Try to remember the summer of 69. Pierre Trudeau had only been in office for a year. Richard Nixon was in the White House. The Vietnam was raging. Chappaquiddick and the Manson Murders dominated the news that summer. Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. The Beatles’ Album Abbey Road was number one. Sesame Street debuted on Public television while the Brady Bunch debuted in prime time to compete with I Dream of Jeanie and Bewitched. In that last beautiful summer of the 60’s, 350,000 young people flocked to a farm in upstate New York for the three-day musical extravaganza that was Woodstock.
My family moved to Vancouver that summer and I turned twelve; too young to be a flower child of the sixties, but old enough to become a fan of the music of the sixties. Not many of us knew about Woodstock while it was happening. But when we found out, many of us wished we’d been there. Over the years millions of people have claimed that they were at Woodstock, despite the fact that the site could barely manage to accommodate the 350,000 thousand who did attend. News didn’t travel so quickly in those days. Woodstock may have captured the imaginations of millions but that was almost a year after the event when record albums began to hit the shelves.
Back then one of my prized possessions was my small transistor radio, which I held up to my ear so that I could listen to all my favorite tunes. The quality of the sound was abysmal. So, if you liked a song you heard you just had to rush out and buy a 45, for less than a dollar. I remember lining up to buy a copy of the number 1 tune that summer: Sugar Sugar by the Archies. But if you really liked a singer or a group, then you would have to save your money so that you could plunk down $5.00 for an LP, shot for Long Playing Album. That summer I spent weeks saving my baby-sitting money, about .25 cents an hour so that I could get my very own copy of The Fifth Dimension’s latest album, The Age of Aquarius. I was dancing and singing, “Let the Sunshine” and dreaming of becoming a teenager. Back then it took a whole year for the music from Woodstock to begin to seep into the culture. And so it was long after the summer of 69, that I got my very own copy of the quintessential album of the Woodstock generation: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – Déjà vu. I wore that album out. Our House, is a very, very, fine house! Teach your children well! Helpless, helpless, he…lpless! And then there was the best song on that album. Joni Mitchell may have written the song called Woodstock, but it took Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to make it timeless.
Well, I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, Tell where are you going?
This he told me
Said, I’m going down to Yasgur’s Farm,
Gonna join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.
I must have listened to that song a thousand times trying to learn the lyrics, but try as I might a line from the chorus eluded me. I just couldn’t figure out what they were saying. Do you remember the chorus? We are stardust, we are golden, We are ???? what was the next line? We are stardust, we are….something, something, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. We are stardust, we are golden… We are ….billion year old carbon, And we got to get ourselves back to the garden. Well, then can I walk beside you?
When I finally figured out the lyrics, I was no wiser, I was lost…I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were on about. But it sounded good!!! So, I kept playing and I kept singing.
Over the years, I’ve hummed and sung along, trusting that we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. And longing for a simpler time, when I was young and still believed that Adam and Eve had once frolicked blissfully in the pristine garden of Eden, and if we could only recapture the innocence of that garden all would be right with the world. I remember as a teenager, hearing sermons about Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, as the start of it all. Something went terribly wrong; if only Eve hadn’t have listened to that snake and if only Adam hadn’t listened to Eve, then evil wouldn’t have entered creation and we’d all be able to frolic in the garden with God. If only we could get ourselves back to the garden, Jesus would not have to suffer and die for us: “For we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against God in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. And so for the sake of your Son , Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in our will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.” Week after week, year after year, Sunday after Sunday, I grew to understand that I along with all of humanity am in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves. Because Adam and Eve fell from grace, the stain of that original sin marks me as inherently sinful.
At school I learned that Adam and Eve were not the first humans to walk the earth. At school I learned that humans evolved from apes. Darwin’s theory of evolution and an airplane ride caused me to give up the notion that heaven was up in the sky, hell was down below and here on earth we could explain our behaviour by looking back to Adam and Eve and the pain of original sin. And yet, over the years I somehow managed to compartmentalize my thinking into religious and scientific ways of understanding the nature of reality. I grew to understand the nature of myth and I gave up my child like understanding of Scripture as the literal word of God. I began to understand the power of myth to communicate truth. But despite a degree in Religious Studies that opened the religions of the world to me, and a Master of Divinity degree that lead me into the pulpit; I continued to compartmentalize my thinking about the nature of reality. I have thought, studied, preached and taught the Scriptures as though the very essence of what it means to be a human being is to be a fallen, broken, creature in need of a Saviour. I have embraced the doctrine of grace and rejoiced at God’s ability to forgive my unworthiness. For woe is me, I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself.
Intellectually, I may have understood that it’s long past time for Christians in the 21st century to abandon the idea that Christ died on a cross because God needed someone to balance the scale. I may have moved beyond understanding Jesus death on the cross as a sacrifice for sin. But I am only beginning to move beyond understanding the nature of humanity as something other than sinful. I have lived my life in the church, convinced that humans are fallen, broken beings, in need of a Saviour.
Sure, I gave up taking the bible literally decades ago. I moved on to a more nuanced understanding of the Scriptures. I embraced scientific understandings of the nature of reality. I came to understand the theory of evolution as a way of understanding the creation of life on this planet. But I still struggled to integrate my religious convictions with my scientific worldview. Like many people, I continued to compartmentalize my religious and scientific understanding of who and what I am as a human being. Oh sure, from time to time one compartment would enlighten another compartment. But what was missing was an integrated holistic view of what it means to be human. All too often, thinking about this stuff hurts my brain, so I shut down and fall back on old reliable ways of understanding life. Sure, I’d have my doubts. But I’d push them aside, and sing the old, old story, even if it didn’t exactly ring true to my experience. Besides, Darwin’s theory of evolution didn’t paint a pretty picture. Who wants to understand humanity as the product of millions of years of evolution, in which only the fittest survive?
Survival of the fittest, offends my religious sensibilities. Kill or be killed, survive or perish, doesn’t exactly work when you’re trying to encourage people to follow Jesus down the pathway to justice and peace. Okay, so the story of Adam and Eve doesn’t explain how and why God made us, but surely our Creator came up with something better than evolution, pitting one evolving species against the other so that only the strong survive? We’ve learned not to take the Bible literally, so we ought not to take science literally either. There had to be another explanation; an explanation beyond our comprehension. So in the meantime, we can continue to understand that humans are by nature sinful and in need of salvation. That’s the trouble with theologians and preachers like me. We spend too much of our time wrapped up in our heads, thinking and re-thinking, trying to work it all out so that we can figure out how to put it into words.
Sometimes, when you let go of a conundrum, inspiration comes. It happened for me when I was holding my niece’s two-month-old baby in my arms. Every time little Sofia Eleanor looked up at me with her beautiful bright eyes, I knew just how beautiful she is. I knew that for millions of years the universe has been conspiring to create her and she is no more the product of the survival of the fittest than she is inherently sinful and broken. She is without a doubt wonderfully and beautifully made, possessing so much potential to grow into the most amazing human being who has ever walked this earth. Staring down at little Sofia I saw the all the beauty and the wonder that is inherent in being human. She may not be able to talk, but she spoke volumes to me. I was holding potential in my arms.
Little Sophia has a long way to go, her journey is just beginning; she is not yet complete. Humanity has a long way to go, our journey is just beginning, we are not yet complete. Humanity is not inherently sinful, humanity is not broken, humanity is incomplete. We, like all of creation are still evolving.
But holding all that potential in my arms also made me sad as I began to worry about the survival of the fittest, and hoping that little Sofia has the strength to survive in this dog eat dog world of ours. The pain of evolution and the work of evolving is not something I want little Sofia to have to face.
So, I went back in search of an answer; in search of hope. I began with what I knew and found myself, rereading favorite authors, theologians and scholars wiser than I am, searching for a way forward. I found my way in a throw away line by Marcus Borg. It’s a line I’ve repeated to you often. “There’s nothing wrong with a grade five understanding of the Bible, if you are in grade five.” Borg insists that for too many people what they know about the bible they learned in Sunday school; which amounts to about a grade five understanding. Many people reject Christianity on the basis of that limited knowledge and far too many people manage to stay in the church without ever learning more. What I’ve come to realize is that what Borg says about our knowledge of the Bible can be said of many of us when it comes to science. Most of what I know about science I learned in high school. I left high school in 1975. A lot has changed in the world of science since 1975. Some of the stuff I learned in high school science class is no longer true and a whole lot more knowledge about the nature of reality has come to light since all of us were in high school. Sure, I’ve picked up a few things a long the way. But science is not required when you study religion or theology, so I know precious little about scientific breakthroughs.
The last time I formerly studied Darwin’s theory of evolution was for a grade 11 biology exam. I may have gotten an A on the exam, but if I were to try to take what I learned back then about evolution, combined with what I picked up over the years about evolution, I’d fail a basic introductory course on evolution. A great deal more has been said on the subject since Darwin and there’s a great deal more happening as evolutionary theorists struggle to understand the nature of humanity. As for the notion that only the strong survive that evolution is predicated on the survival of the fittest….well it t’ain’t necessarily so. More and more evolutionary theorists are rejecting what they call Neo-Darwinism’s obsession with competition and the survival of the fittest. Scientists are embracing the reality that it is co-operation and not competition that drives evolution. “The spoils of evolution go not to the fastest or the smartest but to those who can find the best relationship between creative individuality and cooperative sociality.”
For those of us whose understanding of evolution is limited to our hastily studied and quickly forgotten high school biology classes, the word co-operation may not spring to mind when we think of evolution. Indeed, when thinking about our cultural evolution we all too often look to our violent past and point to the survival of the fittest to determine the ways and means by which humanity has evolved over time. But if as biologists insist, co-operation and the ability to form relationships are determinative factors in the evolution of species, we would do well not only to re-examine our history but also look toward the future with an eye toward improving our abilities to co-operate and form relationships, so as to help determine what we might become.
Humanity is not inherently evil, or sinful, or broken. Creation has been groaning for billions of years so that we might evolve. Creation continues to groan as we continue to evolve into all that we can be. I am not saying that humanity is not capable of evil, or that we are not capable of sin, or that there are parts of us that are not broken. I’m not saying we are perfect. I am saying that we are incomplete and out of our incompleteness evil, sin and brokenness can emerge. But we are fearfully and wonderfully made, capable of great goodness and innately wired with a pull toward cooperation. We have a role to play in the ongoing evolution of our species Competition, violence and the survival of the fittest are not the keys to our evolution, co-operation and compassion are the keys to our evolution into a more complete species. We have a role to play in determining how and what we evolve into. All that potential is entrusted to us.
Astro-physist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, insists that:
“we are part of this universe.
We are in this universe. The universe is in us.
Every atom in your body
Came from a star that exploded
You are all star dust from a star that exploded.
Look up at the night sky
We are part of that
The universe itself
Exists within us
We are star dust
In the highest exalted way
Called by the universe
Reaching out to the universe
We are star dust
The atoms that make up the human body
Are traceable to the crucibles
That cooked light elements
Into heavy elements.
We are part of this universe and the universe is in us.
I never in my wildest dreams imagined that an astro-physist could sound so much like some old hippies from the sixties.
We are stardust, we are golden…
We are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Well, then can I walk beside you?
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Let us celebrate all that we are and all that we can become!