(February 15, 2009 was the closest Sunday to the birthday of Charles Darwin and part of “Clergy letter Project” designated “Evolution Weekend”. This is the text of the sermon our Designated Pastor preached on that day.)
“The Race for Survival”
A Sermon based on 2 Kings 5:1-14 and 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
By The Reverend John E. Harris, D.Min.
North Church Queens
February 15, 2009
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
2009 seems to be filling up with observances of significant birthdays of significant historical figures. Presbyterians and Reformed Christians around the world will celebrate John Calvin’s 500th Birthday this coming July 10. This past week we marked the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, both born on February 12, 1809.
With the election of Illinois Senator Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States and his frequent references to that other Illinois Senator elected President, there has been renewed interest in Lincoln and his presidency. The popularity of Doris Kearns Godwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, has added to that renewed interest in the 16th President.
While Americans are renewing their interest in Lincoln, Brit’s are renewing their interest in Charles Darwin. Buried in Westminster Abby with full state honors, Darwin is one of England’s more famous sons. In addition to this year being the 200th year since Darwin’s birth, it is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work On the Origin of Species.
At first it might seem that the day of birth is the only thing Lincoln and Darwin have in common. But consider this stretched, perhaps even forced, but original metaphorical comparison: As Lincoln freed slaves from involuntary servitude; Darwin freed moderns from their bondage to pre-modern religious dogmas.
Now segue to the reading from 2 Kings 5 and the story about the healing of Naaman. When Naaman presented himself to the King of Israel with a letter from the King of Aram requesting that the King of Israel cure Naaman of his leprosy, the King of Israel thought that the King of Aram was “trying to pick a quarrel” with him. In some circles, especially religious circles, even mentioning the name of Charles Darwin, or his theory of Evolution, would be akin to picking a quarrel. I, however, have no bone to pick with Darwin. Nor do I desire to pick a quarrel with you or anyone else. On the other hand, not mentioning him in a sermon during the year in which we mark his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species might be considered irresponsible. Perhaps as Elisha healed Naaman of his leprosy, I might help heal us of some of our fear of talking about both faith and science in the same hour and in the same room, especially an hour of Christian worship in a Christian sanctuary.
Personally, I have never had a problem reconciling my faith with the theory of evolution. I have always been a scientifically minded, and not since early adolescence have I taken the entire Bible literally. In high school I was on a college preparatory scientific track that included five years of math and both Chemistry and Physics in my junior year. I was named one of three outstanding Chemistry I students. In my spare time I hung out in the Planetarium and once spent all night in the cold winter air with the person who taught both physics and astronomy to view Comet Kohoutek. All my vocational testing in high school indicated that I should have entered the scientific field as a chemist, physicist, or mathematician. But I wanted to me a minister.
Between high school and college I spent a week in Wilmington, Delaware with a lot of other scientifically minded teenagers. On three of those days I worked with physicists at the DuPont Research Facility. In college I continued to study math even though I was majoring in Social Work, and had accumulated enough hours in Math and Psychology to qualify for and be inducted into Chi Beta Phi, a National Scientific Honorary. My older brother holds a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering and a Master’s degree in Chemistry.
Science is in my blood. It is in my DNA. I can no more ignore Darwin than I can ignore Calvin. Thus it should not surprise you that a few years ago I signed an open letter from American Christian clergy concerning Religion and Science, part of the Clergy letter Project. “The Clergy Letter Project is an organization that has created and maintains a statement signed by American Christian clergy of different denominations rejecting creationism, with specific reference to points raised by intelligent design proponents. This effort was organized in 2004 by biologist Michael Zimmerman, now Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana.”
The text of the letter states “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.” End of letter.
The Clergy Letter Project has designated the weekend closest to Darwin’s birthday as Evolution Weekend, an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal of the weekend is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic - to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letter itself, which has now been signed by more than 11,000 members of the Christian clergy in the United States, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.
Through sermons, discussion groups, meaningful conversations and seminars, religious leaders and religious communities, by participating in Evolution Weekend, attempt to show that religion and science are not adversaries. Perhaps before this time next year, the session will officially choose to endorse and participate in Evolution weekend and North Church can offer itself as a religious community where people of faith do not have to choose between science and religion.
A few years ago my interest in science led me to read The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells. Doctor Wells heads up the Human Genographic Project, not to be confused with the Human Genome Project, though there are some similarities. Doctor Wells and the Human Genographic Project used DNA to trace human migration. Their research suggests that all humans are indeed descendants of the same woman and man, but not as we might usually think.
According to findings of the Human Genographic Project: “Mitochondrial Eve – the mother of us all, lived in Africa around 150,000 years ago. She represents the root of the mitochondrial family tree, and as such she unites everyone around the world in a shared maternal history. Adam, the man from whom all men alive today ultimately derive their Y-chromosomes, lived 59,000 years ago; more than 80,000 years after that estimated for Eve.
These dates obviously do not represent the date of origin of our species—otherwise Eve would have been waiting a long time for Adam to show up. They simply represent the time, peering back into the past, when we stop seeing genetic diversity in our mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome lineages.
We are a relatively young species. Around 60,000 years ago—only 2,000 generations—our ancestors all lived in Africa. Another way of saying this is that all modern humans were in Africa until at least 60,000 years ago.”
Thus, while it does seem scientifically true that we can indeed trace the origin of our species back to one woman and one man, they did not live in a garden between the Tigris and Euphrates less than 5,000 years ago, as Bishop Usher once suggested. They lived in the Rift Valley of Africa over 60,000 to 150,000 years ago.
Now segue to the reading from 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul writes to Christians in Corinth that “in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize.” Is that not the essence of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the survival of the fittest, and that all species are running in a race and that only those that adapt survive? If I understand Darwin’s theory correctly, it is a species’ ability to genetically and biologically adapt over time that enables a species to survive and that accounts for evolutionary change.
While it is not fair to apply Darwin’s theory of biological change to social systems, Social Darwinism has done just that. Rather than appeal to misapplied evolutionary theory, however, I appeal to the philosophy of Hegel and his theory of dialectic; of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, to argue that the institutional Church must also change and adapt if it is to survive as an institution. The reason Judaism, Christianity and Islam and other “living” religions have survived is because they have been able to adapt. When religions do not adapt to changing times and circumstances, they die out. They lose the race.
Hegel argued that which is true will survive. Another way of stating it is that which survives is true. If our faith changes and adapts to answer new questions and face new situations that could not even have been imagined two thousand years ago, then our faith is true and will survive. If our faith is too concrete, too static, too fundamentalist, and too rigid, unable to change and adapt, then it probably will not survive and after its demise will be judged not to be true.
While I think that Darwin’s theory of evolution is the best scientific explanation for the various species now inhabiting planet earth and for why some species have become extinct, I do not believe in evolution. I do not place my faith in Darwin. I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and place my faith in God, the Holy One of Israel. While I think the theory of evolution is the best explanation of how life evolved on earth, it offers absolutely no explanation of why it evolved. For that I must turn to Scripture.
I think Darwin offers us the best explanation of how different species have so far won the race for survival. I think the Bible offers us the best message for finding meaning in light of the fact that so far humans seem to have won that race.