February 12, 2017

Evolution Sunday

Ursula Goodenough
When the responses elicited by the Epic of Evolution are gathered together, several religious principles emerge that can, I believe, serve as a framework for a global Ethos.

We are all each one of us, ordained to live out our lives in the context of ultimate questions, such as:

Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing?
Where did the laws of physics come from?
Why does the universe seem so strange?

My response to such questions has been to articulate a covenant with Mystery. Others, of course, prefer to respond with answers, answers that often include a concept of god. These answers are by definition beliefs since they can neither be proven nor refuted. They may be gleaned from existing faith traditions or from personal search. God may be apprehended as a remote Author without present-day agency, or as an interested Presence with whom one can form a relationship, or as pantheistic—Inherent in All Things.

The opportunity to develop personal beliefs in response to questions of ultimacy, including the active decision to hold no Beliefs at all, is central to the human experience. The important part, I believe, is that the questions be openly encountered. To take the universe on—to ask Why Are Things As They Are? –is to generate the foundation for everything else.

Gospel of Thomas 2
Jesus said, “The seeker should not stop until she finds. When she does find, she will be disturbed. After having been disturbed, she will be astonished. Then she will reign over everything.”

Ursula Goodenough
William James: “At bottom, the whole concern of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe.”

The manner of our acceptance. It can be disappointed and resentful; it can be passive and acquiescent; or it can be the active response we call assent. When my awe at how life works gives way to self-pity because it doesn’t work the way I would like, I call on assent—the age-old religious response to self-pity, as in “Why, Lord? Why This? Why ME?” and then, “Thy Will Be Done.”

As a religious naturalist I say “What Is, Is” with the same bowing of the head, the same bending of the knee. Which then allows me to say “Blessed Be to What Is” with thanksgiving. To give assent is to understand, incorporate, and then let go. With the letting go comes that deep sigh we call relief, and relief allows the joy-of-being-alive-at-all to come tumbling forth again.

Assent is a dignified word. Once it is freely given one can move fluidly within it.

This summer the Presbyterian Church USA held its General Assembly in Portland. The assembly approved a measure that started at this church. Southminster’s session sent an overture to Cascades Presbytery requesting it to endorse the Clergy Letter Project and send the overture to the General Assembly for approval.

At the General Assembly before 70 or so committee members, our own Kathleen Huddleston advocated for the overture with an eloquent and elegant speech. You can read her speech on my blog. The committee approved the measure and it went on to the general assembly plenary where it was approved by a large margin.

The Clergy Letter Project was a dream of one individual, Michael Zimmerman, a professor of ecology who is now the vice president for academic affairs at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. Michael Zimmerman has been on the front lines of the battle against alternative facts for a long time especially in matters related to teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools as science.

He thought if he could get churches and their leaders, particularly clergy to publicly sign a letter and go on record as supporters of science, particularly evolutionary theory, then it might help in the battle over the hearts and minds of people of faith. Since he began the project in 2006 over 13,000 clergy have signed the letter. This letter was endorsed this year by the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly. I will read the text:

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. 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, Christian clergy 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. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

That is the clergy letter endorsed this summer by the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is relevant and timely. Less than two weeks ago, on February 1st, the Texas State Board of Education ignored the recommendations of a panel of educators and scientists to remove creationism from its standards. In Texas, since 2009, science teachers are required when teaching evolution to spend time offering alternative creationist junk science as part of the curriculum. Every year actual scientists recommend that the board stop this nonsense. The Board, made up of politicians, refuses these recommendations and panders to religious fundamentalists.

You can read the story on the Texas Freedom Network website. The Texas Freedom Network is a watchdog group in monitoring far right issues, money, and leaders, such as those who promote junk science in public schools.

Science is under attack. If we did not have grassroots organizations such as the Texas Freedom Network or the Clergy Letter Project and the awareness and activism that these and other organizations bring to the public, it could be much worse and not only in Texas. Thank you, Southminster, for standing up for science.

As part of my contract with you, I receive two weeks per year of study leave, for which I am very grateful. They are cumulative up to three years. Since I only used one week per year over the last two years, I have four weeks to use this year. Study leave is like a personal retreat. It isn’t vacation. It is feed the soul and mind time.

I spent last week at Menucha Conference Center near Corbett, reading and planning the worship services for 2017. In March, I will go to the Westar annual meeting. That is the Jesus Seminar. I am deciding on how to use the two remaining weeks this year.

This past week as I planned the worship services I decided to connect them with reading the Bible cover to cover in 2017. I thought about a few things that I want to share with you to set this up.

First, I want to have a conversation with you about what the Bible is and what it isn’t. What does the Bible do for us? What did it used to do for us? How has our view of it changed? How do we read it? Why do we read it? Why do we meet once a week and read selections from it in worship? I am not asking that dismissively. I am asking what our relationship is with this book or this collection of books and is this relationship evolving? These questions will be ongoing.

Second, I want to have a conversation with you about what is reliable information. What is the scientific method? How do we navigate through misinformation and disinformation from those in power? I am confident that the way to sustain resistance to fascist movements is through evidence-based information and public knowledge as opposed to private beliefs and partisan politics. This applies to politics and to religion.

I have discovered in my nearly 25 years of ministry with four congregations and with the larger church that many people would rather believe than know. This is not just in the context of church but in the context of politics as well. We would rather believe things about ourselves than know the truth about ourselves.

For instance in American politics, it is seen as patriotic to believe that Americans are exceptional. We are more moral than people in other countries. Our leaders would never do things that leaders of other countries might do. Saddam Hussein may gas his own people but our leaders would never do anything similar. They engage in terrorism. Not us. When this myth of American exceptionalism is challenged by evidence, the evidence is dismissed in favor of belief. “Our leaders would never do that. I can’t believe that would ever happen.” Those who provide evidence contrary to beliefs are labeled as traitors, unpatriotic, communists, etc.

In religion, it happens this way: when evidence is presented about biblical scholarship, for example, that shows that the doctrines of the church such as virgin birth or miracles or the resurrection of Jesus are human creations and the evolution of these doctrines can be traced historically, the evidence is dismissed in favor of belief. “I don’t care what biblical scholars say, this is what I believe.” That is what is happening with the Texas Board of Education. Those who bring biblical scholarship to the pulpit are criticized for hurting people’s faith, disrespecting people’s beliefs and otherwise being mean.

Now here is the deal. While it may feel good in the short term to believe naïve and untrue things about ourselves, that we are exceptional and that our personal beliefs are more true than evidence, in the long run it is not so good. We reap what we sow. If we sow beliefs as opposed to facts, we will reap leaders who will manipulate that. I am not just talking about current leaders. Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr., Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, all the way back to Washington have relied on the myth of American exceptionalism to cover a multitude of sins. The chickens have come home to roost with this latest character.

As far as religious belief trumping truth? While the Texas Board of Education is the latest cartoon of this silliness, the fastest rising religious group is the “nones.” One of the common reasons offered by the “nones” is that the beliefs of the churches are not credible. In seminary we ministers learned quickly not to trouble our parishioners with scholarship because it would hurt their faith. If you challenge people’s beliefs they won’t give money. We reap what we sow.

So I want to have an on-going conversation with you about what the Bible is and isn’t, what constitutes reliable information, and third, I want to talk about why beliefs are so hard to challenge. What is it about the power of beliefs that prevents us from seeing important truths about ourselves and the world as it is?

Of course, the point is to develop the courage to recognize and challenge our own beliefs and assent to the world as it is. I am thinking of “assent” in the sense that Ursula Goodenough speaks in the passage in the bulletin. Letting go of cherished beliefs can be painful but most importantly it is liberating not only for ourselves but for others as well.

Interestingly, the Bible may be a wisdom resource in this effort to honestly scrutinize our beliefs. What beliefs do whether those beliefs are about us as individuals, as families, as religious people, as Americans is that they provide for us a world, a home. They provide a comfort, a fortress against chaos. Beliefs are our home. Because of that, information that counters our sense of home, our world, is dismissed. It has to be in order for the beliefs to remain intact.

Here is what I have seen in the Bible that is helpful. The stories of the Bible including the overarching narrative can be seen as what happens when we lose our sense of home. What happens when our world crashes? The call of Abram in Genesis chapter 12: Leave your home, your family, and journey to a foreign place. That is what YHWH tells Abram to do. He is telling Abram who he renames Abraham to trust, to have courage, to leave home.

Earlier, Adam and Eve and expelled from home, so is Cain. The Hebrews are enslaved and liberated. That liberation is seen as chaos. They complain. They want to go back to slavery because at least it was home. Throughout the Bible we find story after story of people losing home, losing their world, their fortress, their comfort, and needing to respond to that.

These stories are imaginative stories. But they are compelling because they speak a truth to us. Loss of home is painful. Loss of home is necessary. Loss of home invites courage. Loss of home leads to a larger truth. Loss of home can lead to a gain of shalom. Beautiful word, shalom.

Beliefs create for us a world, a home. They aren’t bad. They serve a purpose. But when they no longer serve a purpose, when they no longer are life-giving they need to be let go. The task of religion is to enable us to do that.

That is what this is about. It isn’t to mess up your faith as if that were an end in itself. It is to enable us to move to a wider more liberating understanding of who we are so that we can see more clearly and thus work for a more just and peaceful world. Shalom.

Since it is Charles Darwin’s birthday, a nod to the great man who looked at evidence and determined that while humans wanted to believe that we were exceptional and qualitatively different from other animals, he challenged some pretty big beliefs. We are closer to apes than angels. His findings about natural selection challenged beliefs about the Bible’s stories of creation, at least in a literal way.

Of course, Darwin’s findings were met with great resistance and still are, for example, the Texas Board of Education, but more than that. How does the story of evolution and the larger cosmological story challenge our sense of home and how can embracing it enlarge us? That is the task of faith, that is the task of religion at its best.

Not a circling the wagon around creeds and beliefs, but a courageous trust to engage the world as it is and as we are discovering to be. That is what I want to do with you. That is what I do.

I am looking forward to doing this with you this year as we read the Bible, perhaps with a different set of eyes than what we have used previously. Let’s find a way to keep this conversation a two-way street and a conversation shared among one another.