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Charles Darwin, 200th Anniversary : a sermon
By Stuart Grant in Sermons
"Celebrating the grandeur of God"A few days ago I happened to see some brief television footage about a gathering of scientists in Christchurch. The purpose of their meeting was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. I began to think that it might be a good idea to get some thoughts together about Darwin, this great but humble man whose discoveries and writings have had such a profound effect on our understanding of the world we live in. He is celebrated (or by some deeply mistrusted) as the scientist who first set forth the theory of evolution.
On that point you sometimes hear people say, "But it's only a theory", meaning, "It may no really be true. It doesn't deserve to have the place in our thinking that it does." Well, sorry, that's not right. "Theory", as in "Theory of evolution" means: "This is how things in the natural world are. This is how life is to be explained", - with the proviso that if someone comes up with a better explanation, Darwin's theory would be superseded. (That hasn't happened yet and is very unlikely to).
Until Darwin's time, people in the Christian world thought that the world had been created in 6 days, as described in Genesis Ch. 1. The Earth was thought to be quite young.
In the 17th C. Archbishop Ussher had deduced that it was created in 4004 B.C. He even had it down to the precise hour and minute! You see, until the 18 and 19C's, there as very little science. People took the Bible as the authoritative source of much knowledge.
In 1831 Darwin joined the little R.N. ship "Beagle" as naturalist on a 5-year voyage around the world. As is well known, it was the discoveries he made on this voyage, particularly in the Galapagos Islands, that led him to his momentous conclusion, - that all living species are descended from just a very few common ancestors, and that the survival or extinction of each living organism depends on its ability to adapt to its environment.
This was very different to the supposed "Biblical" view, that God had created every living being according to the account in Genesis.
Darwin knew his theory could upset many people, so he held off from publishing his findings for about 20 years. His hand was forced when he heard that a colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, had come to similar conclusions and was about to publish them. So Darwin published his book, "The Origin of Species", and a storm of controversy arose. It continues in some places, particularly the United States, to this day.
Darwin was deeply concerned about the effect of his findings on religious belief, though in his book he tried to minimise this. "I see no good reason why the view given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone", he wrote. He concluded the Origin of Species with this sentence:
"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
But the religious feelings of some people, though certainly not all, were shocked. One of Darwin's chief opponents was Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who apparently took exception to the idea that he might have been descended from a monkey.
And there are some maybe legendary but amusing stories from the time of controversy. Thomas Huxley, who stoutly defended Darwin, is reputed to have said that he was unashamed to have a monkey as an ancestor and would only be ashamed to be related to anyone who obscured the truth.
The story that I like best is about the two pious ladies who were said to have prayed, "Lord, grant that this evolution be not true; but if it is true, grant that it may be hushed up."
Darwin, though he once described himself as an agnostic. But he certainly was not ostracised by the religious community. Many theologians of the time welcomed his ideas. And he was so highly thought of that when he died in 1882 he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
One of the authors I have found helpful in developing my thoughts for today is Dr. Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and long time head of the Human Genome Project in the USA. From a position of militant atheism, he has come to a point of deep Christian faith, which he combines with his considerable ability as a scientist. I share this quote with you from his book, "The Language of God":
"No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvellous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it."
But, as Collins points out, there are still, in the 21st century, plenty of people who are deeply suspicious of Darwin's theory, and hostile to anyone who speaks in its favour. Francis Collins relates how, when he speaks to gatherings about his faith and his beliefs, the mood of the meeting changes when he speaks about evolution. There are tense looks on faces. Some people even walk out.
Sadly, there are extremes on both sides of the debate. One the one hand, there are Christian fundamentalists who attack science as dangerous and untrustworthy, and see the literal interpretation of scripture as the only reliable means of finding out scientific truth. On the other hand, there are scientists who have no time for faith at all. They see it, and all religion, as completely irrelevant. Science explains everything. There is no place at all for God.
It depends on what you mean by the word "God". If you think of God as and all powerful being somewhere out there, controlling and manipulating life in much the same way as a puppet master controls his puppets by moving the strings, then I couldn't believe in that "God" either.
Michelangelo's painting of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in Rome shows God as a grand old man with a beard, with his hand stretched out to meet the hand of Adam. Great art, but rather limiting as an understanding of the divine.
When insurance policies talk of an 'Act of God', this is the kind of God that is envisaged. During the Victorian bushfires, a desperate sounding man appeared once on the TV news with the comment, "You can't fight God". We must move on beyond such limited understandings of God. But they're all too common.
No wonder people have difficulty if they think that is all there is to God.
Just as I could not have faith in the kind of "God" I've been trying to describe, so I cannot believe that everything in life can be explained in purely scientific terms.
For me, and for many, there is that "something more" to which people give many names: underlying reality, ground of being, the holy mystery
at the heart of life, the one "in whom we live and move and have our being", love; or simply, "thou".
We get to the point where we feel lost for words, but we have a deep sense that there IS something more that calls out from us that which is good and just.
Personally, I've never had any problem with the idea of evolution, though I have to admit that I've never read about it at much depth. I think evolution as an explanation of how the universe, planet earth and the whole creation came to be much more believable than the story in the first chapter of Genesis. That story was written long before there was any science, as we understand it. It is better understood as a hymn of praise.
Evolution doesn't detract in any way from the wonder of creation; it adds to it and makes it even more wonderful. If you're a fan of those amazing TV presentation on the natural world by David Attenborough and others, you'll know what I mean.
To put it simply, we look to scientists and their discoveries to tell us how the creation came to be, and how life works. And we look to the Bible for guidance in living, and to help us in the search of meaning and purpose.
We have the Bible, that collection of Jewish and Christian writings compiled over a period of about 1400 years. We have the ancient creeds of the church. We have the works of many Christian writers over the centuries. Some of them have become classics, pointing to deep truth. Many others have failed to survive the test of time and have been forgotten.
Perhaps we could speak here of something like the survival of the fittest!
Faith, spirituality, our understanding of God, - these things are constantly evolving. As Christians we hold to the centrality of Christ, and our best understandings of Christian teaching, but we don't live in a time warp. Put it this way: if you are someone who went to Sunday School and Bible Class in your early years, would the faith you had then satisfy you now? I doubt it. I hope not!
Would the worship that you found meaningful and helpful 10 or 20 years ago be equally meaningful and helpful today? I doubt it. I hope not!
The Bible itself bears witness to the evolutionary principle. If you read some of the oldest books, such as Judges, you will find understandings of God that are abhorrent to us today: a vengeful, violent, warrior God. But if you read some of the great prophetic books, like Isaiah, of Jeremiah, or Hosea, you will find much more refined understandings.
God becomes a God of grace, mercy and forgiveness. And from there it's only a short step to self-giving love of Christ in the record of the N.T.
I think that very modern 19C hymn we sang to open our worship sums it up very well:
We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
by notions of our day and sect,
crude, partial and confined:
no, let a new and better hope
within our hearts be stirred;
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from his word.
My hope and prayer is that the great gulf that exists between religion and science can be narrowed, and in time, closed. It shouldn't have to be!
And let me close with a quote from the famous 16C astronomer Copernicus. To him, the discovery that the earth revolves around the sun was an opportunity for celebrating the grandeur of God, not diminishing it:
To know the mighty works of God; to comprehend his wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate . . .the wonderful working of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge."
(Sermon preached at Mornington and Glenaven Churches, 22 February, 2009)