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

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