Epiphany 6B, 2015
A Liturgy is also available
THE LIBERATION AND NOVELTY OF ‘EVOLUTIONARY’ LIFE…
Two readings today which stand in sharp contrast to each other.
One from the biblical world of the 1st century CE so to speak,
shaped by thinking hundreds of years old.
One from the natural science world of the 19th century CE.
Both have had an impact on the way many religious people think today.
So let’s explore just some of that impact, now.
Leprosy, in the time of Jesus, was sometimes regarded as divine punishment for sin.
It embraced a wide range of disorders, including
and other forms of dermatitis.
It made people ‘unclean’. Dirty.
And when you were dirty you offended God’s standards.
Indeed, there was an explicit connection between
being clean and being holy.
When you were ‘unclean’ your weren’t ‘holy’!
This was the culture into which Jesus was born.
This was the culture that was learned and cultivated.
In a string of stories commenced a week or two back,
Mark’s Jesus is confronted with a series of ‘unclean’ people
usually captured by ‘unclean’ spirits.
As a modern 21st century person, who both accepts and relies on modern medical science,
I find it very difficult to believe in the existence
of unclean spirits or demons, even though I agree there are
some moderns as there were ancient folk, who do.
So what are we to make of this and other stories?
Following the thoughts of some scholars whom I trust,
whether Jesus was or was not a genuine shaman
“or whether he simply embraced the company of the unclean, the meaning of his memory is the same: in Jesus we have come to know a God who renders impotent the power of dirt to keep the unclean outside the human community” (Patterson 2002:210).
And I come to this conclusion as a result of modern critical biblical study,
established some 300 years ago, and given exposure
in the late 20th century through the pioneering work
of the Westar Institute and its founder, Robert W. Funk.
That’s the first things I want to say today.
The second is... today is Evolution Sunday and once again
I continue to be a signatory to The Clergy Letter, now in three variations,
which supports the validity and merit of evolutionary science as
“a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children” (UUA Clergy Letter. www.evolutionweekend.org).
And while the term ‘evolution’ was in use dating from 1647, and there were
certainly others with similar views, it is English-born Charles Darwin who
is now recognised as the ‘founder’ of the theory of evolution,
leading the way to the modern study of genetics and molecular biology.
whose father once said of him:
“You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family” (Wilson 1998:16).
who first studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but left after only 18 months
“partly because of the barbarity of 19th century surgery long before the days of anaesthetics” (Wilson 1998:18)
and went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, because his father determined
that he should ‘become a clergyman’.
who graduated in 1831 from Cambridge - in natural history and geology!
who, as resident naturalist, sailed to the Galapagos Islands
on the HMS Beagle, where he encountered evidence
“of great diversity between animals of the distant past and those of the present” (www.progressivetheology.org).
It was following this trip and as a result of him unable to reconcile
his fundamentalist beliefs with his speculations about the origins of species, that
"...in the months following his return... his new scientific theory was born and his faith in religion was dead" (Birch 2008:116).
Charles Darwin, born 206 hundred years ago (1809),
who gave us his most famous major work called ‘On the Origin of Species’,
“a treatise providing extensive evidence for the evolution of organisms and proposing natural selection as the key process determining its course” (Ayala 2007: 61) which Darwin published 156 years ago - on 24 November 1859.
In that book Darwin suggested that the world or 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).
The whole universe is alive and changing, continually
co-creating new possibilities of life.
Or put another way, change is the core of:
cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).
In every age the worlds of theology and religion interact with
the cultural and scientific worldviews of that day.
Such interaction between the two, in the words of
feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson,
“is essential to make religious faith both credible and relevant within a particular generation’s view of the world and how it works” (Johnson 2007:286).
But Johnson goes on:
“In sum, theological reflection today should endeavor to speak about God’s relation not to an ancient nor medieval nor Newtonian world, but to the dynamic, emergent, self-organizing universe that contemporary natural and biological sciences describe” (Johnson 2007:287).
Scientists tell us the 'Great Story' as we understand it today, begins with
the ultimate mystery of the Big Bang
(a misleading term... there wasn't really an explosion but an 'expansion'),
some 13-15 billion years ago.
Life on earth originated some four billion years ago.
Homo habilis (our ancestors) began using tools 2.5 billion years ago.
Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago.
Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago.
I emerged just over 68 years ago - or about 24,820 days ago!
When I was born I was the 2,387,577,934th person alive on Earth.
And... I was the 75,133,824,605th person to have lived
since history began.
Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced us.
The ancestral stars are a part of our genealogy.
"Out of the stars in their flight,
out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight, mingling
through time and through space"
writes American Unitarian poet, Robert L Weston (Weston 1993).
"Everything in the universe is related. Can you feel that umbilical cord to the Cosmos? Can you feel the strands of connectedness - the interpendent web - of all existence, even with all human beings?"
also writes Mary Louise DeWolf in her 2008 Evolution Sunday sermon (DeWolf 2008).
The traditional model of life with God as king and ruler, described as omnipotent,
sustaining the world’s development through pre-programed attributes, and
intervening miraculously from the outside when and wherever, is
“less and less seriously imaginable” (Johnson 2007:291).
On the other hand Alfred North Whitehead, the Anglo-American
process philosopher and mathematician,
describes life as an adventure. He felt that:
“novelty and surprise made life interesting. The open-endedness of life provides opportunities for the exercise of creative freedom, which gives life meaning” (Christ 2003:171).
I agree. And this is why on this day for the past four years,
I have celebrated Evolution Sunday.
And this is why I continue to:
• think of God as the creative process or ‘creativity’, rather than a being who creates, and
• search for non-personal metaphors for God
rather than personal, anthropocentric ones.
As contemporary progressive theology reminds us time and time again,
G-o-d or the Sacred does not reside in some other place called ‘heaven’.
Nor is heaven our goal. The world is our true home.
Indeed, our only home.
“This life is meant to be enjoyed,” writes Carol Christ.
“To enjoy life is to cherish the beauty of each living thing, to be interested in diversity and difference in the web of life…” (Christ 2003:116).
May the story of the one who renders impotent the power of dirt
to keep the ‘unclean’ outside the human community…
And the story of the ones who discovered the whole universe
is alive and changing, continually, and
that novelty and surprise makes life interesting…
Always awaken within us new possibilities for the now.
Ayala, F. J. 2007. “The Evolution of Life: An Overview” in M. K. Cunningham (ed) God and Evolution. A Reader. Oxon. Routledge.
Birch, L. C. 2008. Science and Soul. Sydney. The University of NSW Press.
Birch, L. C. 1965. Nature and God. London. SCM Press.
Christ, C. P. 2003. She Who Changes. Re-imagining the Divine in the World. New York. PalgraveMacmillan.
DeWolf, M. L. 2008. "What do we mean - 'Thank God for evolution'?", Nature Coast Unitarian Universalists Church. The ClergyLetter Project web site.
Johnson, E. A. 2007. “Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance” in M. K. Cunningham (ed) God and Evolution. A Reader. Oxon. Routledge.
Kaufman, G. D. 2004. In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2002. “Dirt, Shame, and Sin” in R. W Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Peters, K. E. 2002. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. PN: Harrisburg. Trinity International.
Weston, R. T. 1993. "Out of the stars" in Singing the Living Tradition. MA: Boston. UUA/Beacon Press.
Wilson, L. (ed) 1998. Charles Darwin at Down House. Gt Britain. English Heritage.