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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Better Living Through Evolution--A Sermon

Better Living Through Evolution
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 14th, 2010
Evolution Sunday

Luke 9:28-36
Bhagavad Gita 11:8-14

Welcome to Evolution Sunday. This is the fifth year this congregation has participated. Evolution Sunday is the brainchild of Michael Zimmerman, professor of biology at Butler University. He started the Clergy Letter Project. Since its inception in 2006, over 12,000 clergy have signed a letter stating their support of teaching evolution as a core component of human knowledge.

The idea of Evolution Sunday or Evolution Weekend is to devote the Sunday that is closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday to science and to evolution. My only lament is that Evolution Sunday comes but once per year. Like we are supposed to do with Christmas we should keep the warmth and wisdom of natural selection in our hearts year round.

One might ask what right have I to talk about evolution? I am not a scientist. That is true. I am a simple country preacher. But I don’t need to be a scientist to know that if I jump off of the roof of my house I will fall and hit the ground. My physics professor in college explained that to me. His name was Denny Lee. He said the reason that happens is because the earth sucks. That will happen again and again no matter how much I pray for angels to uphold me or how much I read my Bible.

He also explained those little white dots we see in the sky on a clear night. They are not gods. They are not spirits of ancestors. They are not holes in the blue dome that covers the earth. They are not space aliens. They are stars. They are balls of fire like our sun but a long way away. They will be there and from our vantage point appear to move whether we pray to them or not.

Our sun while we say it rises in the morning and sets at night we don’t really mean it. There is no deity who rides his fiery chariot across the sky each day. In fact our little blue sphere of a home rotates respective to the sun and revolves around it completing its journey once per year.

I knew these things before my professor told us in his own witty way. We don’t need to be scientists to know these things. It is good to know these things. It is good to teach them to our children.

If you were to ask me how gravity works or to provide calculations predicting the motions of Earth and the stars I couldn’t do it. But there are folks who work on those puzzles. They will do so without needing to bring God into it. Many such astronomers and physicists have done a lot of work on these questions. They have come up with some good things to know.

Scientists have been able to date the beginning of the universe to about 13.7 billion years ago and the date of Earth to 4.5 billion years or so. Our earliest fossils, micro bacteria, I have heard, are about 3.5 billion years old. Life that today includes ants, dung beetles, grass, cabbage, bonobos, bananas, and you and me are the twists and turns of natural processes.

If you were to ask me details of how this works I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But there are folks who work on these puzzles. They will do so without needing to bring God into it. This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read. A good one by the way is the latest by Richard Dawkins called The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

Thankfully, this information is becoming more and more available to non-scientists and of course, most importantly, to children who are going to need to think critically and understand how life works to address the challenges they will face.

So what does it mean that a recent Harris Poll tells us 54 percent of U.S. adults believe that humans did not develop from earlier species? To scare you further that is up from 46 percent in 1994.

It means that we have work to do. I think it is an invitation for us to be more forthcoming and public about the importance of science. This includes being forthcoming about our own religious texts and how they are human products and how religion itself is a product of cultural evolution.

Let’s look at it from a different angle. This creationist hoopla (you know a 6,000 year old Earth, Cain and Abel riding dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden, the superstition of intelligent design) may be a good thing. Because of it we now have stacks of books on evolution and science for the non-specialist. Controversy can help move things forward.

A book I recommend is by a professor at Binghamton University. He has started an Evolutionary Studies program there. His name is David Sloan Wilson, His book is Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

Wilson is an evolutionist. He is of the view that evolution is not merely a specialized academic theory for biologists. All fields including human behavior, literary studies, religion, art, music, and psychology, can be enhanced by seeing them through an evolutionary perspective.

Let’s take a look at a famous text in the Bible. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
I know this piece of scripture has resonated with many people. We all know that feeling of not doing what we want to do and doing what we don’t want to do. We probably know the feeling of getting down on ourselves for it. We have said perhaps about ourselves something like, “Wretched man [or woman] that I am.”

Paul doesn’t specify what sin dwelt within him. But we can probably guess. It likely had to do with sex or food, our most powerful drives. Maybe he discovered a narcotic of some kind. Maybe some kind of personality trait such as temper.

But it is very possible that the "sin" that enslaved him was something his ancestors needed to survive. Our desire for sugar, fat, and salt is a carryover of what enabled our ancestors to survive when those things were in short supply, unlike today when what we call junk food is more plentiful that healthy food.

Paul need not think of himself as a wretched man filled with sin and evil. He is dancing with ghosts.

In David Sloan Wilson’s book he invites us to imagine a roomful of ballroom dancers. Each is dancing with an invisible partner. At the edge of a dance floor is a huge pit. The dancers fall into it one after another.

He uses that image to describe an environment that has changed but the organism behaves from old rules. This is like sea turtles that evolved to see reflected moonlight on the surface of the sea so when they are born on the beach they follow the light to the sea. But now with beach houses offering light, the baby sea turtles go the wrong way following the light of the beach houses to their death. They are dancing with ghosts as are many species especially as humans have changed their environments.

Human beings dance with ghosts as well. We continue old patterns, such as desiring and eating unhealthy food, even as our environment changed.

Paul is engaging unconsciously with desires that aren’t necessarily bad, just not helpful in the present. Knowing that doesn’t excuse it, nor does it prevent it. But it can lift that guilt and self-loathing. That is a lot. It can raise awareness of what was previously unconscious so that it loses its mystique and power.

If we can name it, we are more likely to tame it.

Evolutionary theory whether genetic evolution or cultural evolution could be the best thing we have going to explain who we are and why we are who we are. Understanding our ancestry including our deep ancestry can bring to consciousness aspects of our behavior that we couldn’t explain or that we explained by debasing ourselves or others.

Why do we dance? Did you know that dance is prior to language? Our earliest ancestors danced together in groups sometimes until exhaustion. They did it because that brought them together. It made them feel connected. Music and drumming and dancing. It is primal. It is before speech. Watch a one year old getting down to the rhythm of a washing machine and you know what I mean. Music and dance is universal. It is the activity that connects human beings, that allows us to cooperate and to praise one another.

I have a solution for the folks in congress. They need to take their shoes off and have a sock hop, dancing night and day until they fall exhausted. Now that is a filibuster.

Our two stories for today, one from the Bible and one from the Bhagavad Gita are legends. They are similar. Some people may think that what is important about these stories is that they are different. Not only different but folks may think that one story is superior or more true and so forth than the other.

I think it is more interesting to see what these two stories have in common. In each case the god is in human form and reveals to the people his true form. Jesus for Peter, James, and John, and Krishna for Arjuna.

Peter, James, and John see Jesus in white standing with Moses and Elijah. Arjuna sees Krishna as the embodiment of the universe. Dramatic visions. Then when it is done, they all are a bit stunned. In Jesus’ case a voice comes from heaven telling Peter, James, and John to do what Jesus tells them. Back to Earth. In Krishna’s case, Krishna tells Arjuna to do his duty. Back to Earth.

In other words the vision provides strength for the journey. It doesn’t solve their problems. It makes them aware of their connection. These stories are symbolic stories of the experience of insight. These are the ‘aha’ moments. “Oh, I get it now!” These stories symbolize awareness, consciousness, wonder, and awe.

Peter, James, John, and Arjuna still have to do their duty. They still have to live on Earth. But they do so with a heightened awareness. Today, in the place of gods, visions, and miracles, we have elegant theories of how things work. In the place of original sin and Satan we have a 3.5 billion year evolutionary process. We are different than each other and we are different than other species, but we are also alike. We share with all of life all the way back genetics and a creative process.

I think that is pretty amazing. Not only is that amazing, but if you will excuse the use of some spiritual words, it is enlightening and inspiring. It is amazing grace. Like Arjuna, Peter, James, and John, we still have to live in the world. We still have to do our duty whatever that duty might be, but we do it with a whole cloud of witnesses, an entire ancestral deep history of life surging through us.

We have no less experiences today that Peter, James, John, and Arjuna had. Our ancients told stories of gods, but it is even more amazing, far more amazing today. We can marvel at a beehive and know a little about their dance. We can see images of deep, deep space through images from the Hubble Telescope. Or we can lie on our backs and night and know that those lights are suns millions of light-years away. We can be aware that all the things we do and feel have a history, a deep history.

We belong here. On Earth. As Earthlings on our blue boat home.

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