Archive for August, 2009

August 30

Set Sail

By Marsh Chapel

Mark 7

Click here to hear the sermon only.


Four winds blow across the prow of every pulpit on every Sunday morning. One rises up from the venerable lungs of Holy Scripture, formed in the tradition of the church. A second gusts out of the very experience of the actual congregation within which the pulpit, like a great mast, stands up and stands out. The third swirls and rushes from the institution or denomination of origin—the kindred family of the community. A fourth and last blows from the bellows of the history of a land, a country, a people, a great continental wind. Sometimes they all blow hard at the same time. Then there is a kind of homiletical hurricane. This Sunday is such a day.

Four winds blow here, and now. One is the teaching from Mark about what matters, counts, works and lasts. A second is the experience of this congregation, which has breathed life into a long discussion through the summer and concluding today, of Darwin and faith. The third is a great sea tide of freshman students coming into Boston University, four thousand noses and eight thousand eyes that are changing the world as we speak. A fourth, the last, is the experience of grief, across our country and particularly in our region, at the loss of a great leader, a last lion. Sometimes the four winds combine. Then there is a sort of homiletical hurricane. This sermon is such a combination.


Our lectionaries of local church, of country, of institutional connection are preceded, in our practice, by the lectionary of Scripture. For us, the Scripture is primary as a matter of practice. It is primary because it functions so for us.

Our readings this year are from Mark. You will want to know what we can say, then about Mark’s community. The community gave birth to the gospel and the community is the primary focus of the gospel, its intended audience. It is a community, by the way, facing and dreading persecution. Mark may have been written in or near Rome, something before 73 ce. His fellow Christians are gentiles in the main, not Jews. He writes for them neither a timeless philosophical tract, nor an ethereal piece of poetry. His is rather a ‘message on target’, as someone once said.

Today’s lesson from Mark is about table manners, pots and pans, cleanliness. We pause to note that cleanliness is not an insubstantial issue, neither socially nor religiously. John ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ Wesley, and our very own flu plagued age remind us so. Further, the influence of the mind and heart upon the outer world is clear, and has been clear from ancient times. Yet at one level ours is nonetheless an inauspicious text. We know from other sources that Jesus stepped aside from the inherited requirements of the law. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Yet lest you doubt the severity, the radicality of this dictum, you may want to refer to the highly critical, remonstrant comments about it which University Professor Elie Wiesel made last fall. Declaring all foods clean allowed the inclusion of the gentiles, as this text affirms. For Mark’s community, largely gentile as the necessary explanations fit for non-Jews proves, this issue was inordinately important. So, too, is it for us. It is the early planting, the seed, the taproot of just inclusion. Not the outward, but the inward, matters, lasts, counts. Not the color, not the gender, not the orientation, not the inclination—but the heart. In this sense, as Paul writes in Galatians, Christ is the end of religion, thanks be to God. As Philo wrote, true defilement is injustice (Marcus, I, 453). Here are the headwaters of the great river of the tradition of responsible liberalism. ‘Thus he declared all foods clean.’ And so much more. Resistance to this liberalism of the heart began early, starting with Matthew’s retake. Matthew mightily mutes Mark (see Matthew 15). The mutation continues to the present day (Marcus).


A second wind curls around Marsh Chapel today. Over ten weeks this summer we have listened for the gospel as a series of preachers have probed the truth of the gospel at the intersection of Darwin and faith. I had the personal pleasure to read through all the sermons in this series during the past week. I am thankful for the fine work of my colleagues, our guests in this pulpit this summer. I urge you to read through these sermons, found on our website. There are as fine and as full a treatment of this aspect of our responsible Christian liberalism as you can find. They will constitute the second edition of MOTIVES magazine.

Our purpose has been evangelistic. Over time the gospel of truth is both gospel and truth or it is neither gospel nor truth. What is untrue cannot in the long run be much comfort. So one woman, Joanna Mang (NYT, 5/10/09) well wrote:

“It is likely that nothing will match the reassurance of a Sunday morning spent in church. But for an ever growing number of Americans, the conviction that the church is built on shaky philosophical grounds is more powerful than the longing for unconditional comfort”

Of course I reserve one last word on the subject!

For those of faith, it will be important to remember Jesus’ admonition, ‘be ye wise as serpents, innocent as doves’. Science and religion can nourish each other, and, in fact, deeply need each other. Those who have been seized by the church’s confession—you and you all—have also a particular task, a job if you will. It is the work of antinomy and the task of dialectic. That is, future discipleship is not a matter of faith or Darwin, but pointedly a matter of faith and Darwin. As these sermons in composite teach us (as a whole that is, rather than as individual offerings), we rely both on wisdom and on innocence.

Let us name the Darwinian antinomies, the dialectics of faith, in our own experience. There is silence. There also is mystery. There is knowledge. There also is ignorance. There is transcendence. There also immanence. There is the subjective genitive. There is also the objective genitive. There is the via negativa. There is also the negation of the via negativa. There is creation. There also is redemption. As two eyes make one in sight.

We commend the gift of faith to you convinced of the truth of Darwin. Convinced of Darwin’s truth, we commend to you the gift of faith.


There is a third wind blowing today.

All around us the sounds of a new freshman class, 4100 young men and women, remind us of an emerging future. A local church has a denominational extended family—Catholic, Baptist, Quaker, all. We have a deep root in the Methodist tradition which from 1839 gave life and growth to Boston University. Yet it is the University itself, more than any denomination or other tradition, which truly is our extended family. Today our family grows by a leap and bound.

Our service of hospitality begins with every freshman. A long term hope, harbored here, is that every freshman would at some point in his first year receive a pastoral contact or visit from the minister of his self-identified tradition, should he have one, or from a chaplain of the Chapel should he have none. To greet another person by name is to honor the human being of that person, to honor the essential beauty of that person. To greet another by name is to name the name that is above every name in that
person. We are an urban community. We are a northern campus. We are a large community. We are a multifaceted largely secular institution. So, we have every reason to strive to be 200% as human, as hospitable, and as welcoming in our treatment of each other as might be the case elsewhere.

Our service of hospitality begins this week. Nor is this service the province only of those assigned to student work. It is your work, you who have identified with the ministry of Marsh Chapel. These young women and men are all our children. They have been blown ashore to a campus that can be daunting, even to most mature. They swim in a culture that is not flowing only with milk and honey, with compassion and kindness. There is a harshness to the river in which they swim, one with another. At its worst the cultural river becomes a sewer. It is hard to blame the fish for the quality of the water. You may make every difference, this week and this year, to an eighteen year old, who some day will be your age.

Three years ago, this week, a young woman from Atlanta came to worship. Our ushers somehow discovered that she had been an usher in her home church. In a human way, they welcomed her to community and to service, and for three years she helped by ushering to lead our service. Last May the usher team celebrated her graduation in a special dinner. She is in a way still with us, even though right now she is in graduate school in Michigan.

An invitation opens a door – to music, to service, to study, to fellowship, to ministry, to community. You have that invitation to offer to a young person who may be trying to develop as an adult with a modicum of personal integrity, a minimum of personal irresponsibility, a measure of personal happiness, a mode of personal honesty. There are many students who are looking for a haven in a heartless world. There are many students who really would like to find happiness and community without having to drink to excess to find it. You hold by invitation to the blessing of that haven. I implore you to use it to your advantage and to theirs.

As their little boats set sail, give them a beacon, a lighthouse, a safe harbor, an awareness of all the wind blowing in the rigging.


Behold yet another, a fourth wind, setting down upon us this morning.

Our region and this country are grieving the loss of a great leader. For those listening from afar, we invite your imagination to settle into Boston for a moment. This is your city, too. Streets teeming with well wishers, from the North End to Faneuil Hall to Mission Hill. Voices, many many voices, lifted in emotion and in reflection. Feelings of pride, loss, grief, gratitude. Boston is the cradle of liberty. This week, though, it also feels the cradle of justice, or least like the longing for justice. This is not a partisan longing. It is as old as the Scriptures, as someone once said.

The winds of loss and grief blow upon us too, here at Marsh Chapel. I look out at the marvelous windows of this beautiful nave. I am struck by just how much longing for justice is enshrined in their beauty. John Wesley greets us here. Abraham Lincoln greets us here. Francis Willard greets us here. Boston University was born out of the longing for justice that welled up in the people called Methodist, a poor people: miners, sailors, laborers, farmers. Its history is replete with inclusion of the excluded, those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadow of life. Marsh Chapel is charmingly beautiful, beautifully simple, and built to remind us of our rich shared history, but also our particularly history as people who knew hardship, knew poverty, knew exclusion. “A wandering Aramean (an Anglican field preacher if you will) was our father”.

We grew up with some set, simple habits. You did too. Here is one. At dinner no one is offered a second helping until everyone has had a first helping. I find it interesting how hard it seems sometimes for us to remember our table manners.

We heard Caroline Kennedy movingly remember the history tours her uncle Ted, whom we honor and mourn this week, gave his nieces and nephews. They went to Antietam and Gettysburg. They went to New York and New Jersey. Of course they came to Boston and walked the Freedom Trail and learned the history of the cradle of liberty. Why do we teach history? So that our stories may be tethered to the best hopes and finest courage in our past. So that our story may be part of the full, one story of common faith, common ground, common hope, and common grace.


When our children were young we would sometimes take a summer trip. Often we went to New York City. Then one year we decided for some reason to come to Boston, and a love affair with New England began that has grown more intense with every year. That summer we stayed in Hyannisport and swam in the ocean. One day we came to the Kennedy memorial. It is a beautiful spot, right on the water. It happened to be a sunny day. Our daughter was nine years old or so. I see her again, walking the circumference of that memorial spot. The wind from the sea, the boats bobbing in the breeze, the leisure to reflect, these I see feel again as well. She walked the embedded quotation, around and around. “I believe America should set sail and not lie still in the harbor”. I believe that too. So do you.

To set sail toward a new rebirth of wonder
To set sail toward a new rebirth of compassion
To set sail toward a new rebirth of justice
To set sail toward a new rebirth of peace
To set sail toward a new rebirth of morality
To set sail toward a new rebirth of generosity
To set sail toward a new rebirth of love

There is a good wind today. In Scripture. In Church. In University. In Country. It is steady, strong wind. The wind gives us our chance to set sail.

~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

August 23

Feeling Darwin’s God’s Politics

By Marsh Chapel

Well, here we are, in an un-air conditioned nave in the peak of the Boston summer. And, after nine weeks of sermons on Darwin and faith, we are almost to the end of our summer series, turning to our second string as we round the last bend. We feel the heat and humidity. We feel the intellectual weight of our topic. We feel, yes, let us confess it, a bit distracted by the national debates on health care reform, by our preference to be at the beach right now, and by the prospect of the Red Sox trouncing the Yankees at least as badly as they did last night. Today, dear friends, amidst the heat and humidity, the gravitas of evolutionary theory, and our myriad distractions, we attend to our feelings. Let us pray:

O God, when I speak, may a message be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Amen.

That religion has primarily to do with feeling, not knowing or doing, was a central claim for Friedrich Schleiermacher in his Glaubenslehre, perhaps the founding text of liberal theology. We would do well to remember this as we consider the struggles of the last century-and-a-half between religion and evolutionary theory. To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution raises a number of conceptual problems for theology, many of which have been discussed throughout our Darwin and Faith sermon series. But as faithful people, our solving the conceptual problems does not resolve the tension between religion and science. The tension is not merely thought but felt, and we must be attentive to the feeling of the tension, and the feelings the tension produces, if we are to have any chance of such resolution.

What is this feeling?

I remember, about a dozen years ago, traveling from my home in Silver Spring, Maryland up to Princeton, New Jersey for a visit with Uncle Doug and Aunt Helen. This was a regular occurrence for my brother and I. While my immediate family were and are avid churchgoers, Doug and Helen were not. I distinctly remember, at one point, my brother asking Doug if he was a Christian. Doug replied that he was not. After pondering this for a moment, my brother looked up with raised eyebrows and pronounced, “Oh! You’re a Helenist!” Given that her own lineage was Greek, Helen was simultaneously delighted and amused by this naïve conclusion.

On this particular trip, I found myself browsing the copious bookshelves that lined the walls of their Princeton home. I came across a book making the case for evolutionary theory over against religion. This discovery led to a lengthy discussion with Doug about the merits of the theory of evolution and its discrepancies with biblical descriptions of creation. In spite of the fact that Doug is a professor of politics, or more likely because of it, he did not argue his case with anything like the stridency we see in typical political discourse. Instead he made his points clearly and calmly and invited me to consider and question them in a similar spirit. Indeed, it was not Doug’s argumentation that led me to experience for myself the tension between religion and evolution but the real tension that is there. Coming, as I was, with what I will charitably call a Sunday School conception of faith, my experience of the life of faith, of God, and of religious experience had very little way of coping with the implications of Darwin’s theory.

In fact, the tension between religion and science does in part arise from the contradiction between biblical images of creation and the theory of evolution. But this is still a conceptual problem and does not yet get at the feeling. In the face of contradiction, the normal human response is doubt: one of the two views, if contradictory, must be wrong. Religious doubt is especially deep. It reaches to something like what Descartes meant when he said that he doubted everything except that which cannot be doubted, namely his own existence. If he doubted then there must be a self that doubts and so he must exist. This is the meaning of his famous statement cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. Arriving at this fundamental conclusion, however, required doubting absolutely everything else, all ways of knowing and thinking and understanding the world. At this point, the entire world of meaning, and all ways of meaning-making, must be completely reconstructed from scratch. Moreover, there must be a process of letting go of the old ways of understanding and finding meaning in the world. There is a loss here, and loss is accompanied by grief.

It is no different with the confrontations between religion and science in our own time. The truth that the world comes to be the way we find it, and that we come to be the way we are, as a result of evolutionary processes, requires doubting the Sunday School conception of faith. This is what Professor Wesley Wildman was pointing to in the first sermon of the Darwin and Faith series. There is no simple adjustment to the Sunday School faith, such as saying that the Sunday School God creates through evolution, that does anything like justice to Darwin’s theory. Conceptually, Dr. Wildman hit the nail right on the head. But now we must continue on to understand what letting go of a Sunday School faith implies, to see what the process of grief looks like, to examine our own feelings in the tension between religion and science. We are, after all, human beings, who have evolved to construct for ourselves worlds of meaning made up of truths that we can depend on. We have not evolved to simply let one world of meaning go and pick up another. If we had, those worlds of meaning would have no value. No, we are tenacious in our beliefs and cling to them precisely because they are valuable. They give us meaning and purpose, direction and confidence. And so, when they break down, we feel the loss and we grieve.

To be sure, this process of loss and grief takes place at the personal level. Darwin himself may be the best example of this. Being in training for the Anglican priesthood at Cambridge University when he made his journey on the Beagle, eventually leading to his landmark theory, Darwin had read the leading natural theologies of his day. Most of these, and especially the natural theology of William Paley, are versions of the teleological argument for the existence of God. The argument is to the effect that a world exhibiting such complexity, order, purpose and beauty as ours must have been created by an intelligent entity. Darwin’s theory of evolution, however, is precisely a demonstration of how complexity, order and beauty come about through the natural process of evolution, which only purpose is survival. Darwin saw and knew the contradiction explicitly. And for the remainder of his life Darwin remained ambivalent about faith. A letter from 1879 to John Fordyce is revealing. Darwin says,

[My] judgment often fluctuates…. Whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term … In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. — I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older), but not always, — that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Clearly, Darwin could no longer tolerate his earlier beliefs, but neither would his grief at its loss allow him to abandon faith entirely. Not all grieve in this way; many do abandon faith.

The grieving process takes place at the social level as well. We see this as many Christians resist the teaching of evolution in public schools and advocate the teaching of creationism based on their belief in a personal, purposeful go
d. We might diagnose this response to the challenge Darwin’s theory poses for such Sunday School faith on the Kübler-Ross grief cycle as somewhere amidst the stages of denial, anger and bargaining. Denial: such Christians continue in their faith lives as if Darwin had never published On the Origin of Species. Anger: Sunday School Christians express anger at the social adoption of evolutionary theory by challenging it in court, by denying that Christians who accept evolutionary theory are true Christians, and by attempting to keep politicians who accept evolutionary theory out of office. Bargaining: Recent advocacy of having creationism taught alongside evolution and the shift from strict creationism to intelligent design theories are attempts at bargaining with evolution. Given that Darwin’s theory was published 150 years ago and we are socially only at the fourth of seven stages, half-way there, we can see that the grieving process at the social level, especially where religious beliefs are concerned, can take a very long time indeed.

This timeframe should not be entirely surprising. After all, the feeling with which Schleiermacher identified religion is not just any feeling; it is the feeling of absolute dependence. But it is hard to understand how we can absolutely depend on God if God turns out not to be who or what we thought. Sunday School faith tells us that God is a person, often imagined as a white man with a beard resting on the clouds, who relates to us as persons, giving us meaning and purpose in our lives. Dean Hill gave us three tools the Boston Personalists provide us for engaging with evolutionary theory, but Darwin’s theory contradicts Personalism’s central tenet, namely that personhood is the fundamental category for understanding reality. Evolution points out that the only purpose inherent in the ongoing development of the world is survival. Evolution as a process is tragic, as Alfred North Whitehead understood the term, pointing toward “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” As Dr. Wildman pointed out in relation to Darwin’s own struggle with faith,

Surely such a loving, personal deity would have created in another way, a way that involved less trial and error, fewer false starts, less mindless chance, fewer tragic species extinctions, less dependence on random symbiotic collaborations, fewer pointless cruelties, and less reliance on predation to sort out the fit from the unfit.

If evolution is true, as it surely is, then that upon which we absolutely depend is certainly not personal.

Upon what, then, can we depend absolutely? Who is Darwin’s God? Darwin’s God is a creator god who creates us not personally but as part of a world that exhibits complexity and beauty and change and chance and order and that presents us with myriad choices, the decision among which make us who we are. Darwin’s God is not scaled to human concern; God is the creator of the H1N1 flu virus just as much as you and I. Darwin’s God creates a world not of predetermined outcomes but of competing interests. Darwin’s God creates not the world of utopic idealism, exhibiting a nice, neat, orderly progression, but the messy, mean and infinitely interesting developments in life. Darwin’s God, like Anselm’s God, is that than which nothing greater can be thought. As human thinking develops, as it has with Darwin’s theory of evolution, that which is greater than human thought and presses it to its limits must also expand. We can absolutely depend upon God to be more than we could ever imagine or comprehend. Darwin’s God is not as attractive as the personal God, because Darwin’s God does not care particularly about us, but Darwin’s God is more honest about the God we discern in the world God creates, whereas the personal God tells us more about our own desires and selfishness than about God in Godself. Darwin’s God is absolutely dependable to resist our selfish interpretations and demand humble submission.

We can see the unattractiveness of Darwin’s God when we consider the present debates about health care reform. Darwin’s God looks much more like the death panels that conservative politicians and pundits impugn upon reform proposals than anything any Senator or Congressperson could ever dream up. From the evolutionary perspective, human flourishing would certainly be greatly improved if societies were not encumbered by the old and infirm; humanity would be much more suited for survival. But none of the proposals in Congress suggest any such thing. Last week, Dr. Rodney Petersen warned us of the dangers of social Darwinism. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to make wise decisions with regard to health care reform such that those who need care are cared for while also stewarding resources responsibly. But these wise decisions must be made in light of the human needs of our present historical moment. They cannot be attributed to a personal divine will and given ultimate cosmic significance. Darwin’s God will not accept such responsibility.

We stand in the same relation to the teaching about God revealed to us in Darwin as the disciples did to the teaching about God that Jesus offered them in our gospel reading today. With them we ask, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus knew that accepting it would be difficult, that there were some who did not believe. And Jesus asks us today along with the twelve so long ago, “Do you also wish to go away?”

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we need not turn away. Like Peter we can both address the conceptual contradictions and take up our grief at the loss of our Sunday School faith. And so with Peter we can say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

August 16

A Discerning Heart

By Marsh Chapel

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Click here to hear the sermon only.

When Solomon succeeded David as king of Israel, he prayed for the wisdom and the discerning heart he needed to rule over Israel. The nature of this discernment is lodged in Psalm 111, a classic psalm praises the works and wisdom of God – something that I hope we can explore this morning.

We gather here today – as do approximately 2.1 billion other Christians (one third of earth’s human population) – in services of worship on Sunday. Now, one billion is a difficult number to comprehend, much less 2.1 billion, but one advertising agency did a good job of putting that figure into perspective in one of its releases:

A billion seconds ago it was 1959. A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive. A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age. A billion dollars ago, at the rate the government in Washington spends it, was only 8 hours and 20 minutes ago.

This act of discernment is valued all the more in a year that has seen stock market values plunge, the economy bottom out, and indebtedness to others soar – as many have been moved into the ranks of the unemployed – and perhaps some of us. All of this as we struggle with our role in conflict overseas and health care here at home.

So Solomon turned to the God of his fathers – to the work and wisdom of God. The words of the text recall Yahweh’s directive to the Israelites following the Deuteronomic version of the Decalogue (Deut. 5:28-33) and Joshua’s exhortation and renewal of the covenant prior to his death (Josh. 24:1-28). In each instance, the message is clear: This is the way of the Lord; follow it and you will prosper.

In this spirit of a “Discerning Heart” I want to ask:

Two Questions, Draw some Connections; and then move toward an Application for us today in this Darwinian bicentennial.

1. Where do discerning hearts turn for wisdom?
2. Who are the Strong and who are the Weak?
3. What are the Connections among Fragility, the Evolution of Life and the Gospel
4. How do we Apply These Observations to our Lives? This implies the importance of taking
seriously both science and religion….

I. Where do discerning hearts turn for wisdom?

Solomon, we are told, turned to the directives of God.

So we begin by noticing that religion serves, and has served, as a source of discernment for many. But in connection with this Darwinian celebration we are moved to ask: Should it still do so? And for what purpose do we gather here on this warm August morning?

The same question might also be asked of Philosophy and Aesthetics, particularly as it has been in post-Enlightenment Western Europe and North Atlantic cultures….

The functional value of religion is lodged precisely in its role in shaping how we put the world together for purposes of personal and social identity. It “frames” meaning and provides a narrative framework for life. The nature of religion for personal and social identity was noted by Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the last century, although he rejected its function – as well as that of philosophy and aesthetics – in favor of the emerging sciences as he knew them.

In a defining publication, “The Question of a Weltanschauung,” (Strachey: 1965, 195-196) he described a Weltanschauung, or worldview, as

“an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place.”

Accordingly, the sciences overtake other competitors to defining a “worldview” such as philosophy, aesthetics, and religion. According to Freud, it is from the scientific worldview alone that we gain access to knowledge about: a) origins; b) ultimate happiness; and c) direction in life – hence the fervor with which many have turned to the Darwinian hypothesis of evolutionary development as expressed in The Origin of the Species.

In other words, not religion, and in our own day of multiple narratives, not necessarily in any particular religion, provides guidance in the areas of origins, ultimate happiness or direction in life.

So where do discerning hearts turn for wisdom? The answer has been, now, to science – or, perhaps, to the works of God rather than to the words of God.

This is not an easy question in the 21st century. When we look back on the 20th century we see the interplay of religion – philosophy – aesthetics – and the sciences and to the role that each has played. We cannot rehearse all of that here.

Charles Darwin and his heritage has played its role – with the publication of The Origin of the Species – and it is appropriate that we celebrate this work and its observations in this bicentennial calendar year of Darwin’s birth and sesquicentennial (150th year) anniversary of The Origin of the Species (1859).

Yet, as with religion and philosophy and aesthetics – not every road taken in the interpretation of the scientific legacy of Darwin has provided wisdom for the way ahead.

Science itself, conceived of as providing vision for the “survival of the fittest” was not always a fit guide. Take the attempt to find in science, salvation – as depicted so vividly this past year at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

Following Germany’s defeat in WWI and during the ensuing political and economic crises of the Weimar Republic, ideas known as racial hygiene or eugenics began to inform population policy, public health education, and government funded research. By keeping the ‘unfit’ alive to reproduce and multiply, eugenics proponents argued, modern medicine and costly welfare programs interfered with natural selection – the concept Charles Darwin applied to the ‘survival of the fittest’ in the animal and plant world.

Eugenics advocates in Germany included physicians, public health officials, and academics in the biomedical fields, on the political left and right. Serving on government committees and conducting research on heredity, experts warned that if the nation did not produce more fit children, it was headed for extinction…. Eugenic ideas were absorbed into the ideology and platform of the nascent Nazi Party during the 1920s.

The current debate over financing medical care is beginning to raise many of these same fears – whether legitimately or not.

Arguments for ethnic cleansing in many of the conflicts we have witnessed over the past quarter century have frequently drawn upon the proposed value of the elimination of the unfit.

Is the “survival of the fittest,” a term coined by Herbert Spencer to justify the unbridled competition of his industrial age, the way forward? Or does science, even Darwinian science, give us a more complex framework from which to foster a discerning heart? Michael Ruse argues that Darwin did not use this term in his first edition of the “Origin,” but it did appear in his third edition.

We might begin to approach this question with another question, with the one that Herbert Spencer felt was posed by Darwin, that of the “survival of the fittest,” and ask:

“Who are the strong and who are the weak?”

Our answer to this question can not be simply to give up on science – although this is the case for many in a day when many Enlightenment verities have be
en called into question:

Islam is the Answer” runs a popular political slogan – with the Hindutua, a Mahavamsa Mindset, “Iron Wall” Zionism, and apocalyptic Christian Fundamentalism in close pursuit – so our world seems, at times, hopelessly divided between secularists and fundamentalists – those who have given up on the science and religion dialogue. This is something we cannot do, particularly if we believe in the unity of truth.

II. Who are the Strong who are the weak?

One answer was given to this question in the attempt to find in science, salvation; in the development of the “Biological State” to the solution to the ambiguities of history and discernment, seen preeminently in Germany’s National Socialism.

Nazism was “applied biology,” stated Hitler deputy Rudolf Hess. It gave answer to who are the strong and who are the weak; history belonged to the survival of the fittest.

During the Third Reich, a politically extreme, anti-Semitic variation of eugenics determined the course of state policy. Hitler’s regime touted the ‘Nordic Race’ as its eugenic ideal, and attempted to mould Germany into a cohesive national community that excluded anyone deemed hereditarily ‘less valuable’ or ‘racially foreign.’ Public health measures to control reproduction and marriage aimed at strengthening the ‘national body’ by eliminating biologically threatening genes from the population.

… and the rest is history in policies that were put in place not only in Germany, but also in various provinces, cantons, and states in Canada, Switzerland, and the United States….

But in the years immediately following the devastation of WWII, the medical doctor and psychologist Paul Tournier raised the question of the “Strong and the Weak” in his book of that title in a different way. He elevated persons who a utilitarian society might judge inferior and defined for us the sometimes misleading projections of a “strong” person. Through his research and study, he contrasted the events and dynamics that lead some to become “weak” and others “strong”. The compelling truth he revealed is that ultimately, we may act very differently but we are so much the same in our inner selves. A great book equally helpful for “strong” leaders to understand themselves and those they may be tempted to look down upon, as well as for those who struggle with self-doubt and insecurity, intimidated by the “strong.”

Contrary to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity for the weakness he felt it fostered, Tournier turns the tables on such disdain and finds in it the strength for new life and the forgiveness toward reconciliation that it fosters.

It was the “weak” St. Paul (in Friedrich Nietzsche’s eyes) who wrote: “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (II Cor 12:10), a dictum that finds its outlet in Paul’s own vision of vocation, today mirrored in stories of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In fact, one of the most striking developments in political life in the early twenty-first century is the attention given to stories of forgiveness and the evidence of its transformative power. The stories of people of diverse faiths and cultures seeking to find the way forward in personal or common civic life, finding the courage to reconcile with their enemies after wrongdoing is in itself remarkable. This is all the more striking given the cultural evolution that has brought us to the place where forgiveness is no longer seen to be simply the concern of religious people or a matter of irrelevance or an unworthy moral ideal in the face of injustice. Rather forgiveness is seen to be integral to a world on the verge of destruction.

In one recent collection of narratives recounting the transformative power of forgiveness, Michael Henderson gathers together the stories of persons like Desmond Tutu, Benazir Bhutto, Rajmohan Gandhi, Jonathan Sacks, the Dalai Lama, and others in an anthology of hope toward a geopolitics of mercy. Weaving together threads of politics, inherited identity and history, wisdom and theology, Henderson gives us an account of how forgiveness has touched private and public life through processes of transitional justice and, notably, South Africa’s Trust and Reconciliation Commission.

We live in a world of holocausts, gulags, killing fields, suicide bombings, and ethnic cleansings. Forgiveness is not the way of the weak but a journey for the strong. The report launched by the World Health Organization in 2003, World Report on Violence and Health, asks us to consider the violence of our world as not only a political phenomenon but as a public health priority – as a leading cause of disease, as a matter of domestic abuse, as a factor in mental health and of concern for children and of central concern to the health of the next generation.

Forgiveness is frequently thought of as the way of the weak, not the strong. But here follows a deeper perspective on the Darwinian legacy. It is not so much the “survival of the fittest” as perceived by Herbert Spencer with implications for human society, but a perspective marked out by geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon, that connects fragility, or weakness, and vulnerability with progress.

III. What are the Connections among Fragility, the Evolution of Life and the Gospel

In Ecce Homo (“Behold Humanity”) Le Pichon writes of the formative experience he had in his visit to the home for the destitute and dying in Calcutta. Following this visit he notes:

Throughout the ages we have to discover that our community is not only made up of the highly motivated competing individuals as in my own scientific world, but that it includes fragile, vulnerable, suffering individuals who reveal to ourselves our own fragility, our own vulnerability, who actually lay bare our own sufferings that have been hidden in our deepest self.

Le Pichon goes on to make eight points, drawing in an innovative way on his experience in light of the Darwinian legacy.

1. First, he notes the importance of weakness as seen in his own research with tectonic plates; weaknesses and imperfections facilitate the evolution of a system. The molten and liquid nature of the center of the earth permits movement and change, whereas the firm and rigid surface of the earth resists change. He goes on to observe that a system which is too perfect is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature. A perfectly, smoothly running system, without any default is a closed system that can only evolve through a major commotion: the evolution occurs through revolutions in human societies – or in earthquakes in geophysics.

2. Le Pichon next asks us to consider the two poles of fragility and vulnerability in human society. He finds this expressed in the organization of society around its offspring and around the experiences of suffering and death. He contends that: “…a society is humane in the degree that it takes care of the lives of those who suffer most without either rejecting or marginalizing them.” To illustrate his argument, he turns to a third observation.

3. This he takes from human behavior observed in pre-historic societies. Le Pichon finds in the fossil record signs of humane behavior among prehistoric societies in which the handicapped are cared for in the life of the herd or tribe – this as a part of the apparent evolution of the species, something not found among other species.

4. Le Pichon observes in this what he believes, in the fourth place, is the radical novelty of the poles of fragility and vulnerability in early human society, by not excluding the infirm, the weakest of the weak, humans give up at least partially the law of survival of
the fittest through efficiency that prevails in the world governed by the harsh laws of evolution. In other words, he finds in human evolution both a physical and psychological development.

With regard to the psychological evolution, Le Pichon writes:

In Genesis, when God creates Adam and presents him to the different living creatures, Adam realizes that none of them resembles him. Pope John Paul II has commented about the discovery by Adam of what he called “his metaphysical solitude.” What is the origin of this solitude? Is it possible to identify it with precision? Is it not related to the discovery made by Cain after the murder of his brother Abel when he hears an inner voice ask him: “Where is your brother Abel?” “What did you do to your brother?” is the question that haunts humans and that has created the metaphysical solitude discussed by John Paul II.

5. In other words, Le Pichon finds in the suffering person – the source of our humanization.

6. He goes on to expand upon this point from the historical record by turning to the extraordinary prophets of the 6th century – to the Buddha, to LaoTzu, Confucius, MoTzu, and Second Isaiah.

7. Second Isaiah expresses most poetically, perhaps most completely, this sentiment concerning fragility and vulnerability in the vision of the suffering servant and his sacrifice. His compassion for others pushes one toward the oblivion of oneself. This, Le Pichon observes, is perhaps first independently advocated by the four songs of the Suffering Servant in the second Isaiah written during the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, to become one of the cornerstones of Christianity

8. So we return to Paul’s observation concerning the power of the weak – “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (II Cor 12:10). We are forced to ponder the question, Who are the weak and who are the strong? Perhaps the path of evolution is not only physical, but also psychological.

There is a Gospel parallel to all of this as found in our Gospel reading for this day, John 6: 51-58 concerning the person of the one interpreted to be the suffering servant, Jesus. Rather than cite that again in this service, I want to turn to a text that applies to us, Matthew 25:35-40:

35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37″Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Researchers on complexity theory at the Santa Fe Institute prefer the term “survival of the best adapted.” Perhaps this draws in Le Pichon’s observations concerning the evolution of humanization. The biologist Lynn Margulis, observes that cooperation is more important for survival than competition. She cites symbiotic, interdependent relations, such as the bacteria which digest our food. In this line, the late Arthur Peacock observed that evolution is the interplay between variations and natural selection.

IV. How do we Apply These Observations to our Lives? This implies the importance of taking seriously both science and religion….

1. What we have seen, first, is that care for the weak and the vulnerable is very much a part of the evolution of a humane society. And, it follows, that a humane society will give considerable thought to the question of health care for all of its population. It is in our fragility and vulnerability that we find our humanity. We witnessed a different picture under the auspices of the “Biological State” and medicine used to foster thinking of a “Master Race.”

2. Second, given the historical record of persecution by dominant societies of peoples believed to be subservient, a humane reconstruction of politics can only happen through forgiveness and promise, as argued by journalist Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition (1959). This is as true for us in the United States as it is in the Middle East and elsewhere today.

So whether it is health care or the politics of inter-communal life, this wisdom of Solomon is found grounded in the mutual interaction of science and religion – the works and words of God. This is a fit reminder in this, Charles Darwin’s bicentennial year and sesquicentennial of The Origins of the Species.

3. It is a fit reminder and a caution as to how we read science and how we read religion – and of the importance of theology, of the human community, and of times of worship like this together in Marsh Chapel in discerning the way forward.

~The Rev. Dr. Rodney L. Petersen
Executive Director, Boston Theological Institute
Lecturer, Boston University School of Theology

August 9

Getting Past Literalism, with Jesus’ Help

By Marsh Chapel

John 3:1-10

Click here to hear the sermon only.

I am pleased and honored to be with you at Marsh Chapel this morning. By way of introduction, I want to say that my wife, Jennifer, who is the Pastor at Church of the Covenant in Boston’s Back Bay, is also preaching on the Nicodemus passage this morning. Our two sermons are interconnected, and they are the product of a number of conversations we have had throughout the week. As we explored this text from the Gospel of John together, we felt ourselves joining the ancient conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus and wondering how Jesus would have wanted Nicodemus to respond.

Let me begin with a question. What does it mean for Christians to take the Bible seriously? We who live in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in a time of political transition and economic collapse, of war and climatic upheaval, face no shortage of questions regarding how we ought to live our lives. The questions for our time are many and momentous, but none is more fundamental for Christians than this: What does it mean to take the Bible seriously? The answer we give to this question bears on any other we might give. We are a people of “the Book.” Our identity is tied, both theologically and sociologically, to the ways in which we use this collection of sacred texts to orient ourselves in, and make sense of, the world.

In many parts of contemporary American culture, to take the Bible seriously means to take it “literally.” This usually means accepting what the Bible says as historically accurate, whenever it refers to worldly things and events. It also means accepting that the Bible can and ought to function as an instruction manual for how to live one’s life. These two aspects of biblical literalism are closely tied to one another. Without historical accuracy trust in the Bible’s prescriptions would be misplaced, and apart from its being a source of instruction there would be no point in worrying about its historical accuracy – or so the argument goes. Biblical literalism, then, is really about the Bible’s authority to instruct, and literalism construes this authority chiefly in terms of fidelity to historical fact.

To appreciate the dominance of biblical literalism within our culture, one need only recall that the appropriateness of reading the Bible literally is the single point on which fundamentalists and atheists can agree. Both contend that the Bible must be read literally if it is to be understood rightly. Of course, atheists think that the Bible thus understood is false, both in terms of what it reports and in terms of what it prescribes. But, like the average fundamentalist, the average atheist is quite invested in believing that the only authentically Christian reading of the Bible is a literal one. Any more sophisticated, less “literal” approach is typically dismissed by fundamentalist and atheist alike as nothing more than a modernist, ivory-tower, elitist – in a word, inauthentic – attempt to evade the clear meaning of the text.

How did we get here? How did America get to a place where the dominant view of the Bible, among both believers and nonbelievers, is that Christians must read their Scriptures literally if they are to understand them rightly? After all, it wasn’t always the case that Christians understood “literal” as a synonym for “most authentic.” For much of its history the Church in its various forms and locations has recognized the legitimacy and necessity of a wide variety of interpretive approaches to biblical texts, even and especially those texts which are now regarded by more conservative Christians as being plainly “historical.”

A key part of the story of the rise of biblical literalism in the late nineteenth century lies, I think, in the challenge posed by Darwin’s account of evolution to Christian theological views of the uniqueness of the human person, which, especially since the Enlightenment, has been couched primarily in terms of the capacity to rationally determine and do what is in one’s own best interest. Of course, the singular place of humanity among all creation is a basic theological theme that runs throughout the Bible, from the creation accounts in Genesis to Paul’s remarks in Romans 8 about all of creation being in bondage to decay on account of humanity’s deeds. But Darwin’s view of the origin of species, with its elimination of the genealogical boundary between human and non-human life, threatened people’s ideas of human uniqueness and with it their sense of being rational agents capable of controlling their own behaviors and beliefs.

Rather than rethink the meaning of human uniqueness, conservative American Christians by and large have chosen to respond by attacking Darwinism, claiming that it is fundamentally incompatible with the creation accounts of Genesis. Significantly, though, this line of attack has required an interpretive innovation, namely, that the creation accounts in Genesis be construed primarily as historical reports of humanity’s physical and biological “origin,” rather than as theological accounts of humanity’s spiritual “condition.” This interpretive innovation has happened under the guise of rejecting modernity, but it has a distinctively modern feel: out with condition, in with origin; out with value, in with fact; out with meaning, in with reference. As creationist Duane Gish once put it, “The Bible is [the Christian’s] textbook on the science of creation!”

In the face of such stifling and stultifying innovation, what is a Christian to do who feels the full weight of her tradition against literalism? How to break the chains that have bound authenticity to the rack of literalism? How to avoid misusing scripture by, turning the Good News into a Bad News that yields arbitrary and false certainties and makes the Bible irrelevant to the real struggles and questions of our day? Where to turn for a richer, deeper, more faithful understanding of how a Christian should read the Bible for the sake of living a life pleasing to God? Where to go for an authentic alternative to the inauthentic and impoverished view of God’s Word as a scientific textbook and a moralizing instruction manual? Where to go for a view of the Bible as an entryway into a divine world of meaning that one can call home, a river of divine sympathy that buoys up the deepest and most complex truths of one’s own life, a human-divine hand that can steady the soul in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death?

Where? To the Bible, of course. To Jesus. And, I think, to Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. There is a long tradition of interpretation around this story that reads Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus as a confrontation. I think this line of interpretation is mistaken, and I think the story actually invites a helpful comparison between how Jesus wants to be “read” by Nicodemus and how God wants to be “read” by us through Scripture.

When Nicodemus first comes to Jesus, he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus responds that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now, this answer has traditionally been interpreted as a rebuke, but I see nothing in the surrounding text to support this reading. In fact, it strikes me as an anti-Semitic reading born of a desire to see the Pharisees in general, and Nicodemus in particular, as emblematic of a Jewish fixation with the law. To the contrary, I hear in Jesus’ response to Nicodemus a guarded affirmation of his ability to see God at work in Jesus’ earthly ministry. Jesus affirms Nicodemus’s judgme
nt in a way that invites him to say more, to explain himself, to claim his own view of Jesus’ identity. Jesus gives Nicodemus the benefit of the doubt, despite the lateness of the hour, opening up a space for the two of them to enter into conversation. Notice, as well, that in this first response Jesus answers Nicodemus not with language about “entering” the kingdom of God, but with a remark about “seeing” it. Nicodemus has said that he sees the “presence of God” in Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus responds by saying that anyone who sees as Nicodemus does has been born from above. This is an affirmation of Nicodemus’s insight and an invitation for him to say more.

But Nicodemus does not attempt clarify his own views. Instead he hold his cards close to his chest and asks Jesus a question of clarification. Having heard “born from above” as “born again” – the Greek can mean both – he apparently thinks that Jesus is instructing him on some esoteric connection between “entering” the kingdom and physical rebirth. So he asks Jesus, “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?” Jesus, with more than a little patience and grace, follows this obtuse line of questioning, even as he corrects the underlying misunderstanding. He shifts to Nicodemus’s language of “entering” but clarifies that he is speaking in spiritual rather than physical or biological terms. What is at stake for Jesus is the mystery by which people see, or don’t see, God at work in the world. When Nicodemus’s second response reveals that he is still thinking “literally,” Jesus becomes exasperated. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Having tried and failed to draw Nicodemus into conversation about his own views, Jesus then embarks on a lengthy monologue about his relationship to God. This monologue includes the beautiful and well-known verse expressing God’s love for the world, John 3:16, but sadly the conversation with Nicodemus is over.

What does it mean to take Jesus seriously? He wants a conversation with Nicodemus, but Nicodemus deflects the offer. Instead, he flattens out Jesus’ remarks and persists in trying to make literal sense of them. Jesus wants to engage Nicodemus as someone who had seen God at work in the world. In return, Nicodemus treats Jesus as a cultic instructor who might show him how to unlock the door of salvation. “Could you clarify that please? What did you say about entering the womb? And I didn’t get the part about the wind. How exactly does the wind blow?” Sigh.

Taking the Bible seriously does not mean fixating on the “literal” meaning of its words, any more than taking Jesus seriously means fixating on the “literal” meaning of his words. Taking Jesus and the Bible seriously means responding to a divine offer for honest and complex conversation about our own views of Jesus’ ministry, the world, and ourselves in it. It means making the Bible more important rather than less important in our lives. It means letting the Bible function as the primary world of meaning we inhabit as we try to make sense of our lives and as we decide how to live them out. It means weaving together the stories of our own lives with the stories in God’s Word, so that they become inextricably linked.

The real challenge of faith is not to believe in the literal truth of the Bible but to make the Bible – and through the Bible, God – a real conversation partner in all parts of our lives, not just in isolated moments of prayer or religious ritual but in the real, specific challenges and questions we face in our work, our personal relationships, our social and communal lives. Whether consciously or not, we all make meaning out of the stories of our lives by holding them in conversation with other narratives. Some of us do this with novels, some with movies, others with talk radio, TV, or magazines. Who and what are the primary narrative partners in your life? Have you ever considered letting the Bible play this role? Can you imagine taking the Bible seriously enough to do so? Can you see why the literalist approach is so poorly suited to allowing the Bible to play this role?

As a seminarian in the early 90s, I participated in a reading and discussion group with several other students who became close friends. At one point we decided to read the story of David and Absalom, which spans a number of chapters in the book of Second Samuel, and which is as powerful and complex a family story as any to be found in a contemporary novel or an HBO series. As we read and reflected on the story together, we found ourselves coming to new insights about our own families. We did not find any clear “answers” in the text, nor did we feel ourselves or our families “fixed” by our conversations. Yet it was powerful to share and reinterpret our own family stories in light of this ancient biblical drama. Perhaps what it means to be born anew, or from above, is to enter into deeper conversation with God through the biblical narratives, so that we begin to see more and more of our own lives from inside the biblical world and more and more of the world around us in terms of God’s transforming presence.

What does it mean for Christians to take the Bible seriously? It means letting the Bible function as a entryway into a divine world of meaning that one can call home. It means letting the Bible function as a river of divine sympathy that buoys up the deepest and most complex truths of our lives. It means letting the Bible function as a human-divine hand that steadies our soul when we find ourselves in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. This way of reading the Bible has the potential to take us to a place far beyond literalism, a place that is at once authentically Christian and stubbornly nonliteral. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to go there with him, but he didn’t. What about us? Will we enter that sacred space?

~ Dr. Kirk Wegter-McNelly
Assistant Professor of Theology, Boston University School of Theology

August 2

Always Evolving

By Marsh Chapel

February 12, 2009, came and went without much fanfare in Cleveland, Ohio. I venture to say that few people were aware that there was anything noteworthy about that day. Yet February 12, 2009, marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of two people who have had a profound impact on the world as we know it: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. How intriguing that these two giants of influence upon world civilization were born, one in the United States, and the other in England, on the very same day!

Abraham Lincoln is arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest President, that the United States has ever had. His issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and his steady hand of leadership following that provocative act was masterful, to say the least. His attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation towards the Confederacy did much to set the tone for healing the deep-seated wounds that had divided the regional factions of this country for generations. His ability to translate lofty ideals into practical and effective strategies of leadership is admired to this day. Indeed, Lincoln’s philosophy and leadership style have provided a conscious and intentional role model for President Barack Obama and his administration. Abraham Lincoln is a leader well worth studying, a statesman well worth emulating.

On the same day that Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky, across the pond another person who would influence the world in a profound way was also born: Charles Darwin. Initially studying to become a priest in the Church of England, Darwin developed a deep interest in naturalism.(1) During a visit to South America and the Galapagos Islands, he examined the fossil remains of ancient organisms and observed the diversity of life forms in isolated environments. Building on these observations and based on additional work over more than twenty years, Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1859, he published these ideas in his profoundly influential book, The Origin of Species.

Darwin proposed that all living species are descended from a small set of common ancestors — perhaps just one ancestor. He held that variations within a species occur randomly, and that the survival or extinction of each organism depends upon its ability to adapt to its environment.

Darwin’s view engendered immediate and intense controversy, especially in religious circles, a controversy with has continued to this day and shows no signs of abating. Darwin himself was concerned about the effect of his theory on religious belief, and took pains in The Origin of Species to point out a possible harmonious interpretation: “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone,” he wrote, “A celebrated author and divine has written to me that he has gradually learned to see that it is just as noble a conception of the deity to believe that he created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that he required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the actions of his laws.”(2) Darwin concludes his book by saying, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simply a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”(3) While Darwin’s personal religious beliefs seem ambiguous and varied, it is worthy of note that far from being ostracized by the religious community of his time, Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey.(4)

While no serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life, a recent Gallup poll indicates that only one-third of Americans believe that the theory of evolution is well supported, with the remainder being equally divided between those who agree that it has not been well supported and those claiming that they just don’t know enough to affirm evolution or reject it.(5) These statistics have remained essentially unchanged over the past twenty years.

The theory of evolution rests on two basic ideas: 1) that all of life is related, and 2) that species change over time. First of all, scientists insist that all of life is related. If you hug a tree, you are hugging a relative, a very distant relative, but a relative, nonetheless! From the outset, one of the objections to the idea that we are all related is the idea that human beings are descended from apes and monkeys. Thomas Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin’s, is reported to have said that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for an ancestor, only ashamed to be related to anyone who obscured the truth!(6) Scientists reassure us that we’re not descended from apes and monkeys the way those species are now. It’s that we share common ancestors.

How do we know this? The same way we know whether people are related to one another. Everybody knows, (thanks to courtroom television!), that DNA can be used to determine paternity. Because children share the DNA of their parents, we can tell whether people are related by seeing if their DNA is the same. This principle works across all living things.

While the study of genes and the DNA which comprise them has been going on for years, the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, revealed more about the interrelatedness of life than humanity had previously known. It was discovered, for example, that while there are 3.1 billion letters of the DNA code arranged across 24 chromosomes comprising the human genome, there are only about 20 – 25,000 protein coding-genes. That was especially shocking in light of the fact that the gene count for other, simpler organisms such as worms, flies, and simple plants seem to be in about the same range as that for humans, approximately 20,000 protein-coding genes. Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project until last August, comments, “Many of us were shocked to discover that God writes such short stories about humankind.”(7)

Another striking, and I believe, theologically profound finding coming from the Human Genome Project is that at the DNA level, all the different members of our human species are 99.9 percent identical!(8) That similarity applies regardless of which two individuals from around the world you wish to compare. Take a look at the person to the right of you, and to the left of you. Ninety-nine point nine percent of your DNA is exactly the same! Thus, by DNA analysis, we are truly members of one family.

The second fact of evolutionary biology is that species change. This was what Darwin observed on the Galapagos Islands and what scientists (and non-scientists) observe all the time. The size, shape and color of plants and animals change through time and space, demonstrating the difference between living things and nonliving things. A chemical species, such as water, never changes. At sea level, water always boils and freezes at the same temperature. Water is always colorless. There was never a time or a place where pure water was red or green, for example. But s
pecies of living things change over time.

In her recent book, Evolution and Christian Faith, Joan Roughgarden, professor of biological sciences and geophysics at Stanford University, says, “The single-tree-of-life and species-change discoveries are the bottom-line, take-home facts. I believe these two facts must be taught in any science curriculum today. Not teaching these,” she states, “Will cripple the minds of children, as though asking them to find a place in modern society after being raised by wolves.”(9)

Far from being at odds with religion in general and the Christian faith in particular, I find the two major premises of evolutionary biology quite compatible with orthodox thinking. First, all of life is related. The most accepted theory of the creation of the world among scientists at the current time is the Big Bang theory, which states that at a single moment, approximately fourteen billion years ago, the universe began.(10) Of course, the Big Bang theory begs the question of what came before that, and who or what was responsible for the forces coming together that created the universe in the first place.

Francis Collins writes, “The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that…. For the Judeo-Christian tradition, the opening words of Genesis are entirely compatible with the Big Bang.”(11) Genesis 1:1 tells us that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Theology has long held that the universe was created by God out of nothingness (ex nihilo). Astronaut Robert Jastrow, in his book, God and the Astronomers, states, “At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”!(12)

The creation-poem set in the Garden of Eden describes God creating all the species of plants and animals. Does Genesis 1 contradict evolution’s tree of life? No, Genesis does not specify one way or the other about whether the plants and animals God placed on earth are related to one another. They are, however, all designed and made by the same Creator. Genesis does not tell us how God created; it only tells us why: God created humanity in God’s image for fellowship with God.

All of life is related, a fact which has now been proven by science, a fact which has broad implications as communication increases and the world continues to shrink before our very eyes. All of life is related, we realize as we to irreparable damage to the land, water and to the species of plant and animal life that God has created over millions of years. All of life is related, we need to remember as we seek solutions to problems that threaten to destroy the very breath of life that God breathed into our nostrils at the dawn of creation.

That brings me to the second fact of evolutionary biology that is also quite compatible with the Christian Gospel: that species change over time. Scientists have observed mutation occurring in plants and insects and other species through laboratory experimentation and the examination of fossils. Change is vital to the survival of living things. Change is also fundamental to our belief system. Change is a cornerstone of the Christian Gospel.

I have chosen Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus to illustrate my point. Nicodemus was intrigued by the teaching of Jesus and the way of life he demonstrated. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, for he didn’t want to admit to the other intellectuals of his day that his education and his profession had not brought him the happiness and the satisfaction for which he yearned. Nicodemus sensed that there might be something more that he was missing. Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again, that he needed to accept God’s lordship of all things and start looking at life through fresh, new eyes. The most important part of life, according to this Jewish teacher, is not what we can get, but what we can give. We can begin living a new life not someday when we die, but here and now, today.

We don’t know whether Nicodemus came to faith immediately or whether the process took a while. But we do know that after Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus came with Joseph of Arimathea to claim and care for the body of Jesus. Nicodemus, formerly afraid to be seen with Jesus for fear of what people would think, was now willing to risk his reputation and his very life in order to care for the body of his crucified Lord. A profound change had taken place in his life.

Whether or not the account in Acts is totally accurate, we know that another man was changed dramatically, as Saul, the persecutor of Christians, became Paul, the Apostle, the greatest missionary the Christian church has ever known. Again, a change of heart and life is a fundamental result of the Gospel message.

Species can change. It was the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, who urged his followers not to be satisfied with where they were in their spiritual lives, but to go on to perfection. Citing Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” John Wesley urged a continual striving, a continual process of change and growth causing the Christian believer to evolve, if you will, toward the person God intends us to be.

For some, the change is profound and dramatic. The Apostle Paul is a prime example. For others, the change is more subtle and gradual. But for all living things, change is essential, not only to our growth, but to our survival in God’s world. It is true in the physical realm; I submit it is also true in the realm of the spirit.

Some people have the gift of storytelling. When Professor Harrell Beck lectured on the origins of the Hebrew Bible, he made the story so real that I wanted to sneak a peak to the corner of the room to which he was gesturing. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Bedouin shepherds and the campfire they had built to take the chill off the night air. (I found later that others in the class had experienced the same feeling.) Dr. Beck said that when he went to speak at local churches (which was frequently), he wanted to take a Bible, and rip off the back cover, to demonstrate the fact that God did not stop speaking in the second century A.D., nor have the acts of the Apostles ceased. “The Bible is still being written today!” He would proclaim in a thundering voice. Species can change. Species do change!

In his book, The Language of God, Francis Collins tells about being asked to head the Human Genome Project. At the time, he was quite happy at the University of Michigan, and commented that never imagined himself a federal employee! “I initially indicated no interest,” he wrote, “But the decision haunted me. There was only one Human Genome Project. This was going to be done only once in human history. If it succeeded, the consequences for medicine would be unprecedented. As a believer in God, was this one of the moments when I was somehow being called to take on a larger role in a project that would have profound consequences for our understanding of ourselves? … I have always been suspicious of those who claim to perceive God’s will in moments such as this, but … the potential consequences for humankind’s relationship with the Creator could hardly be ignored. Visiting my daughter in North Carolina in November of 1992, I spent a long afternoon praying in a little chapel, seeking guidance about this decision. I did not ‘hear’ God speak — in fact, I have never had that experience. But during tho
se hours… a peace settled over me. A few days later, I accepted the offer.”(13)

Collins’ work has demonstrated and confirmed the theory of Charles Darwin, that all of life is related and that species change. As Harrell Beck so dramatically proclaimed to our seminary class, the Bible is still being written today! God is still speaking; God is still creating; the Bible is still being written. What will your chapter say? How will you demonstrate your awareness of your relationship to all of creation? How will you respond to God’s call to continue to evolve and let God create in you the person that God desires you to be?

I believe that as long as we are living, we are always evolving. May we always seek to grow in the image and likeness of God.

1. Collins, Francis. The Language of God. New York: Free Press., p. 96.
2. Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. , p. 452.
3. Ibid., p. 459.
4. Collins, p. 98.
5. Ibid., p. 147.
6. Ibid., p. 98.
7. Ibid., p. 125.
8. Ibid..
9. Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006., pp. 24-25.
10. Ibid., p. 64.
11. Ibid., p. 67, 82-83.
12. Ibid., p. 66.
13. Ibid., p. 118-119.

~ The Rev. Dr. Charles D. Yoost
Senior Pastor at Church of the Saviour, Cleveland Heights, Ohio