When Good Science and Good Theology Meet by Pat Conover

A new dawn I am pleased that Seekers chose to participate in the nationwide program named Evolution Sunday. More than 500 other congregations are similarly involved this morning. You can learn more about the Evolution Sunday effort and about the Clergy Letters project by looking up Evolution Sunday on the web.

A major impetus behind Evolution Sunday as well as the regional chapter of the Alliance for Science, which Richard Lawrence helped to start, has been to rally religious support for the teaching of good science, including evolution, in the public schools. I support the systemic advocacy that is part of defending good science against bad theology but this sermon is going in a little bit different direction.

What does good science have to contribute to good theology? I have exemplified my answer to that question in my book Transgender Good News. The early chapters of the book review the contributions of physiology, psychology and sociology to the understanding of transgender experience and expression. That review then serves to ground practical, political and finally theological commentary. I am currently writing about general issues in the relationship between science and theology. I thank John Morris and Raj Roy, among others, for providing some helpful feedback.

Relax. This sermon is not going to turn into an executive summary of my formal reflections on the philosophy of science. Instead, the sermon will explore what is at stake for Seekers in the challenge to affirm good science as one valuable landmark for living our lives and being good stewards of the world we share. Even for those of you feel science impaired, those of you who do not even know what the speed of dark is, I hope you will find something helpful this morning.

I invite you to give fresh attention to the first 12 verses of the first creation story in Genesis as presented in the Revised English Bible. One of the reasons I love the first creation story so much is that it begins with a reference to baseball.

In the big inning…

All right, here is the straight over the plate reading.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was a vast waste, darkness covered the face of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water. God said, "Let there be light, and there was light," and God saw that the light was good, and he separated the darkness from the light. He called the light day and the darkness he called night. So evening came and morning came; it was the first day.

God said, "Let there be a vault between the waters, to separate water from water." So God made the vault, and separated the waters under the vault from the waters above it, and so it was; and God called the vault the heavens. Evening came and morning came, the second day.

God said, "Let the waters under the heavens be gathered into one place, so that dry land may appear"; and so it was. God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters he called sea; and God saw that it was good.

Then God said, "Let the earth produce growing things; let there be on the earth plants that bear seed, and trees bearing fruit each with its own kind of seed." So it was, the earth produced growing things: plants bearing their own kind of seed and trees bearing fruit, each with its own kind of fruit, each with its own kind of seed; and God saw that it was good.

The first creation story in Genesis fits well with the observations available to people in the Fifth Century b.c.e. and shows the hunger of people to understand the world they live in. It was good science for that time. However, good science is humble, and though the historical path was rocky, in part because of meddling by Christendom, the scientific view of creation has changed repeatedly. It has changed in significant ways within my lifetime and the enigma of dark matter poses questions that are likely to lead to further important changes. The "speed of dark" is not an entirely humorous ploy.

While the first creation story can be read as good science for its day, what is really at stake is a theological perspective that offer good guidance whatever the shifts in good scientific theories about creation, including the theory of evolution. Shedding the distractions of flat earth literalism can help us see and appreciate this good guidance even more. It makes me sad that the effort to defend the Bible as if it were a science textbook serves to distract proponents and opponents alike from the good news to be found in the first creation story.  

Let us notice a couple of things from the first creation story. First, we are told that God made everything, even the chaos of the depths of the sea, a terrifying image for the land based, nomadic, Hebrews. This is a unified sense of creation, a creation in which everything fits together, a creation in which the sun and the moon are not separate Gods. This unified view has in turn raised the question, "If God is good, why did God make mosquitoes, or cancer, or floods…?" In our recent theology class, I proposed that the most helpful way of picking up such a question is to work on it from the inside out, recognizing that we are but creatures. Ask any of the students in that class and I am sure they can fill in all the details. (Humor)

A second thing to notice is that the priestly author of this story is highly concerned about food. Here we are to learn that God created certain kinds of plants that are good for food. Later we are told that certain kinds of animals are appropriate for food. We could try to pick this up as guidance for our diet but the key point here is that the first creation story tells us that God has provided what we need to have a good life.

A third thing to notice is that the priestly author uses the framework of a seven-day week to tell the story, noting that God rested on the seventh day. This is in keeping with the creation by the priests of one of the most precious labor laws of all time, the Sabbath as a day of rest. When the labor unions say that they created the weekend we remember that the Jews created Saturday as a day of rest and Christians came along and created Sunday as a day of rest. Moreover, remember that the Sabbath was a time of rest for bondservants and sojourners as well. The key theological point is that life is about more than survival or domination.

While we are but creatures, the world has possibilities that allow us to become very special kinds of creatures. Creating Sabbath was one step on the journey to claiming our specialness.

The last thing I want to note from the first creation story is that the priestly authors saw that the world that was made was good, including you and me. It is the second creation story, not the first, that presents the story of Adam and Eve, the story of the Fall. The second story is an attempt to take God off the hook for the bad things in life and assign guilt to human beings for screwing things up. Several million sermons have been preached on that subject. Some of them probably are good sermons. This sermon will not be the several millionth and oneth.

The first creation story poses perhaps the most fundamental theological question in Judeo-Christian theology. Can you and I be thankful for the life we have been given and the world we have been given to live in? Given the challenges that I presented in my recent sermon on "Seeing What You Don’t Want To See," that is not an easy question.

Some have said that life is not a good gift and have committed suicide. I had some attraction to that answer when I was a teenager. Some have said that life is not a good gift and have given up on a passionate engagement of life, distracting themselves with addictions of one kind or another or by giving in to depression.. Others have propped up idols and called them gods in their secret hearts: consumption, success, glory, duty, power, money. One of my favorite jokes of all time is that "the one who dies with the most toys wins." Some refuse to be thoughtful or caring about the ways they lead their lives. They settle for various versions of distraction or drift, including vaguely trying to be a good person as long as that is not too dangerous or too painful.

How about you? Do you feel that the life you have been given, and the world you have been given to live it in, is fundamentally good?

I rather like the answer of Jesus. He looked at the things that are hard to look at and chose a course that held onto what was good, what was loving, what was healing, what was possible and positive even in the midst of oppression and hardship. He followed his path even though it led to an early and painful death.

Which brings me to the question of how evolution can help us understand, or at least engage, the question about whether creation, in and of itself, is good, whether it makes sense to celebrate our lives and the world we live in as good. If you believe God is the creator then you need to think about the reality that God created, and is creating, through evolution. Just realizing that creation is ongoing is a substantial challenge to the philosophies of determinism that dominated early modern science and the theologies, like Calvin’s theology of predestination, that responded to such a deterministic worldview.

There is not time to trace the development of the theory of evolution over the last 150 plus years. If you are interested, you can ask a question about that in the discussion after worship. Suffice it to say that in the decades since Darwin published The Origin of Species there have been explosions of discoveries that bear on basic evolution theory and that the core ideas have held up very well. I do not mean social Darwinism in which evolution theory has been held up as a metaphor for understanding human societies. I mean more specifically the evolutionary emergence of life on earth and its many transformations and developments.

For me, the key theme to focus on in evolutionary theory is the emergence of possibility. Focusing on the emergence of possibility is having a major impact on the philosophical foundations of science. It is a focus that fundamentally challenges the adequacy of a purely deterministic science that tries to explain everything and anything as a whole being the sum of its parts. Evolutionary theory asserts that the whole is more than the sum of its parts new assemblies of parts release new potentials that were previously hidden.

Empirical science is all about creative and careful seeing as a way of testing theories. This approach has led to wonderful breakthroughs and insights. But a science based on seeing has the limit of being required to study what is manifest, what is observable. No matter the technological sophistication of the seeing, all that can be seen is what is already formed. When something fundamentally new comes along, like life, we can observe it and reason about how it is related to its constituent parts, but we cannot observe the life in the parts. Something new has happened that could not previously be observed. A new aspect of creation has come into view.  

The theory of evolution puts the concept of emergence on equal footing with the concept of determination.

The second major theme that I want to work with is about the place of human beings in the unfolding of evolution. There is a lot of distracting scientific and theological wishful thinking in the positions of the fundamentalist creationists. However, let us focus on the emotional heart of their outcry. They want to feel a special relationship to God and do not want to hear that such experience is irrelevant. This is an emotional point, an existential point, where we can have some heart-to-heart conversation instead of metaphysical sparring.

There is nothing about evolution that says you cannot have a felt relationship with God. In fact, there is more room for understanding such a relationship in evolutionary theory than there is in the old-fashioned determinism it has helped to displace or at least qualify. The way creation works in general, and particularly the way evolution of life works in particular, points to the emergence of unseen potentials. One such potential is the ability to feel a hunger for God.

Creationists balk emotionally at the idea that human being have animal ancestors that were not human beings. The language that human being descended from apes, and for that matter from worms, is heard by creationists in the context of a deterministic worldview that leads them to conclude that there can be nothing special or distinctive about human beings if evolution is true. However, evolutionary theory breaks such simple determinism. Human beings make manifest some realities that are mere shadows in some other animals, are opaque in worms, and invisible in grains of sand.

Is there anything dehumanizing about the fact of eating and digestion? Plants gather hidden potentials in soil and sun and water and make that available to human beings as food. The dirt and the water, reorganized by plants, become further reorganized through digestion so the dirt and the water becomes part of every person. At the level of chemical analysis, such parts are every person. It is in the reorganization that personhood emerges, the reorganization of digestion and the reorganization of evolution.

Dirt and water can become parts of us. Of what can we become parts? What can we create, what can we help become manifest in our relationships with each other? Our thinking, our caring, our artistic creativity, all lure us into the shared mystery that is larger than we are. Properly appreciated, we do not need to feel we have cut a special deal with God. The deal everyone has is a good one, if you can see it, if you can risk your way into it, if you can do your inner work and shape your life accordingly.

The theological challenge is that we all need to accept the fact that we are creatures and not God. As Paul put it, now we see in a mirror dimly. Paul projects that after we die we will see more clearly, that we will be face-to-face with God. Here, here and now, we see dimly. We are given enough light for each step of our journeys and we can help each other stumble along together. Sometimes we can even dance with bears.

Part of the light we have is science in general and evolutionary theory in particular. It helps us see some aspects of what we are and what our world is like. We should be thankful for this light. We honor such light the most when we see it for what it is and dishonor it when we turn it into another idol, when we think that the powers we have gained from science make us gods, or make us so powerful we can forget about God.

Instead, the power that science is unleashing makes it even more important that we share in the work of creating and sustaining a society, a world, that can make such power a blessing and not a curse. That requires a lot of ethical work, a lot of political work, a lot of social and cultural imagination. First, it requires a lot of theological and spiritual work that begins with the following kinds of questions. "Are you thankful for your life? Are you thankful for the world you live in? Will you live out of such gratitude? Will you be as generous and caring with others as God has been generous and caring with you? Without turning away from seeing so much that is truly terrible, disgusting, outrageous; will you give thanks for the light that lures you toward the best potentials God makes available?

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