Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 13, 2011

From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis: A Sermon

Here is the sermon for today, Evolution Sunday.

I also told this story about Ozzie the fish for the children's sermon from Connie Barlow's website, The Great Story.

We sang Blue Boat Home for one of our hymns.

And for the offertory, Give It Away by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

OK, that last was a bit random.

From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

February 13th, 2011
Evolution Sunday

Romans 8:14, 16, 17, 19, 22
1 Corinthians 3:9

For all who are led by the power and purpose of God are the children of God.

God’s power and presence joins us in affirming that we are God’s children. And if we are God’s children then we are also heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with the Anointed, since we experience the same abuse as he did in the hope that we may share his exaltation.

For the whole creation eagerly anticipates the disclosure of who God’s children really are.

We know that the whole creation has been moaning with birth pangs until now…

We are co-workers for God; you are God’s field, God’s building project.
The Authentic Letters of Paul (Jesus Seminar)

I was asked a few years ago on my blog why my church celebrated Evolution Sunday. The questioner was a bit sarcastic and asked why we don’t celebrate Gravity Sunday? The assumption behind the question was that scientific theories have nothing to do with church.

I thought it might be good to take that question at face value. Why don’t we celebrate Gravity Sunday?

We might feel the need to celebrate Gravity Sunday if less than half the population of Americans didn’t believe in gravity. We might celebrate Gravity Sunday if certain religious groups promoted conferences and influenced school boards to “teach the controversy” between what they called an atheistic theory of gravity versus the biblical account of “intelligent falling”. We might need a Gravity Sunday if sacred texts were trotted out as proof that mysterious, invisible, supernatural divine beings were responsible for the mystical weightiness of Earth. We might need Gravity Sunday if people were told from pulpits and other places that you couldn’t possibly believe in gravity and be a Christian and that on judgment day promoters of atheistic gravitation would go right down the chute to Hell.

But so far, with gravity, we have had no such problem.

The same is not true for the theory of Natural Selection or Evolution.

In a Gallup Poll in 2009, 39% of Americans surveyed indicated that they believed in Evolution. 25% did not believe in evolution and 36% had no opinion.

More hair-raising than that was a poll recently conducted by Science magazine. They found that among 900 high school biology teachers surveyed, only 28% were advocates of evolution. 13% were advocates of creationism. The remaining 60% were neither advocates for evolution nor another non-scientific alternative. They were on the fence.

One of my blog commenters suggested it is like chemists on the fence regarding the existence of atoms.

It is time to get off the fence regarding one of the foundations of human knowledge. So six years ago, Dr. Michael Zimmerman, a biologist from Butler University started the Clergy Letter Project. The idea was to procure 10,000 signatures from clergy who affirmed evolution to counter the viewpoint of some religious people that evolution and Christian faith were incompatible.

As of today, 12,711 Christian clergy have signed the letter. That number goes over 14,000 when Unitarian and Jewish religious leaders are included. In addition to the letter, churches have been asked to raise the level of discussion in their congregations regarding science.

We have participated in Evolution Sunday, now Evolution Weekend for six years since it began. I have been rebuked. I have been called a heretic. I have been told numerous times in numerous ways that I am going to hell and that I am leading my congregation to eternal destruction as well. I guess we have hit a nerve and are doing something right.

Perhaps the reason why biology teachers, who should know better, are on the fence is because they are afraid of being bullied by parents and their preachers. Since this bullying is coming from religious quarters, it is up to religious leaders and religious laypeople to stand up and say,
“We are religious and we affirm science.”
When more people do that, more people are encouraged and empowered. This isn’t the only issue in the world and it may not be the most important one. But what we teach our children and what we learn about the world is important. As it says in the clergy letter I signed:
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.
That is the presenting reason of why Evolution Sunday.

But there is more.

A Sunday sermon is not the place to talk in detail about evolutionary theory. There are plenty of books for the non-specialist like me. I particularly enjoyed Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: Evidence for Evolution. For children, Connie Barlow’s website, The Great Story, has many marvelous resources.

Attend our adult forum for the next couple of weeks and hear about the evolution of the human brain with Dr. Julie Wade. Or take a field trip with us this afternoon or anytime to the Gray Fossil Site and Museum.

I do think it is important for people to have the permission to explore the relationship between science including natural selection, cosmology, and so forth with their own personal faith or sense of meaning. I think the reason some religious people are so against science and spend so much time trying to discredit it is because they have not found a way to allow their faith to communicate with what science is teaching them.

Zimmerman said that many people if forced to choose between religion and science will choose religion. We don’t have to choose, but we do have to do some work. We have to build our own meaning. As the Apostle Paul wrote, we are co-workers with God.

Again there are many resources to aid people of faith as they wrestle with science. Some of these resources will resonate with us and others will not. It is up to each of us to make our own way. The only “rule” we might have in this joyous quest is that we cannot distort the facts to fit our religious sensibilities. Well, we can, I suppose, but to do so would be dishonest and less productive.

For example, if science is showing us that Earth is 4.6 billion years old, it would be dishonest to dismiss that because our interpretation of a sacred text requires us to say Earth is 6,000 years old. In that situation, our interpretation of that sacred text might be amiss. We might need another interpretation of this text. Again, biblical scholars can help with this.

Genesis chapter one contains a poem of creation. Probably composed in the 6th century BCE when Israel was in captivity to Babylon, this poem was a creation poem. Creation poems are designed to provide meaning, place, and identity. The creators of this poem drew from the raw material available to them, the myth of the Eneuma Elish.

In this Babylonian myth, Earth was created as an act of violence when Marduk slayed the sea monster Tiamat and with her carcass created heavens above and earth below. The blood dripping from her carcass created the gods. The role of the gods was to keep the universe going and they get tired of all this work, so they create humans to be slaves to the gods. This myth thus justified the hierarchy of the king (who alone is the image of god) and his control of the people. The rest of the human beings are violent by nature and must therefore be controlled by an iron hand.

The Hebrew people created a different story. Earth is created by the speaking of Elohim and Earth is rendered “good”. Human beings are created in Elohim’s image and are “good”. They are not created as the result of violence and are therefore not violent by nature. On the seventh day, Elohim rests. This poem provides a reason why the Hebrew people rest on the seventh day.

Human beings have dignity. They are not created to slave and toil, but are granted holy rest. It is a liberation poem. It was a poem to give the Hebrew people an identity in a strange land. It is a poem that still reminds us today that Earth is good, and that the universe is good, and that life on earth is good and that humans are created in the divine image and thus have dignity and we are in turn creative.

Even though this poem has functioned over the centuries to tell us of the origin of Earth, stars, and crawling things, it has ceased to be interesting in that way. But that was never its primary power and beauty. Its power and beauty was to inspire human creativity and dignity.

These past several weeks have demonstrated this creativity and dignity. We saw the people of Egypt, young people, peacefully and with courage and grace stand up and stand down an autocratic ruler. They did it in the face of powerful governmental opposition including the blackout of the internet and the infiltration of armed thugs. They peacefully remained resolute in spite of the wringing of hands and the waffling of powerful Empires such as the United States and in spite of calls by so-called allies to end the demonstrations and to go home.

They lived the poem of Genesis chapter 1. They may not have thought of it in that way, and that may not have been their defining sacred text, nevertheless the principle in Genesis 1 is the same as in the Qur’an, that human beings are created with dignity and we live to our fullest expression of that truth when we stand up for it, for ourselves, and for others.

I like that interpretation of Genesis 1 even as I don't claim it is the best or only interpretation. I do think it is a more helpful interpretation than one that uses it as a tool to discard science.

Other evidence of the creativity of human beings is that we developed a method for discerning some of the secrets of the universe. This scientific method is showing us that the universe’s story includes Earth’s story, the human story, and the more than human story. This story is fascinating beyond intuition or imagination.

Yesterday at Roan Mountain State Park we contemplated rocks that are over one billion years old. A billion with a B. That is deep time. Physicist Brian Swimme said,
“If you let hydrogen gas alone for 13 billion years it will become giraffes, rose bushes and humans.”
You may ask,
“If that is the case, where is God in all of this?”
I say that is a great question and don’t ever stop asking it. Keep asking it and don’t settle for ugly answers. An ugly answer is one that says:
You have to believe this about God or you are going to hell.
You can’t believe that or you are not a Christian.
You have to believe the Bible the way I tell you to believe it.
Those are ugly answers.

Go for beauty instead.

A beautiful answer is an open-ended question.
It allows for exploration.
It gives permission to search and to doubt.

A beautiful answer just isn’t in the head, it isn’t just a matter of intellect but a matter of the heart as well. When we ask “Where is God in all of this?” we may discover that is a heart question not just a head question. We may discover that we are asking, “Where am I in all of this?”

Who am I?
What does my life mean?
What is sacred for me?
What is holy for me?
What does it mean to live a life of dignity and creativity?
How do I relate to my surroundings?
How do I relate to others?
How do I relate to loss?
How do I relate to possessions?
What is compassion?
Where do I see it in others?
Where do I see it in myself?
For what do I hope?
What do I love?
Of what am I afraid?
For what do I stand up?
What do I decide to let go?
How do I know when to do what?
How do I make amends?
How do I allow others to make amends to me?
What is the essence of a good, sacred and holy life?

Ask those kinds of questions with sincerity and you may find your god.

Those questions could keep us religious folks busy for a while.

Perhaps if we spent our time asking those kinds of questions we could trust our scientists to ask questions about the ages of rocks and the evolution of the creeping critters, including human critters, and we could let them be.

I titled this sermon, “From Cosmos to Cosmogenesis”. That is a title of a chapter in Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing. The cosmos is not fixed. It is constantly changing, evolving, and creating and we are part of that creative process.

In our 13.7 billion year super saga, human beings have arrived late on the scene. The rest of the universe has been lolling around in deep time and we finally got to the party.

Deep time is the great "relativiser".
Deep time humbles all of our projects and ambitions.
Deep time goes forward as well as back.

Yet here we are.
Created and creating.
Evolved and evolving.

Cosmogenesis is the creativity of the cosmos within us.

The Apostle Paul had no idea about natural selection or the age of the universe. Even the knowledge that Earth revolved around the sun wouldn’t come for another 14 centuries. But Paul did know about human creativity. He did know that humankind had dignity. He labeled that dignity being “children of God.” He did know that we are co-creators and co-workers. He did know that the universe, creation, is constantly giving birth.

The universe is not apart from us.
We are it.
We have been given a rather thrilling job.
We get to tell the universe’s story.
We use our minds, our rhythm, our words, our hands, our feet, our passion, our love, our tears, and our lives to give back and to give forward.
We can hear, see, taste, smell, think, speak, and touch Life.
The creativity of the universe is in us.
Our job is to return the favor.
As the universe constantly gives away of itself, we in its image, can do no less.
To live, to create means to give ourselves away.

That is a sacred calling—to use our creativity.
To live life with awareness.
As we are created, we create.
As we are blessed, we are to be a blessing.

And that is why we celebrate Evolution Sunday.

And we closed with this beautiful poem from Mary Oliver:

"Song of the Builders"

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God—

A worthy pastime.
Near me, I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.


  1. Another terrific sermon, John. I'm glad to see you've acquired The Authentic Letters of Paul. If you'd like a study guide, I'm developing one -- we're on session 2 of 6 this coming Tuesday.

  2. Answer to first question: it is a heck of a lot easier to experience gravity than it is to experience evolution. Having said that I bet more people can't scientifically describe gravity than there are people who don't believe in evolution.


  3. And that weighs heavily upon those of us who do both! ;^D