Today’s New York Times (9 July 2005)has an article about evolution and the Catholic Church (“Leading Cardinal Redefines Church’s View on Evolution”). It prompts me to post the following sermon, entitled “To Be Continued”, that I gave on 22 May 2005 at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church. I fear that we are returning to the days when Galileo would be tried by an ecclesiastical court for believing something that the church did not support.
Considering the political events of the past month, the choice of the Old Testament, made several years ago, is ironic. The Kansas State Board of Education, following the lead of the Ohio State Board, is considering the adoption of the theory of evolution by “intelligent design” as an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
This is not a new proposal but a restatement of proposals made in the 1980’s. Back then, the fight was for the inclusion of creationism as an alternative to the theory of evolution. This fight was defeated because it was clear that it was the inclusion of religion in a scientific topic. Its backers then developed the idea of “intelligent design” but the meaning is still the same.
This congruence of Bible, politics, and science reminded me of the Apollo 8 mission to the moon during Christmas, 1968, and its television broadcast on Christmas Eve. Then Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, the crew of Apollo 8, read from the first chapter of Genesis (our Old Testament reading for today) as the on-board TV camera looked down on the barren, lifeless soil of the moon. (see for a description of that night and a link to a movie of that broadcast.)
As best as I can recall, for this was perhaps the most turbulent time in my own life, I thought it was the perfect adaptation of God’s word and God’s creation. Were it possible to have done so, I would have used a copy of the video of that reading this morning.
Then there were a few minor and inconsequential protests about the inclusion of religion with science (more to the point, the protests were about individuals reading the Bible while working for the Federal Government). Today, the controversy today is not about adapting but rather including religion in science.
The problem for Christian fundamentalists (and I would have to agree with them on this point) is that the theory of evolution is taught as fact rather than a theory. They also argue that it is in direct contradiction with the first chapter of Genesis. Their fear, from the time that Darwin first proposed his theory in the late 19th century to today, is that God is being taken out of the student’s lives.
The argument that God is being taken out of student’s lives by the inclusion of such topics as evolution begs the question of what is happening in the student’s lives when they are at home. To have public schools responsible for the moral or religious development of students is an abdication of a parent’s responsibility. School and education have always been about learning (or at least it was supposed to be that way) and it is possible that students will learn new ideas that contradict what they learn at home. But the answer is not to require that schools teach only those ideas that don’t contradict what is taught at home. Under the disguise of science, this is exactly what Christian fundamentalist are trying to do.
Their basic argument is that evolution is too complex to be adequately explained by Darwin’s theory. And since it is so complex, there must be some sort of intelligent design which guides the development of life on this planet. The proposal before the Kansas State Board of Education is a requirement that biology teachers teach an alternative theory of evolution based on what its proponents call “intelligent design.”
The teaching of something such as “intelligent design” or the formation of any theory that requires the existence of an outside influence violates every precept of scientific inquiry, especially the part that says you must base your ideas on what has happened on what you observe.
Darwin’s theory, like all theories, is not a fact. Rather, it is the best explanation of the observed facts. It is not complete and it certainly doesn’t cover all the various nuances of evolution. Yes, it is a complicated, complex, and possibly incomplete theory. But to fill in the blanks with a conclusion that there is a greater force outside our realm of knowledge is to deny that we have the ability to think and act as individuals in this world.
I know that there has been and will always be a great deal of controversy about the role of science in religion and religion in science. Since mankind became aware of its place in the universe, there have been attempts to determine who brought us here and how we got here. Religion answers those questions from the tenet of faith; science answers those questions from the tenet of empirical evidence. The two are mutually exclusive; any attempt to mix them or use the one to complete the other brings no answer at all.
At this point let me say that I believe that God did create the heavens and the earth. I also believe that the physical record of how the world was created and life evolved is very similar to the way it is described in Genesis. But I don’t think that it was done in seven days. The physical evidence says that it took much, much longer.
Now, in an attempt to rationalize the difference between Genesis and the physical record, some will say that we have no idea of what God’s day is. That is simply an attempt to explain God in terms of our own existence. There are those who say that the earth and solar system are much younger than the physical evidence suggests and that God has manipulated the physical evidence so that we will think otherwise.
These individuals tell us that the means for measuring the age of the physical evidence is faulty and filled with errors. This is an interesting explanation because even scientists agree that the measurements for the age of fossils and the earth are not precise. But precision does not mean errors were made; it means that there is some uncertainty in the measurement. Improving the measurement will improve the precision and lessen the uncertainty.
And I would ask why would God manipulate the evidence? If the physical reason is evidence of God’s hand in creation and it is lie, then how are we to believe that God loves us enough to send His son?
I think that God meant for us to find the evidence and use it to learn more about who God is and what He has done. We were, as it is written in Genesis, created in His image. We are thinking creatures, capable of rational thought. So should we not be using that capability in our lives? I think that the physical evidence about how this world was created and life evolved is one way to better understand who we are and what God’s plan is. After all, even His son told us to look at the physical evidence.
When John the Baptist was in prison and knowing that he was about to die, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Jesus if he indeed was the Messiah or should they wait. Jesus sent the disciples back to John with the command to look around and see what was happening. The blind were receiving new visions, the sick were being healed, the lame were walking, and the deaf were again hearing. The signs were there that the Messiah had come; all one had to do was look. But not everyone, as the historical record shows, was looking or willing to understand.
Genesis is about whom we are and our relationship with God. It answers questions about who we are but it also asks us to ask more questions. It is not about becoming God, which some fear modern science does. But Christian fundamentalists would rather we not ask questions; they would prefer that people blindly accept their definition of who God is and what has happened, even when the physical evidence tells us otherwise.
It has long been said that when Galileo left the court after being sentenced to house arrest for violating church teachings, he muttered that his conviction did not change the fact that the sun was the center of our solar system. Despite the evidence provided by the Apollo missions to the moon and our many other space activities, it still took the Roman Catholic church over three hundred years to admit that perhaps they were a little hasty in their judgment of Galileo and Copernicus.
The problem for today’s church is that it must live in a secular world. And in a secular world, the church must work extra hard to keep secular ideas from creeping into the church. (Having said that, it is interesting to note how many fundamentalist churches use the secular concepts of mass marketing to further their own missions.) But instead of seeing the rise of secular faith as an enemy that we must fight, we should see this as an opportunity to learn to read the Bible with a new understanding.
The word “truth” in Hebrew means dependable and reliable rather than that which can be rationally placed in a system. God is true because He does what He says He will do. But we attempt to place God in our organization of reality by labeling Him as omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. This puts God outside the realm of truth. If truth is that which is dependable and reliable, then perhaps we should look at God in terms of what He has done.
When we do this, then we can see the world in a different light. We can see the secularization of the world as the fruit of biblical faith. When we do this, we are able to see that a secular attitude is one that frees us to see something of the true dimensions of the biblical revelation of God as the living God known through the events of history.
But this process, while a liberating one, is also one with great danger. It allows us to see God at work calling us to respond to the new possibilities for movement toward the goal of an open community of mature persons – a goal revealed through Christ. But it is also possible that we can respond in a wrong way and allow ourselves to become prisoners to a limiting ideology. If we allow ourselves to be imprisoned in such a manner, then we cannot be open to seeing what God is doing in the events of our time and being ready to respond to His call to join Him in the struggle to move towards the free and open society that He intended for us.
We are reminded that we don’t live in a mechanistic world ruled by necessity or in a random world ruled by chance. We live in a world ruled by the God of Exodus and Easter. He will do things in us that neither we or our friends or neighbors would have supposed possible.
We should value an understanding of faith that, while solidly based in the Bible, does not see the scripture as God’s final word on every subject but as a foundation from which to process new information. We should have an understanding of faith that focuses on matters of justice for all. Our faith should recognize the complexities of existence and be comfortable with not having all the answers. Nor should we feel it necessary to defend God against all comers. These things make it possible for us to have a personal experience of faith to trust God and to follow Jesus.
To follow Jesus is to make a choice. It is a choice that many individuals are not willing to make. There are also those who would rather force you to make the choice instead of allowing you to make it yourself. This is the problem with the teaching of evolution. It should be allowing you to see the wonder of God’s world and God’s work but, because some fear that you will not make the right decision about God, they would rather force you to accept their notion of what God did. This is certainly not what Jesus ask of those who came to Him.
We should listen to what Paul was saying to the Corinthians. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians dealt with the problems of that early church. In the conclusion to the first letter, Paul offers a solution.
The Holy Spirit, who dwells in each of us, can empower us to live righteously. Furthermore, the Spirit can reconcile the differences between each of us. Instead of fighting each other, we should encourage and love one another. There is a need for God’s grace, not selfishness; there is a need for God’s love in this world, not anger; and there is a need for communion between members of God’s world, not conflict. Rather than using the Holy Spirit to divide us, the Holy Spirit empowers us to come together and find answers to the questions that we face. We are not the first to face the problem of seemingly unanswerable questions.
The disciples went to the mountaintop with Jesus but there were some who still doubted. Matthew does not tell us who the doubter or doubters were. We are not even told what it was that they doubted. Perhaps it was that they weren’t sure it was actually Jesus. Perhaps they were sure that He had even died, though they had watched it happened. Maybe they had simply been through enough and did not want to be fooled or hurt again.
When Thomas had expressed his doubt about the resurrection, Jesus provided it. But this time, He did not. He simply told them, in the words of the Great Commission, to go and make disciples, go and baptize, go and teach. Jesus did not answer the questions but rather commanded the disciples to go out into the world and tell the world of the Good News proclaimed in the Gospel.
The Star Wars saga came to a conclusion this week, though it ends in the middle. We now know how things began and we know how things will end; it is the order that has us confused. In Kansas, there is an attempt to close the world and end the story of life. There are still questions about life that we need to ask but this proposal will not allow us to ask them. This is not the way the story of Genesis should end.
Genesis is a story about beginning, the beginning of the world and our own beginnings. It is not a story that ends with the Resurrection of Christ neither at Easter nor with His return to Heaven. Rather, it ends like so many action/adventure movies, with “. . . to be continued.”
Pentecost can be seen as the preparation for the Great Commission that we are given today. God calls us today to continue the story, to bring the Good News to the people of the world. Let us hear God calling us today and continue the story.
If you would like to use my thoughts, please contact me first (Dr. Tony). There are some footnotes that go with this document that didn’t make into this copy. I would not want you to get into trouble because you printed something without my permission or if you missed proper credit for a citation.