A Sermon Preached by Arthur M. Suggs

On Sunday, February 23, 2014


Evolving on Evolution Sunday

For thousands of churches, Evolution Sunday is the nearest Sunday to February 12, the birthday of Charles Darwin.  Representatives of churches participating in that observance are typically signatories on the Clergy Letter Project, consisting of approximately 13,000 clergy across the country, including rabbis, Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, and soon Imams.

These clergy have signed a letter which says, simply, that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion.  A few lines from that letter:

“Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth.  Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

“We, the undersigned clergy [I was a signatory about five years ago.] from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.  We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.  To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.”

In addition, the United Church of Christ, more than any other denomination, has embraced cooperation, collaboration, and even friendship between science and religion.  (Think about that for a moment.)  A couple years ago the UCC drafted a three-page letter that is, in my opinion, amazingly eloquent for having been produced by a committee:

“Evolution helps us see our faithful God in a new way.  Our creator works patiently, calling forth life through complex processes spanning billions of years and waiting for us to awaken and respond in conscious participation in God’s own overarching dream for all living things.”

And from near the end:

“Many today are hungering for an authentic spirituality that is intellectually honest and at home in a scientific era.  They are searching for a new kind of wisdom to live by, one that is scientifically sophisticated, technologically advanced, morally just, ecologically sustainable, and spiritually alive.”

The UCC even went so far as to publish portions of this letter as advertisements in the Harvard Medical Journal and in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.  It was pretty much unprecedented for a Christian denomination to publish such material as this in leading medical journals to bring to the attention of scientists that not all religions are anti-science.

The Link Between Lincoln and Darwin

As you may know, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day in the same year – February 12, 1809.  And in a sense, what they spent their lives dealing with, what they are remembered for, is the interpretation of one sentence from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, written by Thomas Jefferson:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In this sense Abraham Lincoln spent his life, and is remembered for, dealing with the notion of all being equal and possessing the right of liberty. 

Charles Darwin dealt with the notion that we are created.  But how?  In England he actually knew and cared about Lincoln’s struggles on the other side of the Pond.  A year before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863, Darwin wrote in his journal:

“I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North.  Some few, and I am one, even wish to God that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery.  Great God, how I should like to see that greatest curse on Earth – Slavery – abolished.”

At nearly the same time, in an address to Congress in 1862, Lincoln said:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.  The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.  As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.  We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

A good question to ask at this point in our history and our pilgrimage is:  Who today has the courage of a Lincoln or a Darwin who is able to lead us out of the dogmas of the present into the stormy future where we might yet prevail?  I think that the scientists who denounce all religions are as myopic as the religious fundamentalists who reject science.  So what kind of religion would we consider appropriate and valuable to both the tenets of modern science and the spiritual needs of our species?  Right now I don’t know of any such political leaders, but there are dozens and maybe hundreds of academics who are brave enough and who are leading us if we listen to their voices as they stare extinction in the face.

What Is Individuation?

Peter Todd, an Australian research psychologist and author of The Individuation of God, possesses one such voice.  He has written compellingly about this collaboration, this cooperation, and indeed this friendship between science and religion.  The term “individuation” is very important in psychology.

A child, for example, grows up attached to the parents in the sense that its identity is completely linked to them.  But in the process of maturing, the child undergoes the process of individuation.  It becomes an individual, a unique person, and eventually no longer dependent upon the parents.  In The Individuation of God, Todd writes that the notion of God being merely a human being writ large is no longer adequate for our thinking.

What Is the “Revolution of the Spirit”?

Dave Pruett, a NASA computer and math professor and author of Reason and Wonder:  a Copernican Revolution of Science and Spirit, is another such voice.  In reading the book, one realizes that the Copernican revolution Pruett is writing about does not so much concern science – he’s already been there, done that – as it concerns the spirit.  This begs the question:  What is this revolution of the spirit?  Its importance stares us in the face.

Here are two of the main facets of this spiritual revolution that we’re in the midst of right now.  Two ideas that are not commonly held in the Church today but that need to be – indeed must be – abided by the Church if it is to survive and even to thrive:

1.  God Is Within Us.  Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is within us, and he said it with emphasis.  Paul wrote that we are a temple.  Even though these are simple sentences, they are monumentally profound ideas.  What can it possibly mean that the kingdom of heaven is within us?  Or that we are a temple, implying that’s where God lives and God lives in us?

Even so, that’s only half of it.  The other half is that we are within God.  We exist within divinity, and divinity is that within which “We live and move and have our being.”  The psalmist asks, “Where can you flee from the presence of God?”  How can both halves of the truth be so?  It seems contradictory.  How can God dwell within us, yet we dwell within God?  As Einstein points out, if you encounter a paradox, a dilemma, a contradiction, that’s a surefire sign that the truth can only be ascertained at a higher level.

“We Must Disenthrall Ourselves,” in Lincoln’s wonderful words, from the notion of separation – separation between people, between Republicans and Democrats, between races, between genders, between people and God, and between people and nature.  Yes, we have to expand our thinking.

2.  “God Is Still Speaking.”  The vast majority of the Church does not believe this.  But it should, and it must.  Never place a period where God has placed a comma, as Gracie Allen so memorably said.

What does that mean?  I submit to you that we have not plumbed anything but the shallows.  If it really means that God is still speaking to us, then we need to ask a question:  From what sources do you hear the word of God?

    • The Bible?  Sure – no problem here.
    • What about the Gnostic texts discovered in 1945?
    • The Dead Sea scrolls and many others?  Are those the Word of God?
    • The Koran, Dhammapada, Tao Te Ching, or Bhavagad Gita?
    • Or on the radio, with the lyrics of a beloved song?
    • Or a phone call from a friend, spookily just the right thing at the right time?
    • The chirping of a bird?
    • The rustling of leaves as October breezes begin to blow?
    • The silence on a hot, humid August evening, not a breath of a breeze, broken only by the sound of crickets?
    • The ker-plunk of a frog into a pond?

Are these the Words of God?  Over the centuries many thousands have thought the answer is yes.  So two questions:  From what sources do you hear the word of God?  And what then is God saying to you?  If it’s only the Bible, the preacher can reasonably be expected to answer that question.  He or she goes to seminary to learn how.  But what if God is really talking to us in other ways?  Then the preacher doesn’t know.  Only you know, because these are private conversations.

  • We must disenthrall ourselves, not from the Bible itself but from the exclusive devotion to a text that accepted slavery as normal, and therefore can be used to justify it.
  • From a text that somehow concluded that gender differences justified treating women as second-class people.
  • From the idea that love between two people who happen to be of the same sex is somehow perverted, sinful, unnatural.  Unnatural?  This despite the fact that nearly 300 species of mammals exhibit homosexual behavior regularly, as do thousands of non-mammalian species.  In other words, that seems rather natural.
  • That justified not just racism but also genocide and holocaust because God somehow loved only one race.

Now we know better, precisely because God has continued to speak.  A few of us, and then many more, have begun to listen.  It’s time to move on.  But to really move on, we must disenthrall ourselves from what we have so long believed – that God is separate from us and that the Biblical text is the only thing God has to say to us.

I’ll conclude with this quote by Terrence McKenna, from his book Eros and the Eschaton:

“The world is not an unsolved problem for scientists or sociologists; The world is a living mystery.  Our births, our deaths, our being in the moment – these are mysteries.

“These are doorways.  They are opening onto unimaginable vistas and mysteries.  Our culture has killed that.  Made us products of shoddy ideas and shoddy ideals.

“The hour is late; the clock is ticking.  We will be judged very harshly if we fumble the ball.  We are inheritors of millions upon millions of years of successfully lived lives and successful adaptations to changing conditions in the natural world.

“Now the challenge passes to us; it means that the yet-to-be-born will have a place to put their feet and a sky to walk under.

“There is nothing as capable of transforming the mind and the planet as the human imagination.  Let’s not sell it short.  Let’s not sell ourselves to nitwit ideologies; let’s not give our control over to the least among us.  Rather, claim your place in the sun and go forward into the light.

“The tools are there.

“The path is known.

“You simply have to turn your back on a culture that has gone sterile and dead, and get with the program of a living world.

“And a re-empowerment of the imagination.”

Will you please join me in prayer?