Work. “It’s about thinking in new ways,” says the Rev. Erika Hewitt, minister at Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Goleta, California. “They’re inviting us to ask, ‘How do we understand our place in the universe?’” As Barlow puts it, “How do you act when you become a planetary force?”

According to the Great Story, that’s what we are: a force that is polluting the planet and causing mass extinction, but at the same time is a unique and precious expression of Earth. We are Earth’s meaning makers, painters, self-discoverers, storytellers, and bards. We are Earth’s deep memory. If we can embrace that as our unique ecological role, if we can learn and celebrate our Great Story, if we truly can see ourselves as actual cells of our larger body, Earth, then caring for the environment will feel as urgent and as natural as caring for ourselves.

If enough people come to think this way within the next fifty years, Dowd says, then we will begin to transform our current anthropocentric systems—of medicine, law, politics, government, and economics—into biocentric systems that honor all life. He finds evidence that the transformation has already begun: The fact that we have laws in place to protect endangered species is a sign that we are becoming conscious of our role as evolutionary agents. We are more interconnected as a species than we ever have been. We are learning to cooperate on a planetary scale. Scientists from all over the earth regularly and easily confer with each other. Our technology, most notably the Internet, allows us to exchange information, energy, and materials with others around the globe, crossing religious, ethnic, and social lines that previously divided us.

“The Ecozoic Era is a mythic mindset,” Dowd says. “It begins for each person when they choose to have the Ecozoic vision guide their actions in the world.” It is a utopian vision, but we can make it happen if we choose, Dowd and Barlow say. Will we? Only time—or evolution—will tell.

Contributing editor Kimberly French contributed to this article.

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