Kernels to Cosmos
First Presbyterian Church
February 12, 2012
Happy Evolution Sunday.
Evolution Sunday, now Evolution Weekend began seven years ago as a project by biologist, Michael Zimmerman. His goal was and is to ensure that public schools don’t get snookered by those who want to pass off Creationism or Intelligent Design as science. He takes on the Creationists regularly at the Huffington Post. He is my guest this week on my radio program.
He managed to find over 12,000 Christian clergy to sign a letter supporting Evolution and stating that Evolution is not in conflict with faith. The reason Professor Zimmerman asked clergy to sign this letter is that he realized that most people if forced to choose between religion and science will choose religion. If religion is pitted against science they will choose to believe their preacher rather than their science teacher.
The comforting truths of faith are preferred to the skepticism of science.
This is not surprising when you think about it. Human beings long to be loved and long to belong. We enjoy being flattered. So we believe it when we are told that we have immortal souls that will live forever and that we are embraced by divine beings. We enjoy the comfort of knowing that everything that happens to us is part of a divine plan as opposed to random occurrence. We like to affirm that we have a book like the Bible that is authoritative and truthful and that we have a figure like Jesus who saves us from all our troubles.
instead of a divine being, impersonal laws,
instead of absolute truth, a method of doubt,
instead of mind over matter, mind as (probably) a product of matter.
Today we celebrate the birth and the accomplishments of Charles Darwin, who showed us that human beings have much more in common with apes than with angels. Everyday the evidence that we gather publicly from using the scientific method affirms that human beings owe more to biology than theology for our existence.
Normally, this kind of talk gets ministers in trouble. Thankfully, I preach in a church that allows for great diversity of belief. Bring your own god or none. I affirm the right of anyone to believe whatever they wish to believe. You have the freedom and are encouraged to take your own journey. You have the freedom to reject part or all of anything I say.
That said, my experience also tells me that given the chance and the permission to question the truths of their inherited religion, people will grow to appreciate the world that the scientific method shows us and they will find a way to integrate this exciting new world with their faith.
I personally think that is an important task.
This is true not only for biology or cosmology but also with biblical or theological studies. While the churches as a whole cannot seem (as of yet) to get beyond the Christ of creed, biblical scholars show us the historical person of Jesus. They also show us that the authors of biblical texts were human beings in specific historical contexts. These studies show us the origin of the creeds, and that those origins are far more natural than supernatural.
This is the seventh Evolution Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton. I am in the midst of my seventh year as minister at this church. What I have been doing for these past nearly seven years through liturgy, sermon, poetry, and so forth, is to give expression to the sacred quality of life.
That is a religion.
That is faith.
I believe our sacred story, that is our 13.7 billion year cosmic story, is holy and beautiful. It is the one creation myth (and I say myth in the best sense of that word) that is universal. It is far more interesting than Genesis 1. It isn’t that Genesis 1 is wrong, it is that it was a product of its time and times have changed.
I believe that our sacred story of the evolution of life on Earth through natural selection is to use a phrase by biologist Richard Dawkins, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Tracing back our ancestors to the very beginning of life is a Divine work.
This is not just dry science. This is not materialism. This does not lack spiritual depth. This, I argue, is the very depth of the spiritual.
I also believe that it is sacred work to understand the cultural accomplishments of human beings, which include of course, religion. Human beings created the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Qur’an, and every piece of literature, artwork, sacred story, and song. Human beings invented meditation and prayer. The angels and the gods are the products of human creativity.
To say that is in my view an elevation of the human, not a demotion.
What I am talking about today is religion not science. I am talking about faith. I think we have reached a point in which the sources of religion and faith are no longer those artifacts of human culture such as the Bible or the Qur’an. The sources of faith and meaning are now our common origin stories that we are learning through public knowledge. The source of faith is the universe as we are observing it. Included in that is the broad spectrum of human culture that includes the Bible, the Qur'an and every sacred text from every religion..
In our text from John’s gospel, Jesus is reported to have said,
“Unless a kernel falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
By including this I think the author of John’s gospel was suggesting that creativity cannot happen if we don’t allow the old way to die. This is true for everything from kernels of grain to the cosmos. Unless a star dies, new planets cannot form. Unless human beings die, new human beings cannot live. Unless there is death, there cannot be life. This is true for biological life as well as cultural life.
Old ideas need to die so new ones can be born.
An old idea that is dying is religion based on cultural artifacts as if those artifacts are absolute truth.
I realize that saying this will sound controversial, but I invite you think about it before you dismiss it. Unless Christianity, based on Bible and creed dies, a new faith based on what we know of the universe cannot be born. This is true for Islam as well and for all the major religions.
Thanks to science we now have a common cosmic story and a story of life on Earth. What we don’t have yet is a way to celebrate that story religiously. We have not yet found the myths, rituals, and symbols to make that story sing. I think that Evolution Sunday is a start in that direction.
There is another part to this.
One of the tasks to a life that matters is to develop a sense of personal meaning. It is to address the question, “Why am I here?” with some answer, however provisional.
“What is my purpose? Why am I here? What gives me meaning?”
Earlier I said that I affirm the right of anyone to believe whatever they wish to believe. I do. I also think there may be a better answer. While it is good to be free to develop our own sense of meaning it it is also good to work toward a shared meaning. We can believe whatever we want on our own, but what if we at least could find some things in common in which to believe?
I want to offer a couple of commitments that we might share regarding this new religion, this religion of this life, this religion whose source is the unfolding universe as we discover it.
We are at a very interesting point in history. Within the last couple of decades we have been able to see through telescopes to the earliest galaxies of the universe as they were forming. That should blow us out of our pews. Within the last several decades we have been able to trace the biological evolution of species including the human species. We can look back at our earliest ancestors.
We are learning more and more faster and faster.
But, we have also reached a point of limits regarding the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life. We are there on the edge, seven billion people and growing. Earth will spin for hundreds of millions of years. Humans may not make it through the next century.
I suggest we might share the following beliefs:
First, that human beings are important and valuable and worth keeping. We are as far as we know the only living things that can contemplate the universe. We are the universe conscious of itself. It took 13.7 billion years for the universe to "create" us. We ought to be thinking that we can flourish for millions of years into the future.
Second, the choices we make today will influence whether or not human beings will live through the challenges of the next century. We have already made a number of choices that have affected our planet that are already irreversible.
The invitation is to think about the choices we make not just for next few months or years or decades or even the next seven generations but the next 1,000 generations.
This is faith. This is religion.
It is a religion that is based on a belief that human beings matter and that Earth is home and life’s meaning and sacred worth is to be found here.
The greatest act of faith is
to act on behalf of and
to trust in
an existence that none of us will ever see.
to act on behalf of and
to trust in
an existence that none of us will ever see.
Twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
On this Evolution Sunday, I put myself out there for you. Here are my beliefs:
I believe in this beautiful ball of water, this gorgeous Earth.
I believe in human beings and that we have sacred worth.
I believe that we will find a way to live sustainably with Earth for a long, long time.
I believe that courageous people sharing this faith today can make it happen.