Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Evolutionary Christianity--A Sermon

Evolutionary Christianity
John Shuck

February 10th, 2008
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

The church has a hard time with Evolution. It is the church after all that builds Creation Museums and funds authors to write books to attack Evolution. It is the church—religious people—who want to introduce so-called Intelligent Design into classrooms as science.

Three years ago, Dr. Michael Zimmerman who teaches at Butler University introduced the Clergy Letter Project. His goal was to get clergy to sign a letter affirming that Evolution should be taught in schools not as one theory among others, but as the scientific theory it is. Zimmerman asked for clergy in particular because he knows that the church is the problem. Along with 11,000 other clergy, I have endorsed the following letter, called an Open Letter Considering Religion and Science:

“‘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.’”

I endorsed that letter three years ago. Since that letter was introduced Evolution Sunday and now, Evolution Weekend has picked up. Over 800 congregations almost the double the number from last year are participating in one way or another.

I received an e-mail from a minister who was angry with me that our congregation was participating in Evolution Sunday. This is what he wrote:

Open Letter to Pastor John Shuck,

What you have espoused and embraced and have now taught others is nothing short of outright apostasy. The signatories of the "Open Letter Considering Religion and Science" have affixed their names to an apostate document. It is a damnable denial of the biblical gospel.

If Genesis is not true and accurate as to its account of special creation, then the gospel is entirely irrelevant; for death did not, as the Bible says, enter as the result of human sin (Genesis 3:6; Romans 5:12). In that case death was entirely natural and normal, something from which no person needs saving. The Bible declares death to be an intruder and the immediate result of sin; it entered human experience through Adam's one act of disobedience and was defeated by Christ's obedience (Romans 5:18). Theistic evolution is an apostate compromise; it utterly denies the Bible's teaching about both man, sin, and salvation from sin and death.

I won’t read all of it. That is enough to get the point. That was a letter by a minister to me for signing the letter on religion and science and for telling folks that I did so. The church is threatened by Evolution. For this particular churchman, Evolution is not just a mistaken theory, but it is a doctrine that if embraced will send people to hell.

For the minister who wrote me the letter, Evolution dismisses the saving work of Jesus. If evolution is true, then death was not the result of human sin. If other living things including human beings died before Eve ate the fruit, there is no need for the atoning death of Christ to usher us into eternal life.

Theology is the issue. I am going to take a shot at addressing that critique. Before I do that, I want to call your attention to an excellent article in this week’s Christian Century magazine entitled: “God in Evolution.” It is written by Amy Frykholm, an independent scholar. The article begins:

While controversies over evolution continue to arise in some sectors of American Christianity, most mainline Christians have made their peace with Darwin. We may not grasp all the nuances of the scientific debate, but we have concluded that evolutionary theory is good science and therefore must be compatible with good theology. Darwin’s name doesn’t send chills up our spines. We are theistic evolutionists: we believe that natural selection is evidently part of God’s method of shaping the natural world.

But I suspect that the compatibility of evolutionary science with Christian theology is more often asserted than explored. I, for one, do most of my thinking about science out of one mental box and my thinking about religion out of another. On questions about evolution, the origin of life and the future of the planet, I look into the science box. On questions about God, salvation, theology and ethics, I turn to the religion box. While I think that the contents of the two boxes are compatible, I rarely try to work out the terms of their relationship.

Perhaps that’s because the contents of the two boxes are, when mixed, still combustible. When theology faces off against the account of the world set forth by evolutionary biology, God’s goodness and power and God’s plans for the future seem to be called into question with new force.

That was Amy Frykholm writing in the Christian Century, “God in Evolution.” She explores some of these questions of God in light of Evolution in her article. I think she speaks the truth regarding how mainline Christians regard Evolution and faith. We tend not to think too much about it.

It is the same way these good liberal folks regard the Bible. For them the Bible doesn’t challenge Evolution anymore than Homer’s Iliad challenges Evolution. Evolution and theology is not a problem for many of us because we don’t worry too much about theology anyway. If we do it is in a separate mental box.

However, many people, and that number seems to be growing, do care a great deal about the Bible and theology. They care so much about it that they are making life miserable for the rest of us. Someone said to me once that he decided to read the Bible in order to understand fundamentalists. I think that is a good idea. I think we should read the Qur’an as well, if for nothing more than that very reason. What is it that makes these people tick?

But there is more at stake. I think it is important for Christians to connect our faith with science. Theology is not merely abstract principles. Theology is an articulation of faith. It is an attempt to express the “wow.” Science helps us understand how the universe works. Faith helps us find meaning and blessedness within it.

My colleague, Bob Cornwall, who pastors a congregation in California put it simply and eloquently in his sermon last year on Evolution Sunday. He said:

“Science deals with the how and faith deals with the wow!”

I agree with Bob. The challenge for humanity in the 21st century is to get the “wow” back. Before Copernicus and Darwin, human beings fit into their understanding of the cosmos. We heard the music of the spheres. We had a place for God and ourselves in God’s creation. But as science unfolded new understandings of how of the universe works our theology has yet to catch up.

The result has been on one hand a war in which theology denies science. On the other hand, the result is a schizophrenia in which we have cut off our scientific understanding from our faith. I don’t think either of those options bode well for the long-term survival of humanity. We cannot live long and well if we are dis-integrated. Human beings are meaning makers. We have to find a way to make meaning of our world or else we fall into despair.

If Christianity is going to speak meaningfully to humanity in the 21st century, it is going to have to do better than either declare war on science or try to exist in its own separate bubble. I believe the task is nothing short of reformulating all of our doctrines in light of science, and evolution in particular.

It is exciting that many people are realizing this and are writing about it. Here are three books you may find interesting:

Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution! How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World.

Michael and his wife Connie Barlow will be coming to our church in September. More details on that to come.

A second book of interest is by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams, The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos.

The third I have just discovered, is by Bruce Sanguin, Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity.

These are all starter books. Their ideas may be dismissed ten years from now. We have far more questions than answers. The point is that they are taking a shot at it.

With that, I now will attempt to answer my critic who said that evolution is a damnable denial of the biblical gospel. For him, Evolution leaves no place for Christ. Here is my response to that. This is a brief sketch of the work of Christ in light of evolution.

Jesus was a healer. Throughout the gospels we find Jesus healing people. He restores them to wholeness. Not only that, but he says again and again that it is their faith that makes them well. He was able to show people that they had the power within themselves to be agents of healing for themselves and for others. The sources of healing in our 14 billion year cosmic history are built in to the universe. Faith or trust enables us to uncover and embrace these sources of healing.

Jesus was also a teacher of wisdom. Through his parables and teaching he invited people to embrace wisdom so that they could be agents of healing and blessing. Wisdom is different from knowledge. If knowledge is what science can show us about the universe, wisdom is using that knowledge to bless and to heal. A friend of mine quipped that knowledge tells us that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom tells us not to put a tomato in a fruit salad.

The gospels also tell us that Jesus was executed. He was a victim of violence. Also built into the universe in our 14 billion year history are violence, destruction, and sin. We know there is evil in the world. Genocide, torture, and war are part of our cosmic history. Today we face an ecological crisis. We are soiling the bed in which we sleep. The crucifixion of Jesus can be seen as a symbol of the destruction to Earth and Earth’s inhabitants. Violence, greed, ignorance, and fear—the forces that executed Jesus—are crucifying life on Earth.

Also built into the universe from its beginning is death. This is the main point of disagreement I would have with my critic. There never was a time in which there was no death. If there was no death there would be no life. Everything that lives dies. Imagine how Earth would manage if there was no death. If some life-form were able to live indefinitely, it would take over, and then eventually it would die as there would be nothing left to eat. However, from death are the seeds of new life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says:

“I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25)

Death makes space for life. What Jesus I think is saying here is that eternal life is not about living forever. Eternal life is the way of wisdom. If we try to cling as individuals or as a species to the survival of our egos, we will lose what is truly valuable and beautiful about life itself. We will also cause destruction and pain for others. When Jesus says we are to hate our life in this world, he is speaking through hyperbole about not clinging to our own self-survival as the epitome of the meaning of life itself. We must learn how to embrace our own death in order to experience eternal life, the way of wisdom, healing, and blessedness.

The gospels also tell us that Jesus rose on the third day. The mystery of resurrection in evolutionary Christianity tells me that wisdom, healing, and love are never lost. This seed is scattered and it flourishes. The resurrection of Jesus is the symbol of a renewed creation. The power of life in the universe is stronger than the power of violence and greed. Like the stars that exploded and their elements scattered throughout the universe to become the seeds of life on Earth, so too, the healing, the love, the wisdom, and the blessedness that we nurture in our own lives will also scatter throughout the universe long after our physical lives are over.

My little sketch is not the only one available. There are orthodox Christian theologians from Roman Catholic to Baptist who affirm both orthodox Christianity and Evolution.

Human beings, whether Christian or not, need to search for wisdom in order to transform knowledge. Doing so may help us articulate a robust faith in light of our ecological crisis.

My faith tells me that Jesus showed us the way of healing and wisdom. The meaning of life is to discover and embrace wisdom and healing and to live it. If we look at the life, healing, wisdom teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus in light of evolution and our 14 billion year cosmic history, there are possibilities for Christians to embrace their faith and science.

The Spirit of Jesus invites us to say ‘yes’ to life, ‘wow’ to this incredible unfolding creation, and finally to say, “I volunteer to be a healer, and a learner and teacher of wisdom.”



  1. "Someone said to me once that he decided to read the Bible in order to understand fundamentalists".

    Yep. People usually think Fundamentalists are crazy, but that what Fundamentalists say the Bible says is not.

    This is a good sermon. Have you read "Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality" by Philip Newell?

    If you must be a heretic, I think Philip Newell provides a very good place to start.

  2. **If you must be a heretic, I think Philip Newell provides a very good place to start.**

    I like this.

    "Care to be a heretic?"
    "Oh, only if I must." :)

  3. Ha! When I was a youth and I would ask in impertinent question, my grandmother would huff and say, "Well, if you MUST know..."

  4. I appreciate this sermon, and I appreciate all those pastors who signed the letter defending evolution. Thank your very much.

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