February 7, 2016
Evolution Sunday

Tell me a creation story more wondrous than that of a living cell forged from the residue of exploding stars. Tell me a story of transformation more magical than that of a fish hauling out onto land and becoming amphibian, or a reptile taking to the air and becoming bird, or a mammal slipping back into the sea and becoming whale. Surely this science-based culture of all cultures can find meaning and cause for celebration in its very own cosmic creation story.
Connie Barlow

The Word was with God in the beginning. Through the Word all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through this Word.
John 1:1-3

‘The Imperfect Paradise’ Linda Pastan
If God had stopped work after the third day
With Eden full of vegetables and fruits,
If oak and lilac held exclusive sway
Over a kingdom made of stems and roots,
If landscape were the genius of creation
And neither man nor serpent played a role
And God must look to wind for lamentation
And not to picture postcards of the soul,
Or would he hunger for a human crowd?
Which would a wise and just creator choose:
The green hosannas of a budding leaf
Or the strict contract between love and grief?

“I’m spiritual, not religious.”

You may have heard that. You may have said that. You may resonate with that or you may wonder what that means. I remember first hearing it in a television interview. Barbara Walters asked former White House intern Monica Lewinsky if she had sinned, referring to her affair with then President Clinton.

Monica Lewinsky replied, “I’m not very religious; I’m more spiritual.”

I’ll let that sit for a moment.

In their book, No Longer Invisible: Religion in Higher Education, authors, Rhonda Jacobsen and Douglas Jacobsen compare and contrast how religion and spirituality are often conceived.

“Religion is about being a member of one specific religious tradition rather than any other, and it involves responsibilities tied to membership in that particular group: attending religious services, affirming the groups beliefs and rules, and referring to the religious authorities who are honored in that tradition. Spirituality is more nebulous and more accessible to everyone.

Spirituality is about self-discovery and self-expression, about authenticity, compassion, respect for others, and the freedom to explore any number of potentially life-enriching ideas and ways of life. Religion is taught by churches, synagogues, and temples, whereas spirituality is what people discover and decide on their own about truth, goodness, meaning, and what really matters.”

Another college student interviewed by the Jacobsens’ put it this way:

“In college, I’m spiritual. I think more is there but I’m not religious—at least not now. I mean, this is college. Religion is for later when I’m not having fun.”

Another phrase often used is “spirituality unites; religion divides.” Not everyone is religious but we all have a spiritual story to share.

The authors point out that this distinction isn’t exactly clean. We can think of people like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King or Bishop Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, who it would be hard to argue are not spiritual, that is they are not about “authenticity, compassion, respect for others” and so forth. They were or are all embedded in a particular religious tradition as well.

So it isn’t quite right to say religion is everything bad and spirituality is everything good. In fact, in a study by the Higher Education Research Institute, 100,000 first year college students were surveyed found that

“students who are strongly religious also tend to be highly spiritual.”

The Jacobsens’ in interviewing students found that those who called themselves spiritual but not religious associated spirituality in terms of words like “quest” or “compassion” and religion with words like “assurance” or “commitment.”

Not that any of those words are bad, but each has a different focus. In fact, I might say a healthy blend of commitment and compassion and of quest and assurance would make for a holistic life.

That is the intention I find in our own community. We want to celebrate and encourage those traits commonly associated with spirituality such as quest, authenticity, compassion, freedom, and the best of those qualities associated with religion: community, commitment, structure, and guidance. Morality but not judgment. Structure not rigidity. Guidance not coercion. The sharing of stories and values as opposed to debate over doctrines and beliefs.

Whenever I hear the question, “What do Presbyterians believe?” I want to run screaming into the darkness. I know what happens next is that someone is going to come up with a laundry list of beliefs that I likely do not share. On the other hand, I do like the question, “What does being a Presbyterian mean to you?”

Then I can reflect and tell stories of how my experience with this particular and admittedly quirky brand of organized religion has challenged and inspired me to take risks and responsibility for social justice, to wrestle with texts and traditions, to explore big questions and my own life’s meaning, to do the sometimes frustrating but ultimately rewarding work of building community and strengthening relationships. And of course, in the experience of worship, to seek to attune myself to that which is larger and deeper than myself that is made known through music, poetry, scripture, and reflection.

I want to be spiritual and religious.

What does have to do with Evolution Sunday?

Evolution Sunday or Evolution Weekend came about because of religion. Biologist Michael Zimmerman realized that religion and religious belief is a huge factor in preventing much of the public from supporting the teaching of science in public schools, especially evolution through natural selection. He thought if he could get religious professionals and religious institutions to affirm evolution that it would help people be less resistant to science.

Notice the divide: religion and science. Religion vs. science. Religious truth vs. evolution. Neither the twain shall meet. In a 2014 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that humans exist as God made them in their present state. Couple that with another 32% who think affirm evolution but that God guides it. Only 15% understand evolution as scientists, do, that is through natural selection with no “supernatural shenanigans” to borrow a phrase from physicist, Lawrence Krauss.

Thus the impetus for Evolution Sunday, the Sunday closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday. We welcome Charles Darwin back to church. He has been demonized for far too long. Yes, you can participate in religion and affirm science. You don’t have to check your brain with your hat and coat in the narthex.

You can find more about Zimmerman’s project by going to the www.clergyletterproject.org.

University of Chicago professor of ecology and evolution, Jerry Coyne, has written a popular book, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Recommended reading. I am not sure if I disagreed with anything he wrote. Religion and faith as he defined it, and as the way the vast, vast majority of religious people define it, that is having to do with beliefs about the universe and human nature is incompatible with science. But notice it isn’t necessarily a conflict between spirituality and science. I think that some of the most delightfully dour atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett and so forth are spiritual. If spirituality is as the Jacobsens defined it in the book I quoted earlier:

“Spirituality is about self-discovery and self-expression, about authenticity, compassion, respect for others, and the freedom to explore any number of potentially life-enriching ideas and ways of life…”

What’s not to like? Science is an expression of spirituality. When you watch scientists explain their subject matter with excitement and awe, you might think they were mystics. Now none of those I named would have a supernatural bone in their cranium, but they would be, according to how we have been defining it, spiritual.

A book by one of the “new atheists” Sam Harris is titled: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. He writes:

How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. (p. 3)

Harris says further:

Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. (p. 6)

Harris is not affirming taking things on faith or affirming a supernatural being or presence behind it all. He is talking about as he writes

“love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence.” (p. 9)

Sam Harris’ expertise is neuroscience. He writes:

The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is— the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself— can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book. (p. 9)

He goes on to say:

“…a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason, if only for a few moments at a time, and that such ease is synonymous with transcending the apparent boundaries of the self.” (p. 17)

Nothing supernatural about this. Nothing to do with belief or dogma. Nothing spooky, nothing you have to take on faith, no beings or big Being one must believe in—no heaven, hell, reincarnation, miracles, none of that is necessary. Spirituality and thus happiness and well-being is living now. An important path to this awareness is meditation.

The illusion of the “I” keeps us clinging and grasping, trying to experience pleasure and avoid pain, ironically avoiding being happy by trying to find happiness. While some important figures of history such as Buddha and Jesus, etc. demonstrated the path to authenticity, to self-transcendence and freedom, it wasn’t because they were religious or had supernatural beliefs or were divine themselves. They were as we heard last week, ‘awake.’

Where I find myself in perhaps a slightly different place than some of the new atheists is that I happen to like church, at least my version of church. I have found the practice of religion, albeit, a practice with many differences to what I inherited, liberating and a way to wakefulness. What I also find exciting is that there are many people who are coming to something similar, not the same, but similar.

We are engaged in the exciting process of co-creating as we go. Our partners in this quest include the non-religious such as Sam Harris, and those who find themselves, perhaps like many of us, nourished by the connection with our heritage while reforming it from within, embracing wisdom wherever it is found, in science, in song, in poetry, in tradition, and in the challenge of tradition.

To me that is the spirit of Evolution Sunday.

I will leave the last word to Charles Darwin himself, writing near the end of his life on matters religious, and I might add, spiritual:

A [person] who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for [the] rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to [be] the best ones…. As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow creatures.

Hard to get more spiritual than that.