On this the 211th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, progressive Christian communities are preparing to celebrate Evolution Sunday
Readings from Thomas Berry and John 10:10 can be found here
I am indebted to the work of Richard Rohr for several insights found in his audio recordings of lectures entitled “The Sermon on the Mount”
How many of you remember your very first day at school? When I think back to my very first day at school my memories are disjointed, filled not with words but with images and emotions. The over-riding emotion that floods my memories of my first day at school is excitement. I started school in Belfast, Northern, Ireland when I was only four-and-a-half years old and to this day I can still feel the excitement. So, many things happened that day and I can see flashes and images in my mind’s – eye, but in her in my gut I can feel the excitement. I remember the contours of the schoolroom and I can feel the excitement of wondering which desk would be mine. I don’t know about you, but my memories of the desks are quite vivid. I’d never in my short little life seen anything quite like a desk and to be told that one of them would be mine. Well I just couldn’t wait to find out which one.
Back then, in Belfast, in the olden days, there was no kindergarten; at the tender age of 4 ½ I was enrolled in P1 – primary one and in primary one we had desks that had chairs attached to them, and a lid that went up and down. When I sat down at my very own desk, I opened and closed that lid over and over again, wondering what on earth I would be given to put inside the desk. It was so exciting. I began imagining books, maybe they’d give us books. I can still feel the excitement I felt at the very idea of placing a book inside my very own desk; I couldn’t wait.
My desk was absolutely perfect in every way except for one. In the top right-hand corner of my beautiful desk there was a hole. I looked around at the other desks and sure enough each one of them had the same kind of hole. I couldn’t begin to imagine what the holes were for. I wanted to ask the teacher, but I remembered feeling like I should keep quiet, so I waited, and I waited for the teacher to tell us what the holes in our desks were for, but she never said a word. So, the first thing I did when my father picked me up from school was to ask him why all the desks at school had holes in them. My Dad knew absolutely everything there was to know about everything and sure enough he knew exactly what those holes were for. Ink. Inkwells. Every desk in my class had an inkwell built right into them. So, what’s ink? And, what’s an inkwell? That very afternoon I learned about quills made of feathers, dipped into ink so that you could write letters. Dad was a fountain of knowledge about writing with ink.
That night I went to bed dreaming about quills, and feathers, and ink; lots and lots of lovely ink, and writing, writing lots and lots of words. School was going to be great! I couldn’t wait to get my quill. I dreamed a pretty pink feather. So, you can imagine my disappointment when the next day at school, after being told that we were going to learn how to print, because printing comes before writing, and I simply couldn’t wait, as the teacher announced she was going to give us slates and chalk which we could keep in our desks. Slates and chalk. I had a slate at home. We even had some chalk. When would we get feathers? At that point I would have settled for a plain old black feather, but slates and chalk, what a disappointment. I never did get a quill. We never even got the fabled fountain pens that my Dad spoke of with fondness. Eventually, we did get a pencil and some paper. But pens had to wait until P3. My slate was wonderful, and I did learn to print using the little broken pieces of chalk that we shared.
Right now, the image of my two-year-old grand-daughter begging me to lend her my iPad and imagine what wonders her fist day at school might bring. My old slate was about the same size as this iPad, but the wonders that my little granddaughter can access on this device make that old slate seem so very primitive indeed. It has been said that you and I have experienced in our lifetime more changes that any other generations before us and I expect that our grandchildren will experience even more changes that we can begin to imagine.
Every generation is born into a culture with a particular worldview. Every generation is born into a culture that has a particular understanding of what it means to be human. But until the baby-boomers came along the worldview into which a person was born didn’t change all that much. The stories that shaped us were held in common for a lifetime. People were born into the world and were raised with stories that told them who they were and what their place was in the grand scheme of things. God was in his heaven, and God was to be obeyed, and if you lived according to God’s law, you would be rewarded with a ticket to heaven when all was said and done. People shared a common story about where people come from. People shared a common story about who it was that created us. We shared a common father, a common saviour, and a common spirit. Oh, sure there were variations, but the story was pretty much the same. Sure, Darwin challenged the common story of creation with his theories about evolution, but if a person was so inclined the culture allowed that person the ability to deny Darwin’s theory in favour of the story that was good enough for all the generations that went before. Science was just a bunch of new-fangled theories; God was still in his heaven. The stories that had been handed down to us from one generation to the next, the stories that really mattered, the stories that we hold sacred, the stories found in the bible, these stories were the stories that shaped us, the stories into which we were born, the stories that guided our lives, the stories that shaped us, the stories that served us all the days of our lives and beyond that to our graves, out of which according to the stories were held in common, we would arise on that grand and glorious resurrection day. The stories survived the challenges of Darwin’s theories because we believed in the Bible. The Bible told us who we were and whose we were. Even if Darwin’s theories intrigued bible-believing folk, they could always incorporate Darwin’s theory into the bible’s story about creation. So, we split the difference and our common story allowed Darwin’s theories to expand upon the biblical stories of our origins as long as everyone was clear on the fact that God was still in his heaven and we all followed the rules as they are laid out in the Bible.
Just like my first week at school, my first week at seminary was exciting. At the age of 36, I brought to seminary all sorts of questions about the stories that had shaped me. I wanted to reconcile the stories in the bible with what science was teaching about the nature of reality. I remember during that very first week at seminary how excited I was to put all the stuff I’d learned in my undergraduate studies about the religions of the word, together with what science was teaching about the nature of reality. I thought if I could just get back to the basics and discover the true meaning of the biblical stories that I would be able to discover the nature of reality. To this day, I remember the excitement I felt at the possibility of discovering all the answers. I can still remember the shock that hit me when I realized that the more I learned, the more questions I would have. I remember one of the first lectures in a spirituality class, where our professor picked up a piece of chalk and drew a crude picture on the blackboard.
The picture that the teacher drew looked like this.
- Boot surrounded by a frame = art
- boot surround by a can = garbage
The movement between our perception of the boot as art to our seeing the boot as garbage is what our professor described as a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift is defined as a fundamental change in our approach to things, a shift in all our underlying assumptions. Everything we thought we knew about a subject changes because our approach shifts. All the underlying assumptions that once informed our perceptions shift and suddenly we see things in a whole new light. Paradigm shifts transform our perception of reality.
Our generation has experienced more paradigm shifts than any of the generations that went before us. There has been no bigger paradigm shift for our generation than the shift that has occurred in the way we view the bible. The book that contains the stories that shaped the generations that went before us, is now viewed in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined. We were born into a culture that for the most part viewed the bible as the word of God. Sure, there were different understandings of what was meant by “word of God.” The culture into which we were born could hold these different views in tension. So, we had biblical literalists and we had those who took a more nuanced view believing that the bible might not be literally true, but it was the inspired word of god. Either way you look at it we were born into a culture that for the most part taught us to believe that the bible was the source of knowledge about God and our relationship to God because the bible is the ultimate authority when it comes to stories that have been revealed to us about god. If it contradicts the bible it contradicts our perceptions about who we are, what we are, and where we are going.
The culture into which we were born has undergone so many paradigm shifts since we were born and our perception of the bible has changed in so very many ways. But on this Evolution Sunday, when we celebrate the relationship between religion and science, I want to highlight just one of the paradigm shifts that has forever changed the way in which we see the bible and the stories that shape us as a people. Darwin’s theory of evolution went a long way to moving our culture beyond a literal understanding of the stories we find in the bible about the creation of the world. But Thomas Berry is correct when he says that we are living between the old story and the new story of reality.For beyond Darwin’s theories about evolution science is also revealing to us a new story about our origins that is providing us with a new perception of reality.
The big bang theory, something I never learned about as a kid, something I only learned about after humans made it to the moon and back, somewhere in the early 1970’s after we had the very first photograph of planet earth and saw our blue green planet from a new distant perspective; suddenly the story of the big bang began to emerge in the public consciousness. The reality that the earth is at the very least some 14 ½ billion years must change the way in which we see the bible. Where once we imagined that bible as the repository of knowledge about our Creator and built the church around the notion that the bible is the ultimate revelation about God, know we know that the bible is like peering through a glass darkly. The knowledge that the cosmos is 14 ½ billion years old, begs the question about the bible as the primary source of revelation about God. Suddenly, creation herself is beginning to be perceived by our culture as the primary revelation about that which lies at the very heart of reality, that thing that some of us call God is so much more than the bible in all its glory can reveal to us about God. The perception of the Bible as God’s way of speaking to us, changes as our perceptions of the cosmos change.
Imagine for a moment that history is put on a timeline just like a calendar divided into months. January, to December and using the year as a scale, we can get some perspective on 14 ½ billion years of history. So, about April we have the emergence of the first simple life forms emerging out of the primal soup of the ocean. Then around the month of September you have the first mammals and not until the last three minutes of December 31st we have the emergence of homo-spapiens. We humans don’t appear until the last 3 minutes of December 31st. If we emerge in the last 3 minutes of December 31st do you really think that God only began revealing God’s self to our ancestors round about the last nanosecond of December 31st because that’s when the Bible was assembled.
When seen in this light, the Bible pales in significance and our perception begins to change with it comes to the revelation of God. Suddenly, the bible is no longer the primary revelation of God, Creation itself is the primary revelation of God.
When you think about it, the stories we have about the teachings of Jesus, show Jesus describing God as like a fig tree, or a mustard seed, and God’s power experienced in the storm. If you want to know about God, the first book, the most authoritative book, the most important book, ever written about God is not the Bible, the first, most authoritative, most import book about God is Creation. Creation, the Cosmos, is God’s revelation of God’s self.
As we begin to live into the New Story of our reality, we will look more and more to Creation to the Cosmos to understand that which lies at the very heart of reality, this force that we call God. Religion divorced from science is a disaster. The word disaster comes from the Greek word astra, stars. Dis – astra, separated from the stars. The reality that we are made of stardust should help us to see that we cannot separate ourselves from the stars; from the cosmos, from creation. That way of being in the world is a disaster.
The revelation of the essence of reality, this force that we call God, is so much more than the bible, the bible merely points to that which lies at the heart of all that is. As we live between the Old Story and the New Story, we must open our bibles and stretch the limits of our perceptions so that we can begin to experience all that the DIVINE reveals of the DIVINE-SELF.
While it is tempting to return to simpler days and hold onto the nostalgia of our feather quills, I can’t help but get excited by a way of being in the world that opens us to the ONE who IS, WAS, and EVER MORE SHALL BE. But how shall we live in with the excitement of these days? When all that we have held dear is open to new ways of seeing, new paradigms, new perceptions, how are we to find our way. How are we to avoid disaster?
Well, I think we must begin by not separating ourselves from the stars. Each one of us must tend to our primal need to stay connected to the Cosmos, to Creation. That takes time. Time in contemplation. Time reflection on the nature of reality. Time connecting to one another. Connecting. For in connecting with one another, with creation, with the cosmos, we are connecting with the ONE in whom we live and move and have our being. Our connection with the Cosmos begins with awe. Awe inspires connection. Opening ourselves to awe and wonder opens us to love; the LOVE that is the source of our BEING. The LOVE that we need in order to BE.
It all begins with awe. So, on this day when we celebrate the connections between Religion and Science, may awe be born of the revelations of the DIVINE that we find in the two great books written by God, Creation and the Bible, and may that awe evolve into the LOVE that is God, in, with, through, and beyond us.