Popular Religion in the Day of Darwin

Click here to hear sermon only.

To return to this pulpit in a series devoted to the impact of Charles Darwin on religion is an honor and a privilege. (You see, I have grown a Darwin beard just for the occasion.) I am especially privileged to follow the Reverend Dr. Wesley Wildman who last Sunday reminded us that our conservative evangelical Christian friends who oppose Darwin’s theory of evolution know whereof they speak. If Darwin’s theory is approximately right, then God cannot be that benevolent supernatural agent of evangelical piety who does good things for you when you believe in Him (I use the male pronoun advisedly). The evolutionary world is random, wasteful, and bloody, as well as glorious and awesome: no benevolent divine person would create that way.

Our conservative evangelical sisters and brothers have an additional symbol for God, different from the benevolent supernatural agent. Some evangelicals identify with the God of wrath and violence who dealt death to the firstborn of Egypt after Himself hardening Pharaoh’s heart against the Israelites, and who will come again in the person of Christ the Avenger to destroy the Earth and save only the remnant of people who persevere in servile obedience. Like the God of love and benevolence, the God of strict justice and wrath is conceived to be a hands-on administrator of a world which is understood to be like a kingdom. Darwin’s world is not like a kingdom with a benevolent or demanding tyrant. It’s more like a jungle. If Darwin is more or less right, and all the evidence points that way, God cannot be conceived literally to be an intentional personal being without also being conceived to be wasteful, cruel, and pleased to toy with us.

Our text from the book of Job is a profound recognition of this. The author deliberately uses figurative language that is not intended literally. The opening scene in Heaven, where God lets Satan torture Job and kill his children solely in order to justify God’s bragging, is heavy with irony. If God is conceived literally to be a personal being, like the God of Job’s prologue, then the pervasive suffering of innocent people signifies that God is just toying with us. The main portion of the book is a series of philosophical arguments by Job’s friends to the effect that, if Job suffers, it must be because he deserves it, for God is just and would not let Job suffer unjustly. For Job’s friends, God simply cannot be conceived to be someone who deals out pain and death to win a bet with a Heavenly colleague. Their arguments all fail, however: Job has done nothing to deserve what he is getting. (Think of the people in Darfur.) Therefore God cannot be conceived to be just. The passage toward the end of the book on which Rev. Wildman preached last Sunday, where God speaks out of the whirlwind to Job directly, is usually taken to mean that there is no place for us to stand in order to apply moral categories of justice or injustice to God. The Creator is beyond good and evil, unlike persons. The very end of the book of Job returns to the Heavenly courtroom where God wins his bet with Satan. God then restores Job’s health, gives him new children and makes him even wealthier than before. Of course this is ironic. New children, however welcome, cannot replace the earlier loved ones who were killed frivolously. Restored health does not justify Job’s needless agony. What does Job need with even more wealth than he had before? If God is conceived as a person, as in the literary imagination of the prologue and epilogue of the book of Job, then that divine person delights in gratuitous suffering and is not benevolent or just. The Book of Job is against that. So there is profound biblical warrant for rejecting the idea that God is a benevolent or wrathful person of the sort that plays such a prominent role in conservative evangelical Christian, Jewish, and Muslim worldviews. We need a better conception of God than that, however much that anthropomorphic vision is a mainstay of popular piety. Of course there may be occasions in which it is legitimate to symbolize God in personal terms, but never with literal meaning.

Nevertheless, the issue is not merely one of finding a conception of God that accords with what we know about the world in cosmic and biological evolution. The larger issue is about the worldviews involved, of which conceptions of God are only elements. A worldview links conceptions or symbols of ultimate matters such as God to other, more profane but important affairs of life, such as how to treat family, community, strangers; when to have babies, go to war, to pray; how to accept new life, how to relate to the Earth, how to be at home, or to be alienated; what to do with guilt, with economic hardship, with the fragmentation of life; how to face death; how to imagine the world without you. The worldviews of the great religions exhibit a continuum of life issues from the most sacred, defining the ultimate, to the most profane, with many combinations of symbols in between. And the symbols of the ultimate get linked to all the places mixing the sacred and the profane.

For instance, how does your worldview link your understanding of God to the way you should treat people? If you believe that God is on the side of your in-group, say the Christians, then you will be inclined to treat Christians with justice and love and will be ready to treat non-Christians with hostility, at least until they convert to your side. On the other hand, if you believe that God is equally the enthusiastic creator of everybody, Christians, those in other religions, and the irreligious, then you will be inclined at least to try to treat every person with love and justice, regardless of your in-group. What your worldview believes about nature, about various societies, and about your history, makes a difference to how your symbols of God are ranged along the continuum from the sacred to the profane.

The salient point here is that conceptions of God are not determined only by our best thoughts about God but also by our human interests in relating God to all the elements in our worldview. Suppose, following the book of Job, we say that God is beyond good and evil, wholly transcendent. Fine. We can sit easy with a Darwinian worldview about nature. So then, just how does God bear upon good and evil? How should we think about our suffering in divine terms? How should we deal with wickedness and guilt? You can see why there is such a temptation, almost an irresistible urge, to personify God, to say that God wants us to do good and avoid evil, that God shares our suffering, that wickedness is met by God’s demand for repentance. At some sophisticated level we know it is a mistake to domesticate God literally to a kind of interactive person just in order to relate God in familiar ways to human affairs. At another level, it seems that, if we do not do that, we do not have a coherent worldview that lets the sacred bear upon these profane but important human affairs. Our conservative evangelical friends feel this pull.

Consider another continuum within worldviews, and imagine it like this. Imagine the continuum from sacred to profane to be a horizontal line, and imagine another continuum to be a vertical line that moves to intersect the horizontal line at any point. The vertical line is a continuum from very sophisticated t
hinking at one end to “folk” thinking at the other. Most of us think in between. Regarding the sacred or ultimate, sophisticated thinkers for more than two thousand years have known that God transcends good and evil and in fact every other distinction. The first chapter of Colossians says that Jesus is the first visible image of the invisible, that is, unimaginable, God. Thomas Aquinas, whose theology shaped Christianity for centuries, said that God is the absolutely simple, infinite, non-determinate Act of to-Be, and is incapable of relating to anything else; Thomas’s God is not a being of any sort. Paul Tillich, in the twentieth century, has described God as the Ground of all beings that exhibit any distinctions whatsoever. At the other end of the sophistication spectrum are the folk images of God as the mover of storms, the battle deity fighting competitors, the warrior-king of the Exodus story, the personal God of interactive prayer who hides or reveals parking places. In civilized religious worldviews, the rhetorical center of gravity falls somewhere between the high sophistication of the theologians and the undisciplined projections of folk-religion. Our liturgies are somewhere in the middle, mixing both sophisticated notions such as the Trinity with folk practices such as begging for favors. No worldview is consistent in its symbols because it picks them up from all along the sophistication continuum and we learn to live with that inconsistency.

The sophistication spectrum does not apply only to the sacred parts of a worldview, but also to the more profane parts. There is university physics and folk conceptions of how nature works, university biology and folk biology, university psychology and folk psychology. Although we in this congregation believe we view the world through the sophisticated scientific end of our worldview, in point of fact we live most of the time somewhere in the middle: we drink water, not h2o. You see how enormously complex our worldviews are, linking everything from the most sacred to the most profane, and expressing all these linkages in symbols that jumble from the most sophisticated to pop culture.

But these worldviews make all the difference. Our conservative evangelical friends really object only on the surface to the science per se in Darwin’s theory of evolution. As Rev. Wildman said, their objection is more to the negative effect of that science on their views of God as a personal, interactive being. And yet it is not only to the implication for the conception of God that evangelicals object: it is really to Darwin’s undermining of the whole worldview linking their conception of God to the spectrum of life’s issues reaching into the profane. So much of that worldview has to do with placating a personal God with repentance and obedience so that He will not punish us with everlasting torments, rewarding us instead with a good Heavenly life. The placating of a personal God determines that worldview’s approach to morality, which then is for the sake of reward, to other people, which then focuses on judging who is among God’s elect, to nature, which then has only instrumental significance, and to responsibility, which then has to do with obedience to divine authority. If that evangelical worldview is undermined by Darwin’s science, the whole world seems suddenly meaningless. This can lead to passionate denial of modern science in the name of biblical literalism. Or it can lead to angry rejection of and resentment at the exploded evangelical worldview itself. So many of my students here at the university are ex-evangelicals whose entire world has been undermined and who are desperately searching for something that can be saved in any religion.

This brings me to the positive task for popular religion in the day of Darwin, by which I mean religion for thinking people, not just the sophisticates nor devotees of folk religion. The gospel for this morning is from John where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that religion will evolve. Remember that he reminded her of the distinction between his Jewish religion and her Samaritan one, and said that his was better. But then he said, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [as the Samaritans did] nor in Jerusalem [where the Jews worshipped].” . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The task of our age is to develop in fear and trembling our old faith with an appropriate new worldview that worships God in spirit and truth.

Part of what we learn from Darwin, and evolutionary theory more generally, is that the universe is vastly older and larger than was understood in biblical times. We are not its center and we have only a tiny sample of what it contains, possibly creatures far more interesting than ourselves. So, worshipping God in spirit and truth means worshipping the Creator of this vast cosmos, and accepting a very humble place within it. Such cosmic humility should be decisive for an authentic Christian worldview. Another part of what we learn from Darwin is that the nature in us is unimaginatively complex. We are creatures of molecular bondings, of intricate metabolic processes, of cells and microbes, of organs that evolved through DNA and that pass on those codes. Our bodies float in a roiling biological ocean and we must worship God as creator of that vast whirlpool of nature.

As Jesus told the Samaritan woman, our religious worldview is still evolving. The Bible is replete with images of God as the creator of the extent and depth of nature, and is deficient only in that its images of nature are far too small, with the result that its attention to human affairs is far too large, distorting the modeling of God. A proper worldview for religion in the day of Darwin will dissociate the historical and personal problems of profane human life from conceptions of God as a person who wills this or that to happen like a divine actor in the human narrative. Instead a proper worldview will associate every part of our profane lives with a profound humility about our place in God’s vast creation. Jesus said the first will be last and the last first.

A proper worldview will associate every part of life with a profound reverence for the astonishing complexity of natural evolution with which God has created us together. Jesus said God shines the sun on both the just and unjust.

It will associate all our human relations with a divinely inspired love based on a grateful appreciation of commonality within the evolving universe. Jesus said we should love one another, even our enemies.

With regard to profane human affairs–how to organize our lives, foster our families, nourish ourselves and others, deal with politics, build communities, make love, make war, make art—these are mainly our own responsibilities. In a proper popular religion in the day of Darwin, we should take up these responsibilities in mature ways, declining to behave like obedient children of a benevolent divine father or, even worse, like abject slaves of a wrathful divine tyrant.

Jesus calls us to the amazing project of learning true humility and reverence in the face of the Father of all creation, and learning to love even the random wild violence of evolving creation, including our enemies the earthquake, wind, and fire, and our personal foes. That project is a long way from completion, and its way is tumultuous. One task for us thinking Christians is to work out that worldview with rigorous inquiry, going on from Darwin. The more important task is to discipline ourselves to the humility, reverence, and love, as well as human responsibility, that make disciplined religion itself a part of evolving human excellence. Jesus calls us o’er that tumult.

Amen.

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings
Neville

2 Responses to “Popular Religion in the Day of Darwin”

  1. Lorelei says:

    I want to express my appreciation to Dr. Neville for this sermon, which affirmed in words I can share with others what I have felt and believed about my Christian faith for most of my adult life.

    I especially appreciate Dr. Neville's effort to reach back to fortify his thoughts and observations with words that Jesus said. I think this approach can help bridge the communication gap between evangelicals and more "mainstream" Christians. Beyond that, it was a delight just to hear, "Jesus said …"

  2. efomby says:

    From the Rev. Dr. Robert Neville:

    "I'm glad Lorelei noticed that I mean the authority of Jesus to support
    the directions in which I am urging Christians to think about the world
    and God. What makes Christianity distinct from other religions is not
    so much its ideas of God but its culture of Jesus."

Leave a Reply