Creation and Evolution: Do We Have to Take Sides?

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas, Villas
Trinity Sunday, May 18, 2008

Where do babies come from? It’s a well-known truth that babies are delivered by storks. And not just human babies. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dumbo then you know that even baby elephants are delivered by storks. According to a National Public Radio report, this legend about storks bringing babies goes back to pagan times – a time when civilizations depended on high birthrates for their survival. It seemed that when the storks’ returned in the spring, there was an increase in the number of births and so the two events became linked. “Many people in Europe still associate storks with good luck and look forward to the birds’ return each spring.”[1]

The question of where babies come from is linked to that other question – where did we come from? Or, how did the world begin? The story of creation that we heard this morning is one of multiple biblical attempts to answer that question (another creation story appears just one chapter later in Genesis, there is a reference to creation in the book of Job that implies creation occurred in one morning, another in the book of Proverbs where Lady Wisdom creates at God’s side, and still another in the opening chapter of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”). But the creation story that opens the book of Genesis is perhaps the most well-known account and the account which is so frequently at the center of school board debates and court cases despite the myriad ways in which the story has been contradicted by scientific theories since at least the 18th century when Carl Linnaeus realized that the animal kingdom appeared to be a family tree and developed the system of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species to classify animals by shared characteristics.

Now let’s back up for a moment. How can a scientific theory contradict a story? Unless we consider story-telling to have the same social role as scientific theory – that is, unless we assume our stories are attempting to answer the same question that our scientists are trying to answer – then we are dealing with apples and oranges. Going back for a moment to our question, “Where do babies come from?” Depending on the age of the person asking the question and our relationship to that person our answer may vary. For example, we might say to a 4-year old, “you came from your parents who love you very much” or “you came from the hospital,” or “you came from inside your mother’s belly.” Each of these could be considered truthful answers to the question, “where do babies come from.” And yet, we would all agree that none of them are scientific answers. None of them include a biological explanation of human reproduction.[2]

When we look to a text like this morning’s creation story and expect it to answer a scientific question – or worse – assume it is, in fact, a scientific account (despite all evidence to the contrary), we have missed the point. Harold Schulweis sums up the situation this way:

“The Bible is not geology. The Bible is concerned with the spiritual implications of an event, not with its physical cause and effect. . . . There is hardly a verse in the Bible taken verbatim that is exempt from embarrassment. Take the statement: ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light.’’ If God speaks, does it mean that God has a larynx? In what language or dialect does He speak? Did He speak these words before the creation of the universe took place? How could light have been created before the fourth day when the sun and moon and stars in the firmament of the heaven were created? Blinded by the literal text, the symbolic meaning of light and of the spoken word is invisible.”[3]

If we would spend even a fraction of the time and energy that is spent arguing creationism vs. evolution at school board meetings and in courts of law, instead discerning the spiritual implications of a story about a God who creates with the word and who chooses to set human beings apart from all of creation to be made in God’s likeness, then we might be a bit closer to understanding the reason for which the story of creation was recorded in the book of Genesis in the first place. Briefly, let’s consider these two implications: Creation by the Word and Humanity Created in the Image of God.

Creation by the Word. The creation myth which perhaps had the greatest impact on those who wrote the story in Genesis was the Babylonian myth, Enuma elish. In this Babylonian creation story, the great God Marduk fought the great God Tiamat and out of the dead remains of Tiamat, Marduk formed the heavens and the earth.[4] Instead of this understanding of the created order coming out of war and anger and instead of the heavens and earth being formed out of the dead corpse of a fallen god, the ancient Hebrew story of creation found in Genesis makes clear that God – the One God – created the universe out of harmony, out of simple words – “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.” God said it, it became, and it was good. That is the Judaeo-Christian formula for creation and it leads us directly into the next spiritual implication of the creation story.

Humanity Created in the Image of God. “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” It is such an easy thing to look at one another and assume that we are learning something about the nature of God. We often speak and act as though the text says, “humankind created God. . . in the image of humankind.” And it comes as no surprise then that our children draw pictures of God with a nose, hands, arms, eyes, and flesh. But, my friends, we have it backwards. The text clearly says, “God created humankind . . . in the image of God.” And what do we know about this God? At this point in the text – in these first verses of Genesis – we know that God creates and that what God creates is valuable and good. We learn something important about humanity created in God’s image – we are, at our best, valuable and good and we are called to create – to be co-creators with God. Moreover, that which we create, when we create out of our godlike-ness, ought also to be valuable and good. Other stories throughout Scripture will remind us of the many, many ways in which we can and do fall short of this goal; but this story of creation makes it very clear that, at our created core, we are valuable and good in the words of God.

Has our scientific knowledge come so far that the spiritual truths contained within this story of creation are all but invisible - lost in the incongruities between a cosmology of the 4th century BC and that of the 21st century? Can a new creation story be written that maintains the spiritual implications of the old in a casing that is more relevant to today?

John Polkinghorne is a noted theoretical physicist who played a significant role in the discovery of the quark [qu-ork]. Polkinghorne was ordained as an Anglican priest on Trinity Sunday in 1982 by the Church of England. In 1986 he wrote a book called One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology. And this is his attempt at a creation story for today:

In the beginning was the big bang. As matter expanded from that initial singularity it cooled. After about three minutes the world was no longer hot enough to sustain universal nuclear interactions. At that moment its gross nuclear structure got fixed at its present proportion of three quarters hydrogen and one quarter helium. Expansion and further cooling continued. Eventually gravity condensed matter into the first generation of galaxies and stars. In the interiors of these first stars nuclear cookery started up again and produced heavy elements like carbon and iron, essential for life, which were scarcely present in the early stages of the universe’s history. Some of these first generation stars and planets condensed in their turn; on at least one of them there were now conditions of chemical composition and temperature and radiation permitting, through the interplay of chance and necessity, the coming into being of replicating molecules and life. Thus evolution began on the planet Earth. Eventually it led to you and me. We are all made of the ashes of dead stars.[5]

As for me, I’ll take the scientific inaccuracies of Genesis for the wealth of spiritual implications that continue to instruct my faith. But I will also remember that the question, “where did I come from?” has more than one answer and that perhaps our role as grown-ups is to make sure we remember both the story of the stork and the story of human reproduction when we talk to our children.

[1] Frances Wood, “Storks Bring Babies,” BirdNotes®Transcript-592 (© 2008 Tune In to 02/22/06 (Revised Nov. 2007) accessed online on May 17, 2008).

[2] The use of this technique to introduce learners to the notion of “types of truths” comes from Carla E. Fritsch, “Workshop 5: In the Beginning,” Understanding Scripture: Adult Workshops (The Center for Learning, 1992), 27.

[3] Harold M. Schulweis, For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, (New York, Harper: 1994), 66.

[4] Virginia Hamilton, “Marduk, God of Gods: Apsu and Tiamat the Creators,” In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World (San Diego, HBJ Publishers: 1988), 78-85.

[5] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (London: SPCK, 1986), 56 in Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 43-44.