Epiphany 6A, 2011/2017
Matthew 6: 26, 28-29
A Liturgy is also available
OF EVOLUTION AND GOD, AND THE UNFOLDING INTERCONNECTEDNESS OF LIFE
"A famous astronomer visiting the theologian Karl Barth said to him
'I have a very simple view of religion - do unto others
as you would have them do to you.'
'I have,' said Karl Barth, 'a very simple view of astronomy -
twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.’
Such simplistic concepts are caricatures of science and religion”
“In many ways, the battle between religion and science,
and specifically between evolution and various forms of creationism,
that is being waged [in the USA] today is more rancorous
than it was 150 years ago. And, although some of those
on the creationist side are incredibly vocal, from a religious perspective
they are clearly out of the mainstream”
Today in the progressive religious world, is Evolution Sunday/Weekend.
So to celebrate this, I want to talk very personally about God.
Let me go back a bit…
One of the very first books I ever bought on theology,
I bought in 1965, and by mistake.
It cost me nine shillings.
It’s author was a biologist and process theologian.
I still have the book on my library shelves even though it is
beginning to fall to bits!
I was in Warrnambool (Vic) on a university break when one of my former
bank clients (I used to be a bank teller) had just opened a bookshop,
so a few of us went to celebrate the opening.
The shop was divided into sections so I explored the ‘Religion’ section.
Among the books, one caught my eye.
Nature of God was its title.
I bought it. But when I got home I discovered it was not called Nature of God at all.
But instead, Nature and God.
Nevertheless, the book and its author, L Charles Birch,
former Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney,
has been a valuable travelling companion with me
on my personal theological journey these past 45+ years.
The very first sentence in Birch’s book is:
“The concept of God’s operations in the universe as a series of fitful interventions from a supernatural sphere overlaying the natural is quite unacceptable to science” (Birch 1965:7).
While the third sentence said:
“On the other hand, the traditional thinking of science, sometimes called mechanism, is quite unreconcilable with any reasoned Christian position” (Birch 1965:7).
Since reading Birch way back (and since) then, an interest in communication,
regular eye tests, and as a self-described ‘religious naturalist’
the relationship betweenscience and religion, has remained with me!
On the latter: the relationship between science and religion,
three major views exist:
(i) the 'conflict' view - that science and religion are inherently, and perpetually, in opposition;
(ii) the 'contrast' view - that science and religion are different because they ask different questions;
(iii) the 'integration' view - that science and religion can be integrated into a self-consistent worldview.
Unfortunately, what emanates from many pulpits
is more likely to represent the 'conflict' view than the 'integration' view.
Which is why, on Evolution Sunday/Weekend, I want to speak personally about God.
‘G-o-d’ is a symbol or word known and used by nearly everyone
who speaks the English language.
But it is also a word which has many uses and meanings attached to it.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines the word as:
“the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe” (Macquarie Dictionary 1981:763).
This way of speaking theologically is called ‘classical theism’.
This ‘God’ is supernatural, interventionist, and
nearly always couched in male anthropological (or human-like)
language and images.
And for many this is still the way they think when they hear the word ‘God’.
But this way of thinking doesn’t work for me.
So over the years my thinking has and continues, to change.
(i) I have come to think of God as the creative process or ‘creativity’,
rather than a being who creates, and
(ii) I have tried, in the main, to us non-personal metaphors
rather than personal ones.
The thoughts of many others have interacted with my own thinking,
including those positively influenced by the work of Charles Darwin
and his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species.
In that book Darwin suggested that the world/universe was:
(i) unfinished and continuing;
(ii) involved chance events and struggle, and
(iii) natural selection took the place of
“design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint” (Birch 1965:29).
Put another way:
cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).
Or yet another way:
“In the beginning was creativity and the creativity was with God, and the creativity was God. All things came into being through the mystery of creativity; apart from creativity nothing would have come into being. (Kaufman 2004:ix).
Today, we have mentally constructed another universe.
Both in science and in religion/theology.
In science, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the earth’s age
is approximately 4.5 billion years. While the universe - that whole
“complex, interrelated and interacting... matter-energy in space-time... of which humans are an integral part...” (Gillette 2006:1),
is approximately 14 billion years old.
And “[i]f we put our fourteen-billion-year universe on a clock of one hour,
humanity appears in only the last few seconds” (Peters 2002:127).
So, ‘modern’ science is saying and has been saying, again and again:
the universe must be regarded as a whole;
it is of intrinsic value, and each part,
participates in that intrinsic value as each part or web, participates
in this wonderful web of life.
Each part, rather than one species or organism
separating itself out as more important than the rest.
As one overseas colleague has said:
“This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read” (JShuck).
And a few good books, I reckon, are:
Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution”,
David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone. How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives, and
Lloyd Geering, From the Big Bang to God. Our Awe-inspiring Journey of Evolution.
Turning to the world of religion/theology…
The ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former Harvard Divinity School theologian,
Gordon Kaufman, presents God as a non-personal ‘serendipitous creativity’
“manifest throughout the cosmos instead of as a kind of cosmic person. We humans are deeply embedded in, and basically sustained by, this creative activity in and through the web of life on planet Earth (Kaufman 2004:58).
I reckon Kaufman clearly names the problem with traditional religious language and thinking.
Likewise his alternative thinking and language embraces both our
scientific knowledge and the reality
beyond the symbols of biblical faith.
A growing number of people around the world, religious and scientifically minded,
and conscious of this ‘web within a web of life’, are
recognising that our modern life-style is:
harming other creatures,
diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and
altering global climate patterns.
The earth is under assault! Indeed
"[w]e are killing our very life support system in a manner unprecedented in human history. And yet, most of us go about our daily lives more or less blissfully indifferent to the devastation" (Hill 2008:10).
Thus, progressive religious thought calls each and every one of us
to ‘dance with’, to live in harmony with, our world.
And progressive religious/christian thought names that creativity
which indwells and sustains all life forms…
individual atom... ‘G-o-d’ or ‘the sacred’ or ‘serendipitous creativity’.
Meanwhile, Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion,
has a couple of interesting and detailed comments.
They are a bit technical and a little wordy, so I invite your careful listening.
To the question: ‘How old are we?’ Peters says:
“[p]henomenally, a few decades; culturally, a few centuries or millennia; biologically, millions of years; cosmically, about 15 billion years” (Peters 1992:412).
To the additional question: ‘How long will we continue?’ he adds:
“[p]henomenally, a few more decades or less; culturally, maybe a few more centuries; biologically, millions of years or, if we do not destroy ourselves first, perhaps until our sun dies five (5) billion years from now; cosmically, until the universe ends, which may be never…” (Peters 1992:412).
Peters answers are a kind of cosmic recipe for the functioning of all things.
And reminds us that nature is in us as much as we are nature.
“We are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and cosmos… As webs of reality each of us is a manifestation of a larger part of the universe as a whole… We contain in us… after many cosmic, biological, and cultural transformations, the radiation that was present at the origin of the universe” (Peters 1992:412).
For Peters and for myself, the evolutionary epic
is a religious world view.
All of this and more, is why, on Evolution Sunday/Weekend,
I wanted to talk about God.
Birch, L. C. 1965. Nature and God. London. SCM Press.
Birch, L. C. 2008. Science & Soul. Sydney. University of New South Wales Press.
Gillett, P. R. 2006. “Theology of, by, and for religious naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. (An online journal).
Hill, J. A. 2008. Ethics in the Global Village. Moral insights for the post 9-11 USA. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Kaufman, G. D. 2004. In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Macquarie Dictionary. 1981. McMahons Point. Macquarie University.
Peters, K. E. 2002. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity International.
Peters, K. E. 1992. “Interrelating nature, humanity, and the work of God: Some issues for future reflection” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 27, 4, 403-419.
Zimmermn, M. 2010. "The evolution-creation controversy. Why it matters". Part 1, in The FourthR 23, 6, 11-15, 26.