The former pastor, Rev. Michael Dowd, is best known as the author of the best-selling book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. Dowd is a religious naturalist (“Religious naturalism (RN) combines a naturalist worldview with perceptions and values commonly associated with religions”), an eco-theologian and a pro-science evangelist. His passion for proclaiming a nature-honoring message of inspiration – what he calls “Right Relationship with Reality” – has earned him the title “Rev. Reality.” Michael and his science writer and climate activist wife, Connie Barlow, have dedicated themselves to an itinerant life of permanent travel across North America, speaking out about our sacred responsibility to future generations.
What does it mean to honor Grace Limits? Dowd considers Grace Limits to be “the inescapable, geological, ecological, and thermodynamic constraints to which humanity must rapidly adjust.” He explains:
Both the nonrenewable (“stock”) resources and the renewable (“flow”) resources upon which we depend I call natural grace. The one-time endowments of stock resources and the sustainable use rates of flow resources are both necessarily constrained on a finite planet. These constraints I call grace limits. These are the limits that ecologists point to when discerning carrying capacity. When we overshoot Earth’s bounty and renewal capacities, we effectively remove ourselves from paradise and put ourselves on the path to hell. To learn to recognize and then scrupulously honor carrying capacity as Reality’s grace limits is a task to which the authors included [on his Grace Limits Audios page] are devoted. I think of these advocates as prophets of sacred realism, or factual faith. Each one, in his or her own way, reveals how the future is calling us to greatness. If we hope to spare our grandchildren from hell and spare ourselves their condemnation, we must now urgently attend to, not just personal piety, but systemic piety. We must immediately begin measuring ‘progress’ and ‘success’ in long-term, life-centered ways, rather than short-term, human-centered ways; nothing is more important than this.
Dowd’s Grace Limits Audios are an amazing resource. He’s spent innumerable hours recording in downloadable audio format the best work of a wide array of the most important sustainability and resilience authors – and all available for free download. Some of the authors represented include William R. Catton, Jr., John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler, Thomas Berry, JoAnna Macy, Lynn Margulis, Samuel Alexander, Tom Wessells, Erik Lindberg, Walter Youngquist, Theo Kitchener, and more. In addition to his own audio recordings of these works, he also provides a plethora of links to online information and presentations of others. A wealth of education is available here.
Dowd’s own recent work is perhaps best summarized in a 5 page essay, “Evidential Medicine for Our Collective Soul: What’s Inevitable? What’s Redemptive?,” published in “Oneing” (Aug. 2016, Vol 4 No. 2), the quarterly publication put out by Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation. A 19 minute audio recording of this essay is also available.
In this essay, Dowd notes that a new “Evidential Reformation” is coming into being, where all forms of evidence are coming to be valued equally and religiously. This includes scientific, historic, cross-cultural, and experiential evidence and includes, as Pope Francis has declared, ecology becoming integral to theology. Faith leaders such as Pope Francis (Roman Catholic), Patriarch Bartholomew (Easter Orthodox), and the Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhist) are all at the forefront of this reformation that Rev. Dowd is calling “Religion 3.0.”
However, Dowd warns us that “the noble sentiments that spawned care for Creation are no match for the crises now spinning out of control.” He writes that “It is time for a prophetic turbo-charging of our religious traditions. Foremost is the need to expand beyond the self-focus of individual salvation of enlightenment to also include vital community concerns – notably, survival.”
In the section of the essay addressing “What’s Inevitable?,” Dowd outlines a series of predicaments. Not problems that can be addressed and solved, but predicaments that we must live through and deal with – hence, what is inevitable. He discusses climate chaos, sea level rise, the end of the fossil fuel era, political unrest, toxic legacy, biodiversity catastrophe, cultural loss, and the unraveling of worldviews. He states that to stay relevant, religions will need to foster not only personal wholeness, but also social coherence and ecological integrity. Dowd prophetically calls us as individuals to “voluntarily sacrifice [our] own comfort and security in service of safeguarding cultural treasures through a dark age.” He invites us to embark on legacy projects that are meaningful to us:
“Love something, learn something, let something go, and pass something forward.”
In the next section on “What’s Redemptive?,” he advises that we can’t compensate for the ecological devastation that has already occurred, nor can we fully reverse the ongoing effects of past behavior. He calls us, as a prodigal species, to come home to reality and set a new course. “If we treat primary reality as anything other than primary, there will be consequences.”
To realign with Reality means that we must redefine “progress,” and learn that the success of any species depends upon learning to thrive within the limits of carrying capacity of the ecological system that we inhabit. He writes:
It is time to integrate carrying capacity into our theologies. Toward this end, I now speak of “grace limits.” The bounds that delimit safe levels of human use of other creatures and their habitats are there by natural grace. By staying within those bounds, we experience the grace of God’s nature. To venture beyond – which we have done, excessively – we suffer “God’s wrath” via storms, drought, floods, wildfires, rising and acidifying oceans, and in a great dying.
The call to action for religious adherents is this: to first learn about, then reflect upon, and finally evolve our worldviews. Henceforth, the unbending grace limits of God’s nature, combined with carrying capacity deficits inflicted by a century of human overpopulation and extravagant consumption (i.e. “overshoot”) will constrain even our noblest aims and thus the bounds of our efforts.
Dowd concludes the essay with his own ‘top ten’ list: “Reality’s Rules: Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction and Redeem Humanity.” These are what he considers to be “the limitations on our behavior essential for human communities to persist over the long term,” or the “constraints that our species must now impose on itself while navigating crises of our own creation.” The first five commandments help to disabuse us of an unreal notion of God, and the last five offer a way back into a right relationship with primary reality. The “commandments” are framed in traditional religious language:
“Thus sayeth the Lord”…
- Stop thinking of me as anything less than the voice of undeniable and inescapable reality.
- Stop thinking of ‘revelation’ or ‘divine instruction’ without including evidence.
- Stop thinking of Genesis, or your creation story, apart from the history of the universe.
- Stop thinking of theology apart from ecology: the interdisciplinary study of my nature.
- Stop defining and measuring ‘progress’ in short-term, human-centered ways.
- Stop allowing the free or subsidized polluting of the commons.
- Stop using renewable resources faster than they can be replenished.
- Stop using non-renewable resources in ways that harm or rob future generations.
- Stop exploring for coal, oil, and natural gas—keep most of it in the ground.
- Stop prioritizing the wants of the wealthy over the needs of the poor.
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A 17 minute video is available that sums up the message of the above essay: “Ten Commandments to Avoid Extinction: Reality’s Rules.”
A full and expanded presentation of the ideas presented in the essay is also available as a 3-part video series. I highly recommend this. I feel it is well worth the investment of time. Part 1 is below, and runs for 55 minutes. Standing for the Future (Part 1 of 3): “Evidential Reformation: Facts as Scripture; Ecology as Theology”
Michael and Connie are currently engaged in a speaking tour in the northwest U.S., with upcoming vists to Edmonds, Whidbey Island, Seattle, Orcas Island, and Bellingham, WA, in January 2017. Check out their itinerary here. Our Transition Whatcom event listing is here – Jan. 22nd (Sunday morning) and Jan. 23rd (Monday evening), both at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship.