Sermon: Science as Epiphany – An Observance of Evolution Weekend
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 6.1-13; Psalm 138; I Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11
Although it is the season of epiphany, many churches choose to observe the second weekend in February as Evolution Weekend. Thus far, over 16,300 clergy from numerous faith expressions and world religions have signed the Clergy Letter Project, “an endeavor designed to demonstrate that religion and science can be compatible and to elevate the quality of the debate of this issue” (http://www.theclergyletterproject.org/ ).
Last week, I mused that it would be interesting to see if I could integrate the themes of evolution and epiphany. My comment promoted some post-service conversation over coffee which stimulated further action. Chuck Berry promptly e-mailed Peter Sawtell, the founder and Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries. Chuck explained my desire to integrate epiphany with evolution, and Peter Sawtell replied with several suggestions, a couple of which coincided with some of my earlier thinking. You might consider today’s sermon as a collaborative effort with due thanks to Chuck Berry and Peter Sawtell. Of course, if they would rather not have their names associated with what I have come up with, I can live with that!
Permit me to begin by sharing a few underlying presuppositions. First, I believe in God as the Creator and Sustainer, but I do not believe the Genesis account of creation is to be understood literally. My view of creation encompasses both the Big Bang and evolution. Perhaps my view should be called “crevolution”, for it views creation and evolution as interwoven ongoing processes initiated by the same Creator.
Second, I believe that all truth is God’s truth; as such, all truth coheres. When two truths appear to contradict, I believe the contradiction rests in our lack of insight or our inability to fully comprehend.
Third, I believe every belief, regardless of origination, whether scientific or religious, is subject to investigation, criticism, and revision. As humans created in the image of God, gifted with the power of reason and observation, we perceive in part and we know in part. Well-educated persons recognize the limits of their knowledge; they should be humbled by awareness of what they do not know or understand. In I Corinthians 13.12, Paul reminds us, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NRSV).
We need to recognize the fundamental nature of the differences between science and faith. Science and faith operate on very different planes of existence. Scientific truth is objective – subject to observation and verification; in contrast, religious truth is deeply inward (subjective); perhaps the best objective evidence we have for religious truth is to be found in lives that have been transformed through religious belief.
Furthermore, in the Christian faith, as Kierkegaard observes, we are confronted by truth as paradox: “the eternal truth has come into being in time” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 187). That is, God has become incarnate through Jesus Christ.
The epistemological bases, that is the means of acquiring knowledge, of science and faith are radically different. Some would make science a religion; others would make religion a science. I believe both attempts fail to understand the radical differences in epistemology. Attempts to elevate science to religious status are just as ill-informed as attempts to reduce faith and theology to a science.
Although science and religion are radically different, the truths of each are not totally disparate. If all truth is God’s truth, one should have every reason to expect that truths of science will inform matters of faith, and, conversely, matters of faith will inform truths of science. Let’s briefly look at some examples.
First, for centuries, the Church accepted the classical Aristotelian geocentric view that the heavens revolved around the earth which was fixed. After all, Psalm 93.1 assures us, “The Lord is king . . . He has established the world; it shall never be moved” (NRSV). Psalm 96.10 and I Chronicles 16.30 reiterate this view. Psalm 104.5 tells us “God set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken” (NRSV) while Ecclesiastes 1.5 tells us, “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises” (NRSV).
These verses reflect an ancient world view, yet when Galileo proposed a heliocentric view of the universe grounded in astronomical observations by means of the newly invented telescope, an Inquisitorial commission in 1616 deemed the view heretical and declared heliocentrism to be “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei ). Under Pope Paul V, Galileo was sentenced to imprisonment which was commuted to house arrest under which he remained for the remainder of his life. He was ordered “to abandon completely…the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing” (Ibid). In 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was named Pope Urban VIII. Barberini was a friend and admirer of Galileo’s work and had earlier opposed his condemnation. In 1632 Galileo was permitted to publish his Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems (Ibid). In this instance Galileo, a scientist, corrected the work of an earlier scientist and philosopher, Aristotle, and in the process informed the belief of the Church such that it altered a long-held view of the mechanics of our solar system.
Second, many scientists have advocated materialism – the “theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/materialism). In contrast, religion has long held to classical dualism which postulates the existence of matter and minds. The new physics calls both positions into question. Sir John Polkinghorne, a noteworthy British physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest, now postulates a single substance capable of two aspects (the mental and the material) which are deeply related in a complementary manner. This position is called dual aspect theory. So, on this account, how does Polkinghorne look at the soul? He states,
The soul ... is conceived of as the information-bearing pattern carried by the matter of the body, a revival in modern dress of the Aristotelian-Thomistic idea of the soul as the form of the body. It is claimed to be a coherent hope that God will hold that pattern in the divine memory following its dissolution at death, and then finally restore a person's full humanity through the re-embodiment of the soul in the final great act of resurrection (The God of Hope and the End of the World, in https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/53245/how-does-john-polkinghorne-define-the-soul).
Recent advances in string theory postulate the existence of ten dimensions plus time – dimensions are contained within dimensions. This view may well corroborate dual aspect theory. In case you are feeling lost at this point, recognize you are not alone! I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of these theories. But we must recognize that theologians and physicists are working more closely than ever before – they are searching for mutual enlightenment. They seek an epiphany!
A third area I will briefly mention is associated with the French anthropologist Rene Girard. I have previously alluded to Girard’s work as it relates to imitation and our propensity for violence resulting in sacrifice. More and more theologians are calling into question the old penal substitutionary theory of atonement in which an angry and wrathful God demands a blood sacrifice to restore righteousness. As we know, the system of sacrifice lay at the center of Jewish temple practices. Given this system, is it any wonder that we came to interpret Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to appease an angry God? Yet a close reading of the prophets and the psalms reveal that God desires justice and righteousness as opposed to sacrifice (Amos 5.21; Isaiah 1.11-17). In his prayer seeking forgiveness for his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, David cries out, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51.17; NRSV). Was Jesus sacrificed for the purpose of appeasing an angry and wrathful God or did Jesus willingly lay down his life for the purpose of revealing a new way of life which counters a world of violence? Here the science of anthropology may serve to inform our understanding of the faith.
It is time to wrap this up. Think of it – every scientific discovery is an epiphany! Science helps us to understand the inner workings of God’s creation. Science and faith both serve to inform our understanding of human life and our search for meaning. Like Peter, Jesus calls us to get into the boat, to move a short distance out on the water and to listen to his teaching. Most of us are perfectly content to remain near the shore in the safety of the shallows of literalism and certainty. But Jesus calls us to deep waters and bids us lower our nets for a catch. Like Peter, we often object – Lord, I have fished these waters all night and have caught nothing! Do it, Peter! Trust me. Just do it! When we fish in deep waters, like Peter, we may be amazed at the catch. We may be so amazed that we fall on our knees before Jesus, and say, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5.8b; NRSV). Yet Jesus would lead us into all truth, would have us become fishers of men; Jesus welcomes us to a new way of life.