I had the delight and privilege of worshiping this Sunday with the people of Grace Episcopal Church in Everett, MA. Thank you to the Rev. Dr. Barbara Smith-Moran, S.O.Sc. for her invitation. They were celebrating “Darwin Sunday” and dealing with questions of faith and biology. Here is the sermon I gave.
Collect (5 Epiphany)
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I Corinthians 2:1-16 (“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God”)
Matthew 5:13-20 (“You are the salt of the earth”)
I believe that God made the heavens and the earth.
I believe God lit the furnace of the Sun
and set the planets in their courses.
I believe that God makes the plants to grow
and causes the green blade to rise from buried grain.
I believe that God gave breath and life to everything that lives.
I believe that I exist,
and you exist,
and the whole of the human race exists,
because God breathed on the dust.
And I believe that we are each formed in the image and likeness of God.
So, I will confess to a certain annoyance
that I cannot claim the title of “creationist.”
That term now reserved to those who deny the theory of evolution.
Evolution, I will admit, is a profound notion,
the idea that all these things in creation
are related by physical laws
and that every single thing with life in it
shares a common ancestor
a common chemistry
and a common way of life.
Modern evolutionary biology ties all of these things together
in an elegant, mathematical, productive framework
that centers on ideas of
inheritance, variation, and natural selection.
I find the model compelling and deeply, deeply useful
as I try to understand the world,
and even more deeply useful
to the fishers and farmers and doctors
who manage human interaction
with the vast biological creation that surrounds us.
And for this reason,
for my unwillingness to discard so useful an idea about the world,
I cannot call myself a creationist,
for fear I will be misunderstood.
As a Christian and an evolutionary biologist,
this troubled me.
For many years I bought into the very popular,
very compelling notion,
that this was simply a question of reasoning and evidence.
If only the so called creationists would see
that we have very good reasons to believe these things to be true,
If only they understood the science properly,
they would see that the conclusions are undeniable.
And yet, it is not so simple.
The stories of creation in Genesis
are about more than historical or scientific facts.
They tell us something profound about our relationship with God.
They tell us that God created us to be in relationship
with the heavens and the earth
with the plants of the garden
with the swarms of living things
with one another
and with God.
The more creationists I came to know,
the more I realized how many of them
are troubled by exactly this aspect of creation – relationships.
I’ll tell you something you may find surprising:
I understood their concerns.
I saw how some understandings of Genesis
and some understandings of evolution
might come into conflict.
And I saw how that could be a dangerous thing.
What we have on our hands is a genuine theological puzzle
that has to do with our understanding
of scarcity and abundance,
competition and cooperation,
and human favor in the eyes of God.
It has to do with the amount of suffering and selfishness we see in the world.
It has to do with the struggle of all against all,
and the ubiquity of war.
As much as I believe the theory of evolution
is important to human health and happiness,
as much as I believe it to be right and good and joyful,
I know it carries this theological baggage for many people.
I will say then, that the core of modern evolutionary biology –
a model far more sophisticated than Darwin could have imagined –
this modern theory is unassailable as knowledge.
It stands on the bedrock of countless observations:
Inheritance – the passing on of traits to your offspring –
Variation – the variety and diversity of populations –
and Selection – the very idea that some organisms
are more successful than others.
To deny these three is tantamount to denying the sky is blue.
Darwin’s important insights,
the notions of speciation, common descent, and change in populations,
these insights follow logically and necessarily.
But the argument is not really about facts.
It’s about relationships.
So, having given that two bit introduction to evolutionary theory,
I will move on.
I am not going to defend the science here;
If you would like, I’d be happy to defend it after the service
or recommend some lovely books on the subject.
I am happy to answer emails and I write regularly.
But for now, I am standing in a pulpit,
and there is important theological work to be done.
That work has to do with how we see ourselves,
our relationship with one another,
with the birds of the air and beasts of the field,
and with God
in light of evolution.
How are we to think of phrases like
“nature red in tooth and claw”
“survival of the fittest”
and “war of all against all”
which have been used to describe evolutionary history?
We must talk about the philosophy and theology,
the ethics of evolution.
First, I will suggest that many of you have been misled.
In 19th century,
Western culture was smitten with the idea of competition.
There’s a whole other sermon to be given on that topic,
but for now, I’ll ask you to trust me that it was a big thing,
and a number of scientists and theologians bought into it.
Some called aggression and the will to power virtuous.
Some thought evolution was a scientific basis for this kind of virtue.
Notably, Charles Darwin was not one of them.
Some of his followers were.
By the early 20th century evolutionary biology as a field had figured out
that virtue was not a good scientific question.
Biologists decided they needed to separate desires for what should happen,
from theories about what does happen.
Evolutionary fitness is always about what you get
and never about what you want.
It turns out that evolution does not
always produce, or even require, competition.
Sometimes resources are abundant,
and sometimes cooperation is the best way to get to them.
Sometimes collaboration produces better outcomes than fighting.
We know this because we know about
ecosystems, endosymbioses, colonies, multicellular organisms,
group dynamics, eusocial insects, communication,
and human societies.
Competitive strategies are not essential to evolutionary theory.
They arise often enough,
but only when they lead to longer lives and more offspring.
Sometimes they don’t.
I wish I could say this was a dead issue.
Alas, I went to a science conference just last week,
where a chemist stood up and equated competition with
Even scientists fall into this trap,
in part because by the mid-20th century,
evolutionary biologists were arguing about
“adaptationism” and “levels of selection”
and they rehashed all the old competition terminology.
But they knew then,
and now they have exquisite math to demonstrate
alongside abundant examples
that cooperation also works.
Evolutionary biology is not inherently about competition;
it does suggest a rampant selfishness.
Perhaps you’re not convinced.
Selfishness is just as bad, isn’t it?
At least from a theological standpoint.
Does evolution say that everyone is selfish?
That’s a tougher question.
To my mind, it is the toughest relationship question,
the toughest theological question,
we have to deal with when it comes to evolution.
You see, when biologists talk about cooperation,
when we use words like “altruism” and “mutualism”
it has nothing do with intent,
and everything to do with long-term self-interest.
It doesn’t matter what an organism thinks it’s doing,
if what it actually does leads to more descendants down the road,
selection will favor it
and we think it will grow in the population.
Under evolutionary thinking,
when an organism cooperates with another organism,
it does something for the benefit of the group,
but always at the expense of another group.
Is it “selfless” for bees in a beehive to feed and care for the queen’s children?
On the one hand, yes.
They have given up having children of their own.
On the other hand, no.
They are very closely related to the queen,
and she has far more offspring than they ever could.
Their hive outproduces less cooperative hives.
At least, that’s the way we think it works.
Let me suggest that this provides great insights for Christians.
So often we are called upon by our country or by our faction
to give selflessly.
Is it “selfless” for soldiers to go to war for their country?
We are humans, and sometimes it is.
I have immense pride that the US so often enters countries
for the sake of helping the people there,
but that is a function of being who we are,
and not a function of militaries inherently.
All militaries place the good of the nation over the good of the individual.
Very few, historically, use that force for the good of all.
Usually, it’s just a question of favoring the interests of one nation over another.
It applies to corporations and communities, even churches on occasion.
We call it altruism, but it’s really just a question of selfishness at a higher level.
Jesus, on the other hand,
made choices that led to early death and no children.
And the church has, through the centuries,
advocated this kind of selflessness.
Christ does not deny Darwin.
Rather, we find that Darwin has expressed cleanly and clearly
that temptation present in humanity from the earliest time,
the tendency to pit self against other,
at whatever level.
It is not so much evil as it is not yet fully good.
Survival is in itself a good.
My survival and your survival are both good.
What do we do when one comes at the expense of the other?
I believe we are more than the product of evolution.
I believe we are created in the image and likeness of God.
I value critical thinking and the search for truth.
I value morality and the fight for justice.
If evolutionary biology gives me tools in that struggle, I’m all for it.
Still, we have this nagging problem.
What about all that selfishness?
What about all that suffering?
What about all the scarcity?
Would God really have created the world that way?
Thoughtful anti-evolutionists get this far.
They say, “Why would God make such a place as this?”
And I have to say, “I don’t know.”
I don’t understand suffering and I don’t understand scarcity.
I don’t understand why bad things happen to good people.
This is the problem theologians call theodicy and it is not new.
Job says, “Why did I not die at birth?”
Moses said, “Why me? Why do I have to do this thing?”
Paul speaks of principalities and powers, human wisdom,
and the way of the world.
He calls these evil and of the present age.
He recognizes the problem of selfishness,
both around us and within us.
And Jesus died on the cross.
If there is a Christian message about suffering and scarcity,
it is not a denial,
and it is not an opportunity to blame those who suffer.
Job was righteous and Jesus was righteous,
and Moses and Paul were righteous enough.
Christianity is a response to the suffering, but not an explanation.
When thinking about suffering,
do not ask, “Can I explain this with my faith?”
Ask, “Does my faith give me a way to respond?”
Whether you are a Christian or an Atheist,
whether or not you subscribe to evolutionary theory,
you’re going to have to deal with suffering.
Neither Evolution nor Christianity eliminates the problem.
And both, I think, help us deal with it.
Evolutionary biology explains myriad and bizarre
infections, diseases, and parasites in a very satisfactory way.
It tells me something about how self-preservation
and a drive to have offspring
can fuel both competition and cooperation.
It tells me how the drive to reproduce and fill an environment
can lead to overpopulation, violence, and scarcity.
It also warns me that there are many drives within my own heart and mind,
that look like altruism,
but are really just exquisite forms of selfishness.
Christianity tells me I have an option.
The idea of being made in the image and likeness of God:
that tells me I have a soul and a will to do otherwise;
that tells me I have a conscience to make a distinction
between right and wrong;
that tells me I have the option of self sacrifice
and the ability to join the church,
a group that will accept my self-sacrifice
not for the good of the group,
but in order that the group may be an offering
and a sacrifice for the sake of the whole world.
It tells me that I am more than the product of evolution,
more than the sum of natural selection,
genetic manipulation and neurological potential.
I am a child of God.
And so, if I had to choose between Christianity and evolution,
I have no doubt where my loyalties lie.
Christianity also tells me that God made the world
and God saw that it was good.
It is by the very light of reason and science
that I have the ability to exercise conscience and will.
It is because I know that evolutionary forces encourage me toward selfishness,
that I can choose a better way.
Suffering and scarcity are not news to Christians.
Evolutionary explanations and suggestions for ways out are.
If we are to use the gifts God has given us
for the sake of the world,
we must devote our memory, reason, and skill
to understanding God’s creation.
We must give heart, and mind, and soul, and strength
to the process of integrating faith and reason,
knowledge and conscience,
through close reading of scripture and constant prayer,
but also with a deep and abiding curiosity about the world.
This is why Charles Darwin is one of my heroes.
He took the time to look closely at the world,
think hard, and reason critically.
And he told us something profound about the way it works.
And this is why you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
You too have this ability to see and learn and understand
the wonders God has wrought.
You, and only you, can see that part of the world given to you.
You, and only you, can share it with us, love it, and protect it.
It is our theology in question,
when we talk about evolution.
It is our relationships that are at stake.
And the theological response, the faithful response,
must be one of boundless curiosity about what is,
and endless hope for what may be.