Notes for the sermon at Verdun Uniting Church, 2006
"Christianity after Darwin"
Rev Dr Jason John
(there is more here than I actually had time to say on the day)
Ephesians 4:25 to 5:2
“Let us speak the truth to our neighbours…”
Pilate- what is truth? What is the truth?
In Ephesians we have a letter to a church where there was more than a little disunity, and it was ugly disunity: disagreement, bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, malice and slander!
Doubtless some disunity involved personalities, social class, gender, race and so on. But disagreement over what the truth was. How do we work out what the truth is? How do we do it kindly and tender heartedly?
In the UCA we are committed to some weird, some would say non-Christian ideas about truth. Or basis of union says that truth is found in dialogue with contemporary thought: we can’t just work it out alone, and God does not magically reveal it to us. The scriptures are not the Word of God- not the eternal truth, but unique witnesses in which we hear the Word of God- the living Word, in our worship and in dialogue with contemporary thought.
So today I want to race through some scientific truths we have learned since Charles Darwin and a bunch of others turned our world upside down, and propose some theological truths which confront us in dialogue with that science.
Then, since that might sound pretty dry, offer some examples of “so what?”
Since I know you’re a pretty progressive faith community, I hope not too much of this will be old ground. If it is, maybe its so old its lying fallow and time to replant!
And a warning- rather than make one point well, I tend to try to make 20 odd points really briefly, hoping that that way everyone will find good news in at least one of them- the peril of the visiting preacher!
If you are interested most of it comes out of the thesis I finished a little while ago on Biocentric Theology, which you can get from the Scots Church ecofaith.org web site.
Let me start with three things which many Christians proclaim as truths which I believe are not:
Humans are created in the image of God
Humans are divinely appointed stewards of Earth.
God’s perfect world was ruined by human action (rebellion), an event known as the Fall. Ever since humans have shared in “original sin.”
So- some truths to speak to our neighbours: some scientific (lean to left), some religious (lean to right) (or use hands as two puppets)
What truth are you going to speak to your neighbours? In this church? In the wider church? In Verdun?
Here are some truths to form the context for your answer to that question…
This ancient earth is part of an even more ancient galaxy, which is part of an even more ancient universe.
The universe- with more stars than there are grains of sand on every beach and every desert on Earth, is probably teeming with life, none of which we will ever encounter.
On Earth: If 1cm = all of H. sapiens existence
18 cm the genus Homo
60cm hominid evolution
6.5m the “age of mammals”
385 metres the beginning of life on Earth
1km life in the Universe (possibly)
7000 km the future life of the Universe (possibly)
Human spirituality about 1mm
Christianity- 1/20 th of 1mm
Life on this plant evolved over billions of years, and that if we look back far enough, every living being on this planet is related.
We are all indeed “members of one another”, as Ephesians says, but not just Christians! We are also members of all humanity, of mammals, of vertebrates, of all life.
We only draw hard and fast lines between species because, as biological organisms, we need to be able to identify things in order to survive.
God does not see things this way. God has no use for the species concept. Life to God may more about flow, fluidity, relational links rather than individual kinds of things.
Genesis, and Christian tradition, has presented life as pretty much fixed, in discreet categories, assuming that humans have been on the planet for as long as life itself. They assume that God’s experience of life and relationship with life has always included humans, indeed that humans have been centre stage, that God’s relationship with humans has determined God’s relationship with the rest of life.
All of this is wrong. The key concepts for us now are fluidity, adaptation, evolution.
99.99999% of God’s experience of life on earth is non-human.
God’s relationship with life on Earth has, for the overwhelming majority of it, had nothing to do with humans. 99.99999% the story of God and life is not a human story: humans are part of the story of God and life, not the centre of it and not the end point of it.
Life will continue for hundreds of millions of years after we go extinct.
Life is not here for us or as God’s gift to us. It is here for God- to give God something to be God of. Something to love, to experience, be changed through relationship with. God without creation is trapped in an unchanging eternity. Creation, and especially life throughout the universe, sets God free to be God, to be the God of love.
A so what
All these life forms which set God free to love are valuable to God, loved by God. The very idea that by killing certain animals we could make ourselves right with God is a human construction, not a divine decree. Those prophets who rejected the sacrificial system, and Jesus when he followed them, were speaking the truth, not the priests. God desires mercy, God never desired sacrifice.
The God who never wanted a sheep or goat or pigeon butchered, presumably also never wanted a human butchered, certainly not “his” own “son.” A God who can only forgive through sacrificial appeasement may make sense to Jews, but is not the God revealed in Christ. Who died for us, but not for God. That is, Christ may have given up his life (as Ephesians says) in order to be true to his message to us, to remain true to his revelation of God for us, but he was never a “fragrant offering” to God. The Word of God is in conflict with Scriptural truth claims.
Humans may have the ability to manipulate the conditions of life on earth, but our ability is paltry and superficial compared to the life forms which truly control the planet: microbes and plants. Which controlled life for billions of years, and will do so after our extinction.
God never granted us dominion over the animals, nor set us apart to till and keep the Earth. Bacteria and plants exercise more dominion on Earth than humans ever will. Life has dominion of life.
So what? So every bit of Christian ecotheology which relies on the notion of stewardship, of proper care of God’s gift to us, is wrong. Which is just about every bit of Christian theology!
There is no evidence that the evolution of life is guided by external conscious forces in a particular direction. Even complexity does not steadily increase over time. Major external events like comet strikes have a massive impact on the unfolding of evolution.
Either God controls every single interaction and every earthquake and volcano and comet, or God has not constrained evolution to produce Homo sapiens. The latter seems more likely. Humans are not God’s desired end product of evolution, we are not a pinnacle.
God is not a man, not a woman, not a human being.
Humans are not the centre of the story of God and life.
Humans are not the image of God. If there is one it is all of life.
That is, since all of life is a continuous genetic stream, all connected, all valuable to God and in relationship with God, since God did not dictate that we should evolve, then it is more accurate to say that all of life is the image of God, not humans. Humans are not even most in the image of God. God only seems so human because the Bible was written by humans, and because we are humans talking about God. Who knows what God says to the dolphins in their dreams?
The world was never perfect. Pain and death are intrinsic parts of the good processes by which life, including us, came about. If we are glad to be here, we must be glad for mutation, pain and death!
Our most usual tellings of the Christian stories have at least one thing backwards: human action did not lead to pain and death and sickness and everything bad in the world.
At some point in history, perhaps as we gained the capacity for language, we gained the ability to see ourselves in abstract terms, as apart from each other and the rest of life. That this did not happen until very late in the existence of the species Homo sapiens.
Humans never as a species made a conscious choice to rebel against God which could be labelled “original sin.” The closest we could some to would be some kind of “first consciousness.”
Human woman have painful childbirth because we have evolved to be bipedal, which was associated with changes in the pelvis, whilst also becoming larger brained. You can be smart and fit easily out of a bipedal mother. As it is we are born as barely formed foetuses, we should remain in the womb for 2.5 years, but imagine being born then!
Agriculture is hard because when we apply the wrong methods in the wrong place, as the nomadic Isralites did in the middle east, and as white people did here. We can improve our agriculture- as I believe people in Verdun have!
The vile notion that women have painful childbirth and because God punished Eve, or even humanity, has no basis in fact whatsoever. The fatalist notion that farming is hard because God cursed the earth is not true.
Ditto the story that God murdered almost every human and other animal on the planet in a watery rage.
Indeed, any biblical argument which justifies itself with reference to Adam and Eve is undermined, for example what Ephesians and especially Timothy goes on to say about the full submission of women to men.
There is no original sin, but there is sin.
We are not inherently sinful or corrupt or violent, but we do have inherent needs, which if not met lead to violent and other sinful behaviours.
If time- Original Sin?
Largely based on Mary Clark- In Search of Human Nature
A little story form science: the bonobos.
Scientists originally studied chimps. The story they told was one of inherent violence. Since we shared common ancestors, we shared a common violent nature.
Christians like Wesley seemed to be vindicated:
“humans are by nature filled with all manner of evil… void of all good… wholly fallen… [our] soul totally corrupted… every imagination of the thoughts of [our] heart is only evil continually?
Then found the bonobos: genetically (inherently) identical, but environmentally different, thus culturally different. Sex based. Environment. Bono plenty of food, women stick together and gather food. Chimps food is scattered and women are isolated.
De Waal in Clarke “Had bonobos been known earlier, reconstructions of human evolution might have emphasised sexual relations, equality between males and females, and the origin of the family, instead of war, hunting, tool technology, and other masculine fortes
Mary Clark- we are not inherently violent, but have inherent needs
we inherently seek:
bondedness (we have all successfully got suckled)
autonomy (we have all applied what we have been taught, the need to contribute freely and meaningfully to the group, to be appreciated)
but if we can’t make meaning of the tension between bondedness and autonomy, or we have too little of either, we get dysfunctional. (depressed, violent…). Cultures in which these things are out of balance or inadequate have a ‘cultural sinfulness’.
• For 99% of our evolution these basic needs were:
• Fulfilled in groups which were
• Relatively Isolated
• Immersed in the image of God (life)
For eg, the Kaurna culture 300 years ago. To a lesser extent Verdun 100 years ago. To an even lesser extent many neighbourhoods and churches 40 years ago before TV and the car.
We are not fallen, but our environment is changing FAST and isolating us from an awareness of the rest of Life.
When a little town like Verdun, where everyone knew everyone, and people travelled only to trade goods, becomes a commuter town, what happens to bondedness, autonomy (as the ability of people to contribute meaningfully to the life of a stable community who appreciate them), and meaning?
So we have trouble functioning in our new environment, we are often dysfunctional. But we are not utterly depraved.
The truth as I see it. Good news.
But the Christian counter-current to the bad news of the fall and our utter depravity and helplessness has always been the good news of divine rescue. Jesus the second Adam who saves us from the curse of the first Adam, who frees us from Satan or who turns away God’s wrath.
If the first Adam never did what the biblical Adam is said to have done, if we reject the theology around the first Adam- what do we make of the second Adam? If we sin, but there is no original sin?
what Messiah does this product of evolution we call Homo sapiens need?
How do we answer the question in the context of humans being part of the story of life, not the centre or end point of it, where all of life is the image of God and has dominion, where there is no meaningful concept of a Fall or original sin as rebellion? Where the Christian story itself is not the whole story of the world, but a tiny part of it, and an even tinier part of the story of the universe?
what Messiah does this product of evolution we call Homo sapiens need?
If you accepted the truths I’ve suggested, even most of them, how could you explore this question as a worshipping community seeking bondedness, autonomy and meaning? How would you pray, what would you sing?
what Messiah does this product of evolution we call Homo sapiens need? In this town?
What is the truth you need to speak to your neighbours?