You Have Heard It Said…
Read Matthew 5:21-37
In several places in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s Jesus begins, “You have heard it said…”, referring to the commandments. If he was speaking to us today, he might begin the same way, “You have heard it said…”, and he might pick something from the Bible, orthodox Christianity, a common belief of popular religion or some other commonly held belief. Though the belief might be valid, as were the commandments in his day, belief in any religious tenet, any law or the words of Scripture is not going to be enough to cover every eventuality, and when the belief becomes part of an ideology it can even be dangerous. St. John wrote his gospel so that, in believing in Jesus, we may have life (20:31), but the Sermon on the Mount suggests we need to go beyond the rules to the wisdom that lies behind the rules in order to find the life Jesus called ‘eternal’.
I raise this because Wednesday is the 211th birthday of Charles Darwin, and so today we celebrate, with hundreds of churches around the world, Evolution Sunday, an observance now in its 14th year.
As you might imagine, Evolution Sunday began in the U.S., where the battle between religion and science, and specifically between evolution and various forms of creationism, being waged today is more rancorous than it was over 150 years ago when Darwin published his On the Origin of Species. Although some of those on the creationist side are incredibly vocal, from a religious perspective they are clearly out of the mainstream, and present a distorted image of Christianity to the world, so it is appropriate for the majority view to be heard once in a while. On this subject, Jesus might say, “You have heard it said God created the world and all that is in it in 6 days, but I say to you…”
Though I doubt evolution is an issue for any of you, Evolution Sunday is a good time to address the key issue underlying the debate: the image of God.
Before I entered the ministry, I worked as a scientist and engineer, having earned my first degree in physics, so the relationship of science and religion holds a particular interest for me. This interest was excited by one of the very first books I ever read on theology: a thin book, but thick with ideas, entitled Nature and God. I had borrowed it from the library, and I was so grabbed by it, I immediately tried to buy a copy, only to find out that it was no longer in print.
Nevertheless, the author, L. Charles Birch, former Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney, has been a valuable travelling companion on my personal theological journey these past 40+ years. As a scientist and theologian, he did for me what I have tried to do for others throughout my ministry; he freed me from thinking that, in order to be a Christian, I had to believe things that were, to my scientific mind, unbelievable.
The very first sentence in Birch’s book is: “The concept of God’s operations in the universe as a series of fitful interventions from a supernatural sphere overlaying the natural is quite unacceptable to science”.While the third sentence said: “On the other hand, the traditional thinking of science, sometimes called mechanism, is quite unreconcilable with any reasoned Christian position.” Only bad science and bad theology conflict. Good science and good theology do not.
Since reading Birch way back then, the relationship between science and religion, has remained with me!
On the relationship between science and religion, three major views exist:
- the ‘conflict’ view – that science and religion are inherently, and perpetually, in opposition;
- the ‘contrast’ view – that science and religion are different because they ask different questions;
- the ‘integration’ view – that science and religion can be integrated into a self-consistent worldview.
Unfortunately, what emanates from too many pulpits is more likely to represent the ‘conflict’ view than the ‘integration’ view. Which is why, on Evolution Sunday, I want to speak personally about God.
‘G-o-d’ is a symbol or word known and used by nearly everyone who speaks the English language. But it is also a word which has many uses and meanings attached to it; so many, in fact, that it is rendered almost meaningless for the purposes of effective communication.
The late Prof. Robert Anderson, one of the authors of the Basis of Union and the Principal of the Theological Hall when I was a student, was of the opinion that the future of the church hinged on its image of God; or more specifically, it’s ability to convey a concept of God that is meaningful to a modern, educated society.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines the word ‘God’ as: “the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe”. This way of speaking theologically is called ‘classical theism’. This ‘God’ is supernatural, interventionist, and nearly always couched in male anthropological language and images.
This is the way many people, perhaps including many of you, still think when they hear the word ‘God’. If it works for you, this is fine, but this way of thinking doesn’t work for me, nor does it work for many people today. Primitive cultures had a very limited understanding of how the world works, so for them, much of their existence was worryingly inexplicable, and to have a supernatural being in charge of it all, particularly a benign one, was a comfort. Humans now understand how most things work in terms of natural law. We don’t need the comfort of supernatural being in charge of it all, and for God to make sense to scientifically literate people, theology is advised not contradict what we know scientifically.
Over the years my thinking has, and continues, to change.
- I have come to think of God as the creative process or ‘creativity’, rather than a being who creates, and
- I prefer, in the main, to use non-personal metaphors rather than personal ones.
There was a fuss in the United Church of Canada a few years ago because one of its ministers declared she was an atheist. She was making a point. Just as the prefix “a’ in asymmetrical means non-symmetrical, and the “a” in amoral means non-moral, so the “a” in atheist means non-theist. An atheist is not one who does not believe in G-o-d; rather, one who rejects the theist image of God. In these terms, I, too, am an atheist, as are many of my colleagues in ministry and a fair number of lay people, including at least a few of you.
The thoughts of many others have interacted with my own thinking, including those positively influenced by the work of Charles Darwin and his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species.
In that book Darwin suggested that the world/universe was:
- unfinished and continuing
- involved chance events and struggle, and
- natural selection took the place of design according to a preordained divine blueprint.
Put another way: In the beginning was creativity and the creativity was with God, and the creativity was God. All things came into being through the mystery of creativity; apart from creativity nothing would have come into being. (John 1:1)
Today, we have mentally constructed another universe. Both in science and in religion/theology.
In science, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the earth’s age is approximately 4.5 billion years. While the universe, that whole complex, interrelated and interacting matter-energy in space-time of which humans are an integral part, is approximately 14 billion years old.
It is hard to grasp such a large number, but to give you some perspective, imagine if our fourteen-billion-year universe was created in one day, starting at midnight. On this scale, Homo Sapiens would appear in only the last second and a half before the next midnight…at 11:59:58.5.
Modern science is saying and has been saying again and again: the universe must be regarded as a whole; it is of intrinsic value, and each part – galaxy, organism, individual atom – participates in that intrinsic value as each part participates in this wonderful web of life; each part, rather than one species or organism separating itself out as more important than the rest.
As for the world of religion/theology; the ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former Harvard Divinity School professor, Gordon Kaufman, presents God as a non-personal ‘serendipitous creativity’, “manifest throughout the cosmos instead of as a kind of cosmic person. We humans are deeply embedded in, and basically sustained by, this creative activity in and through the web of life on planet Earth.”
A growing number of people around the world, religious and scientifically minded, and conscious of this ‘web within a web of life’, are recognising that our modern life-style, which has been heavily influenced by a traditional Judeo-Christian faith is:
- harming other creatures,
- diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and
- altering global climate patterns.
The earth is under assault…by us! Indeed, we are killing our very own life support system in a manner unprecedented in human history. And yet most of us go about our daily lives more or less blissfully indifferent to the devastation, and unfortunately, our religion has been an unwitting accomplice in humanity’s crime against the earth. We, the end product of 14 billion years of evolution, having arrived a mere second and half at the end of creation’s day, now have the power to shift the course of evolution. We find ourselves, for better or worse, co-creators with God, so it is utterly crucial that we have an image of God that helps us to function in a positive way for the sake of this planet.
Modern religious thought calls each and every one of us to live in harmony with our world. A progressive Christianity names the creativity which indwells and sustains all life forms – galaxy, organism or individual atom – ‘G-o-d’ or ‘the sacred’ or ‘serendipitous creativity’. And this creativity works within you and me. We bear the responsibility for its ongoing unfolding as we choose to work with it or against it. And don’t minimise your role; the choice you make is at work far beyond your own personal horizons.
You, as an individual, live for but a few decades, but you are also an intricate part of a culture that is millennia old, and your influence as part of this culture will continue long after you’re gone. You are also part of a species that has had an inordinate effect upon the planet for a quarter of a million years, and which could go on for millions of years more if we manage to avoid destroying ourselves. Finally, you and I and every living thing are part of the cosmos, literally made of the same stardust over the past 14 billion years, and you will be part of the universe forever. Nature is in us as much as we are nature.
As Karl Peters says: “We are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and cosmos… As webs of reality each of us is a manifestation of a larger part of the universe as a whole… We contain in us… after many cosmic, biological, and cultural transformations, the radiation that was present at the origin of the universe.”
Forget the artificial debate between science and religion. There is no conflict. The evolutionary epic is a religious world view. All of this and more, is why, on Evolution Sunday, we need to think about God.