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Evolving Creation

Sermon - 2/15/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Genesis 1:1-5

The text is from Genesis 1, the first five verses:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.


Today's sermon, believe it or not, was written up yesterday in the Oregonian, complete with a picture of yours truly.  And just my luck, the Oregonian is no longer available in Eugene! 

Being the modest guy that I am, I called them up to order a couple of copies -- for every member of the church J. . . . . . .

Some may remember a number of years ago, Arci Royston who discovered a wonderful gift in art, and honored me by painting my portrait.  And then embarrassed me by making copies available to be sold to members of the church as a fundraiser.  I think we raised $10 J.  And that was from Greg Ybarra who said he needed something to scare the spiders out of his garage J.  So we still have copies available for anyone who needs to get rid of spiders, rodents, or other varmits.

At any rate, that article appeared in the "How to Live" section yesterday (so I've been told, as I haven't seen it).  It was about 'Evolution Sunday', and there's a project of Michael Zimmerman, a Disciples of Christ professor at Butler University (which is a Disciples school in Indianapolis), and I was one of those that signed up and said "yes", that's a topic I would preach on. 

Zimmerman has succeeded in collecting over 12,000 signatures from clergy affirming that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably co-exist.  The letter goes on to assert that 'evolution is a foundational scientific truth and urges school boards, therefore, to preserve the integrity of science curricula by teaching the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge, not merely as one theory among others'.  It concludes:  "We ask that science remain science, that religion remain religion, two very different but complementary forms of truth".

Of those 12,000 clergy who signed, over 1,000 said that they would preach on it this weekend, of course being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin this past Thursday.  There were 13 congregations in Oregon who signed up for it, two in Eugene, the other being the Synagogue Temple Beth Israel, with whom we are co-sponsoring the showing of the film on the life of Darwin and particularly on the religious beliefs of Darwin.

I also preached on this topic on the same weekend last year, and got one response just recently from that sermon (someone saw it on our web site), didn't particularly care for what I had to say.  By the way, that's still on the web site just in case someone missed that Sunday, or doesn't remember (God forbid you'd forget what I said a year ago J), and it has a lot of nice pictures that I'm not showing today.

Today, I wanted to take a different approach than the one I took last year.  Back to that Oregonian article that appeared yesterday, Nancy Haught (the reporter) called me over a week ago, seeing we were one of those churches that was going to focus on that theme.  Of course, wanted to quote me from my sermon.  Over a week ago. . . . . . I said "Yeah, right, I haven't even written the sermon for this coming Sunday and you want to quote me from a sermon from next week?"  If that were to happen, it would make the miracles of Jesus look like a cheap parlor trick J.  But, you know, she needed something, and I don't want to make Nancy a liar, so here's what I said that I would say (not often I get to quote myself):

"We should not fear the truth of science nor doubt the revelation of scripture.  There is no conflict between evolution and faith, no contradiction between Darwin's Origin of Species and the Bible's origin of creation.  One provides answers to how and when, the other gives us purpose and meaning.  Both point to the wonder of the world, the beauty of life, and the immense complexity and yet incredible harmony of the universe".

So there you go [applause from the congregation].  Thank you.  I have no clue as to whether or not that's what they printed!  For all I know, they may have messed it all up, you know how that can be sometimes. 

Did I mention, by the way, that you can't find the Oregonian in Eugene?  There are at least 37 places where you can buy newspapers and none of them carry the Oregonian on Saturday.  Not that I would count J.  Being a smart guy, I quit counting after 36. . . . . 

But whatever they printed yesterday, I did receive 2 responses already, via E-mail.  Both graduates of Northwest Christian College.  One said:

"I join fellow Disciples in congratulating you on pursuing the fact that religion and science are not sworn enemies"

The second came from a graduate from 1969, who wrote:

"How can you, a man of the word, Biblically state that evolution is a scientific truth?  [Of course, I never did state - Biblically -- that].  You are denying the infallible truth of His word.  You either believe that the Bible is the infallible truth of God, or you don't."

I suspect he didn't agree with whatever it was they quoted me on, but I'm glad wrote because his message illustrates precisely why this is an important topic for us, and why Evolution Sunday should perhaps even be a regular event on the Church's calendar.  For the sad reality is that there are many people inside and outside the church who have a terrible misconception about science and faith in general, and about evolution and scripture in particular.  It causes them to believe that one must choose between the two.  What a terrible thing, that we force people to make that kind of choice.

Folks, when that is the popular understanding of Christianity, we will lose the battle between faith and science.  It is important, then, for us to first of all understand why they do not conflict, and secondly to make it known that one does not have to reject the revelation of scripture in order to accept the revelation of science (or the other way around).

The Reverend Henry Green, Pastor of the Southern Baptist church in Annapolis, also preaching on evolution this morning (one of the 1,000 who signed up for it) told National Public Radio in a story that aired on Wednesday:

"Fundamentalists want to take people away from real science and put on some sort of bogus discussion about intelligent design or creationism.  Well, guess what:  I believe God created.  But I just happen to believe that the scientists have it right in understanding that creation"

I wonder how many E-mails he got, especially being a Southern Baptist (not what you'd normally expect to hear).

In the same story, Tim Bagwell, Pastor of the Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon, Georgia, says that whenever he preaches on a topic like this, he always hears from a few members of the congregation who say things like "Why haven't you told us this before?  I've had all these questions for all of these years and no one has ever talked to me, or given me permission to ask the questions that have been deep down inside my soul".

How sad it is when people do not have permission to ask those kinds of questions in church.

So let's be clear:  you should never be afraid to ask those kinds of questions.  Even when, or especially when, you think they may in some way be contrary to Christian faith.

Here's the principle that I would like to put forward for this discussion, and it comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Christian theologian of course martyred at the end of World War II in Germany.  It was while reading a book in prison on modern physics that he wrote:

"It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge.  We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know ".

So keep that principle in mind -- we are to find God in what we know as we consider what we have learned about our world through the eyes of Darwin and his theory of natural selection.

Darwin of course was no scientist when he set foot on the HMS Beagle when it left Great Britain in 1832 to survey the coast of South America.  He was only 22 years old.  Had just completed his education in preparation to become a pastor in a parish church in Britain.  The captain of the Beagle wanted someone who would be an intelligent dinner partner on this long voyage -- 5 years.  Don't know what that says of his opinion of his shipmates, but at any rate, he invited the bright young Darwin to join him on this voyage.

Darin, to make himself useful, became the naturalist of the voyage, and began collecting specimens at every port, making detailed drawings, writing down his observations of what he observed.  And it was not until years later when they returned to Britain and he shared his discoveries with botanists and zoologists and the like in Britain that he learned the significance of much of what he had observed.  And he then devoted his life to studying that, spent 22 more years in contemplation and research before he published his findings in the Origin of Species that was released in 1859.

His arguments were so convincing that American historian George Marsden says that within 20 years, by the early 1870s, virtually every American protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution.  The great French theologian, also a scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, summed up the importance of evolution when he said:  "Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow".

Building on de Chardin, the highly respected geneticist who is responsible for the whole field of evolutionary genetics, a Russian Orthodox Christian, immigrated to this country in the 1930s, Theodosius Dobzhansky, published an essay in 1973 entitled "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution".

To deny the validity of evolution, or to require that it be taught as one theory among other theories, would be like teaching that gravity is just one theory to explain why it is that things that go up must come down.  And it's in light of that centrality to modern science that when Christians are seen as the only ones objecting to the teaching of evolution in public schools, is it any wonder that so many outside of the church regard Christian faith and scripture as being opposed to modern science?

And sadly, what rarely gets in the news is that leading thinkers in both science and religion have said repeatedly that evolution and faith are not incompatible at all.  Darwin himself said one could be an ardent theist and evolutionist.  Pope Pius the 12th, in 1950, said evolution was a valid scientific approach to the development of humans.  John Paul II, in 1996, called it more than a hypothesis.

Dobzhansky said that he was both a creationist and an evolutionist.  And he says:  "It is a blunder to mistake the holy scripture for elementary textbooks in Astronomy, Geology, Biology, and Anthropology".  A blunder because it results in a deceitful God who creates evidence, evidently for no other purpose than to deceive us.  And those who claim God would do such, Dobzhansky says, are committing blasphemy.

The better choice, he says, as both a scientist and a Christian, is to see God's hand at work through evolution.

Dennis Alexander, who is researcher and biochemist, in a new book calls this 'evolutionary creationism', in a new book entitled "Creation or Evolution:  Do We Have to Choose?".  He says:  "Once evolution is perceived as simply the method God has chosen to create living things -- no more, no less -- then it ceases to be a 'boogey man', and it takes its place among all the other wonders of God's creation".

I know evolution is not the grand unifying theory that explains everything in the Universe, it has its gaps.  But those gaps get smaller and smaller as the development of science fill in the holes.  For instance, the current issue of National Geographic has a cover story on 'What Darwin Didn't Know' that talks about new developments in science that confirm Darwin's theory of natural selection.  For instance, one of the discoveries is that the gene responsible for the development of the jaws of fish in Lake Victoria in Africa is the same gene responsible for the development of the beaks of the Finches on the Galapagos Island that Darwin observed.  And so the author of the article says:

"What better evidence for Darwin's belief in the commonality of all species than to find the same gene, doing the same job, in birds and fish, continents apart".

Alexander, in his book, concludes:  "As evolutionary creationists, we can be confident that whatever new things science may uncover, they can be received gladly and will bring yet further glory to God the creator of all things".

And by the way, this really is nothing new.  Augustine, 1,500 years ago, said nature is what God does.  And so Dobzhansky concludes "Evolution is God's [or Nature's -- same thing] method of creation".

The point is simply we don't have to reject evolution to believe in God as the Creator of the world.  In fact, when you make the rejection of evolution as necessary to believe the truth of the Bible, the result will be less people who believe in the Bible, not more.

So what do we do then, with texts like Genesis 1, the story of 6 days of creation?

Go back farther than Augustine.  Origen, 1,700 years ago, known as "The Golden Tongue" for his gift of preaching.  Made this astute observation about creation stories (this is the middle of the 3rd century), he says:

"What man of intelligence, I ask, will consider that the first and second and third day, in which there is said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun, and moon, and stars? [which were created on the 4th day]

And who could be found so silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted trees in a paradise East of Eden? [that's Genesis 2:8 in the second creation story -- there are two different creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2.  And so Origen states what I think most of us would see as obvious:

"I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history"


And St. Augustine held very similar views.  So if patriarchs of the church, so influential in the development of Christian theology held those kinds of views 1,700 years ago, how did we get to these popular notions of a 6-day creation?

It turns out that literal interpretation of Genesis 1 did not emerge until the modern era.  And did not become widespread until the beginning of the 20th century with the rise of fundamentalism as a response to Darwin.

So then, we come full circle back to Darwin, and with him I want to close.  The very last line of his book, The Origin of Species, says:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with it's 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 simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved".

How ironic and tragic that Darwin, believing that his work revealed the glory and the grandeur of the work of God would instead be rejected by so many as opposing God.

To find God in what we know, as Bonhoeffer said, is to trust that the more we come to understand how nature works, how biology works, how chemistry works, how genetics works, how evolution works, the more we will understand God.

Now will such reveal all that there is to know of God?  Of course not.  That's why we have scripture.  Stories of Jesus.  The workings of the Holy Spirit.  Things that we will never learn from science can be found here, just as things we can never learn from scripture can be found in science.  To reveal God to us.

And when read together, not in competition or in conflict but in harmony, creation and evolution, faith and science, will teach us much more about God than we will ever learn alone.

So let us then embrace both.  And celebrate on this 200th birthday of Charles Darwin the wonder, the grandeur, the beauty of God's evolving creation.

Knowing perhaps that God rested on the 7th day not because God was finished but because God had just begun.


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